The Next Merkel? Not Quite

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is like her mentor in style, but not in substance—and, for Germany, that will make all the difference.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer waves to delegates at a national conference of the CDU on Dec. 7, 2018 in Hamburg. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer waves to delegates at a national conference of the CDU on Dec. 7, 2018 in Hamburg. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

The election on Dec. 7 of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to lead Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been hailed as a victory for the outgoing party chair, Chancellor Angela Merkel. She was Merkel’s preferred successor as leader of Germany’s center-right party and is now the presumptive favorite to become the first head of government in the post-Merkel era, which will begin, at the latest, at Germany’s next scheduled national election in 2021.

German commentators seem certain that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s leadership will represent both a continuation of Merkel’s moderate style of conservatism—which kept the CDU in power in national politics for over a dozen years by steadily draining the center-left of support—and an improvement over her mentor’s deficits.

It’s not hard to understand why Germans would assume Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely referred to in Germany simply as AKK, is a sort of mini-Merkel. Like the current chancellor, she’s a personable and unassuming middle-aged woman, someone who prefers to publicly seek consensus rather than use polarizing ideological rhetoric—unlike her male rivals for the leadership position, who were more pronounced conservatives. So why not expect marginal changes to Merkel’s political strategy, with accordingly marginal improvements to the (largely successful) political outcomes?

This analysis misunderstands, however, the political situation that Kramp-Karrenbauer is being asked to confront at home—and, more important, it misunderstands the political identity she will be bringing to the task. She may seem like Merkel in style, but she differs in substance. And that will make all the difference.

The thought is that Kramp-Karrenbauer will asymmetrically demobilize the center-left—that is, she will persuade its voters to either defect for the CDU or stay at home on election day—by cribbing from its policy, just as Merkel did while driving the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to its current lowly 15 percent standing in national polls. Meanwhile, the new leader’s identity as a Roman Catholic mother of three from deep in former West Germany—which is more in keeping with the party’s traditional profile than Merkel’s East German biography—is thought to be capable of healing divisions in the CDU that had opened up under Merkel and perhaps even reversing defections to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has expanded from 12.6 percent of the vote in 2017 to as high as 18 percent support in some recent polls.

It’s true that surveys show Kramp-Karrenbauer’s vague policy agenda is highly popular with Social Democrats and Greens (the latter who have benefited in recent years from the SPD’s Merkel-fueled collapse). Greens polled by the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel viewed her even more positively (65 percent) than do CDU members (62 percent). “If the CDU elects a woman, and twice in a row,” a Berlin Green Party member told FP, “it shows that all of the other parties can too, but they’re not doing it. It shows them up.” With such star quality, Kramp-Karrenbauer might even prove able to demobilize the Greens in the same way Merkel did the SPD.

At the same time, many conservatives are hoping she can leverage her Catholic faith to win back far-right voters. Throughout her career, Kramp-Karrenbauer has been an avowed, if mild-mannered, social conservative: She’s on the record against same-sex marriage, and she firmly opposes any loosening of Germany’s relatively restrictive abortion laws; her rhetoric on migration policy—which has included the suggestion of sending refugees back to Syria—has occasionally fallen on the CDU’s far-right wing. Indeed, there’s little reason to believe that she would have initiated any of the openly liberal social policies that Merkel undertook in recent years, such as ending mandatory military conscription and initiating conciliatory dialogue between the government and Germany’s Muslim community.

This, however, is the hitch in the logic of Kramp-Karrenbauer as savior of the party and leader of a more harmonious, united nation. The same surveys that show her fawned over by the left also show her rejected categorically by AfD voters and even seen as somewhat suspect by many traditional conservatives. In fact, only 4 percent of AfD backers in the Spiegel poll see her favorably. (SPD support for her is 10 times greater.) Just 2 percent of the AfD supporters surveyed said they believed that Kramp-Karrenbauer could lure back stray former CDU conservatives now voting AfD. Another poll yielded a similar result: AfD supporters were the least convinced of all the parties that she would unite the CDU.

Given Kramp-Karrenbauer’s genuine conservative credentials, why do her charms fall so flat on AfD fans? The most likely answer is among the most ignored: misogyny. The AfD is the most male of all Germany’s parliamentary parties. In 2017, nearly twice as many AfD voters were men than women, and in eastern Germany the party is even more strongly male than in the west.

A political commentator for the conservative daily Die Welt, Susanne Gaschke, summed up the problem concisely: “From the beginning, there was hatred in certain circles for Angela Merkel, which had nothing at all to do with her policies. … The Merkel hatred of the past three years, in my opinion, has at least as much to do with frustrated masculinity as with concrete and legitimate questions about migration.” Just maybe, hopes Gaschke, Kramp-Karrenbauer will catch less of it than Merkel: “Perhaps it is enough that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has three children and neither Merkel nor East German.” Alas, nothing points in that direction now—on the contrary.

Kramp-Karrenbauer obviously understands the softness of her support on the right and thus is already making moves to make herself more appealing to the AfD. She has signaled that she’ll begin by talking with opponents of the government’s migration policies. Her new deputy, Paul Ziemiak, comes from the party’s right wing. She will initially be focused on uniting the CDU after earning a narrow victory over more stridently conservative rivals for the job. “The fact that the election was so close also means that there is a need for a clear conservative policy in the CDU,” opines the daily Berliner Zeitung. Kramp-Karrenbauer won’t be able to get away with making occasional rhetorical feints to the right; she will have no choice but to endorse clearly conservative priorities and perhaps even reversals of some of Merkel’s policies.

And this leads to the second hidden error in thinking about Kramp-Karrenbauer. The left may say it likes her now, but what it knows is only the vaguely open-minded and consensus-oriented image that she has projected until now. To the extent she has firm political commitments, they are adamantly socially conservative—and once she gets into gear as leader of a fragile CDU, this will become impossible to ignore. Green voters aren’t likely to jump to a CDU that comes down on migration, refugees, and asylum policy harder than Merkel did. (Indeed, since the so-called migration crisis of 2015, Merkel has hardly uttered a positive word about migration, doing everything in her power to restrict the different types of migration flows.)

In fact, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s harder line on the issue could backfire. That’s what happened when Merkel’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, made limiting migration his top objective this year and nearly destroyed the current grand coalition with SPD by doing so. The impact on the AfD? It only fueled its fires. The more Seehofer bad-mouthed migration and migrants this year, the higher the AfD soared in the polls.

Merkel’s prolonged success was made possible by the combination of her genuinely liberal (although only intermittently expressed) convictions on certain issues and her committed backing by the country’s center-right party, which was fueled by her proven ability to win national elections. Kramp-Karrenbauer has neither of these advantages—it’s doubtful she will have the resulting success either. Likelier is an ever more fractured and uneasy Germany in which the CDU remains split and a more oppositional left begins to pull itself out of the dumps, while the AfD grows only louder and larger. Enjoy the end of the Merkel era while it lasts.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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