Merkel’s Final Mistake Is Her Chosen Successor

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is in line to take over as German chancellor—but there’s no telling if she’ll survive long enough to get the job.

Head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer poses with party member and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before a party board meeting in Berlin on June 24, 2019.
Head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer poses with party member and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before a party board meeting in Berlin on June 24, 2019. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s leadership of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has gotten off to a rocky start. Not long after she began her tenure as party chairwoman last December, she drew criticism for a joke about transgender people. A few months after that, she botched her response to a viral YouTube video that sought “the destruction” of the CDU. When the party fared badly in the European elections this May, Kramp-Karrenbauer drew sharp criticism across the spectrum of the German media. Her poll numbers have been dropping precipitously since she was elected, and she now faces a 36 percent approval rating.

The barbs from the press may not have stung Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has held political office since she was 22, too badly. More troubling, however, for the 56-year-old CDU chairwoman must have been German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement, on the heels of the disappointing election returns, that she intended to remain in office until the end of her tenure in 2021. Though Merkel refuted reporting by Bloomberg claiming that her decision was a reflection on her waning confidence in Kramp-Karrenbauer, German media seem convinced that the chancellor has lost faith in her chosen successor.

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s pattern of unforced errors are certainly reason to question her aptitude for Germany’s highest office. But they aren’t the only source of her troubles. Centrist parties like the CDU are on the decline around the world, as power shifts toward right-wing populists and resurgent leftist tendencies. In Germany, the Green party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had been eating into the electoral base of both the main center-right and center-left parties even before Kramp-Karrenbauer took power.

But even under circumstances more favorable to Germany’s once formidable major parties, Kramp-Karrenbauer would face a formidable challenge in her current role. As CDU chairwoman, she is responsible for electoral strategy and is held accountable by both other party members and commentators in the media when the party fails to perform, but the credit for policy achievements still goes to the chancellor. Indeed, Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the favorite alternative to Kramp-Karrenbauer among the party’s left wing, has banked on the destructive effect of leading the party without holding the chancellorship since before Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected. Laschet’s strategy of allowing the chairperson of the party to take the blame for electoral failures and internal disputes, before emerging as a consensus alternative, has been nicknamed the “abrasion theory” and is beginning to seem like an increasingly viable path to the chancellorship.

Whether the strategy would benefit the comparatively liberal Laschet or the more conservative CDU stalwart Friedrich Merz remains an open question, however. According to a recent survey conducted by the newsmagazine Focus in conjunction with the opinion research institute Insa, Merz is currently Germany’s fourth most popular politician, while Kramp-Karrenbauer ranks 16th. Laschet doesn’t make the list at all. Yet despite his growing popularity, it would be unwise to assume that Merz is likely to take Merkel’s place as chancellor. His primary electoral strategy has been to push the CDU to the right, attempting to regain votes that the CDU lost to the populist AfD when Merkel announced her support for refugees during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. The position of such voters was best summarized by Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former head of Germany’s internal security services, who recently told a meeting of the party’s right wing that he “didn’t join the CDU 30 years ago so that 1.8 million Arabs could come to Germany.”

Merz’s suggested approach has proved popular among many in the party, but there’s reason to doubt its wisdom. For one, Germany’s populist movement has been relatively weak compared to in the rest of Europe, and indeed, much of the world—to chart a wholesale shift of the CDU’s positioning as a result of AfD’s 15 percent showing in polls would seem an act of exaggerated desperation. It’s also not clear whether AfD could be effectively outflanked on its right. The party has proved adept at using extremist rhetoric to manipulate public opinion. For Merz to attempt to compete with such tactics would risk tainting the CDU’s image with mainstream voters. Merz has tried to dispel these concerns, but nevertheless, when he recently tried to distinguish himself from the far-right by complaining of the popularity of AfD among the police and armed forces, he was roundly criticized.

Paradoxically, the only way for a CDU leader to comfortably get elected as chancellor may be if that leader is chancellor already. In many ways, that has been the secret of Merkel’s success: Her most potent rallying cry has been her implicit suggestion to stay the course. That message still has some nostalgic resonance when it’s expressed by Merkel herself; 14 years into her chancellorship, she still tops polls of Germany’s most popular politician. But her message is no longer viable for any other German politician. There is widespread dissatisfaction with immigration and economic policy, as well as growing frustration with the government’s inaction on climate change. Given the degree of frustration on every side of the political spectrum, it seems unlikely that either the economically more progressive but culturally right-wing Kramp-Karrenbauer, the all-around moderate Laschet, or the opportunistic Merz will be capable of building a lasting centrist coalition.

Should the trembling in Merkel’s once unshakable hand in fact portend an early exit from the chancellorship, triggering new elections, the most likely candidate to replace her might well be Robert Habeck, who leads the Green party. He shares the top of the Focus polls of Germany’s most popular politicians with Merkel, and his party continues to benefit from rising anger about Germany’s environmental policies. A Green victory in Germany’s next elections would pose as many questions as it answers, however. The chances that the Greens would receive enough votes to govern without forming a coalition are slim to none. Their most likely coalition partners would be the Social Democratic Party, but, given that party’s recent decline, it’s uncertain whether the two would be able to form a governing block together. The most likely coalition might consist of the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Left party, making Germany a political oddity in contemporary Europe. It would also be the most progressive government in the history of the federal republic, marking a substantial departure from previous German policy.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, for her part, continues to be unable to get anything right. Speaking at a recent meeting of family business owners, she was booed repeatedly. They’d hoped, according to Die Welt, for concrete answers to difficult questions. What they got, instead, was platitudes and buzzwords—artificial intelligence, cooperation, “Future Made in Europe.” It was the sort of intentionally muddled messaging that Merkel had made her trademark. But from Kramp-Karrenbauer, it came across as just another dismal performance, more evidence of her ineptitude for Germany’s highest office. Merkel’s formidable reputation and political savvy have allowed her to present seemingly contradictory goals—more stability for employers, more freedom for employees—as complementary. Take away Merkel’s personal authority, however, and one starts to wonder whether the German center can hold at all.

Peter Kuras is a writer, translator, and editor living in Berlin.

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