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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Merkel relief as Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer elected party leader

Favoured successor says she's no mini-Merkel as she seizes crown

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was widely regarded as Angela Merkel's favourite to succeed her as German Christian Democrats leader (Getty)
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was widely regarded as Angela Merkel's favourite to succeed her as German Christian Democrats leader (Getty)

Angela Merkel has passed the baton of leadership of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrat Union (CDU) to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close political ally, after an impassioned contest for the soul of the party.

A former provincial minister, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, is a Merkel protege but in making her pitch for the job, she mocked suggestions she represented a “mini-Merkel”. Instead she promised a renewal of the CDU’s face to the voters. "The answer isn’t in the stars, the answer lies with us. If we have the courage, we will take brakes off people who want to do something in this country,” Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

“I’ve heard many people describe me as a mini version, or as just a continuation. But I stand here as my own person, as a mother of three, as a former interior minister, state leader, who has served this land for 18 years and who has learned what it means to lead,” she told the delegates who elected her on the second ballot by 517 votes to 482.

The result paves the way for a transition of leadership from Mrs Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005. Mrs Merkel has said she does not intend to step down until the next general election looms in 2021.

The outgoing leader anchored the CDU to the centre of the German political landscape. Among her policy achievements were generous family leave entitlements, a nuclear power shutdown and an end to military conscription. Such strategies helped win over regions like Saarland, where the left dominated until Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer became its premier.

Mrs Merkel’s legacy is dominated by her decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees fleeing the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2015. Widely admired for the humanitarian instincts that drove the decision, Mrs Merkel also saw her grip power weakened by a backlash against the decision. In a vote at the conference, CDU members overwhelmingly backed Germany’s participation in the UN Migration Convention to be signed next week.

Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, also know as AKK, was viewed as a middle-of-the-road figure but her main rival, Frederich Merz, an investment lawyer, promised a clean break. “It was clear that Mr Merz was the candidate to cross the Rubicon and make a new start,” said one delegate, Uwe Beye, who stood at the portals of the convention centre in rain-bound Hamburg where the CDU met. “The AKK leadership ticket does not make us excited but we have hope that she can reach out to more voters from other parts of politics.”

Party heavyweights also stressed the need for unity after a divisive leadership battle that examined how the party can recover from a general election last year that forced it into a grand coalition with the centre-left. "It is clear after this election decision that the CDU is strong only if all party members and all party wings pull together,” said Ralph Brinkhaus, a leading MP.

The vision of the party set out by the departing Mrs Merkel was one of a centrist movement that appeals across the political spectrum. Delegates held up signs declaring "Thank you, Chief" as she rose to speak and gave her a long standing ovation.

“For over 18 years I was allowed to be chairwoman of this great, proud, united people’s party. It was a great pleasure for me. It was an honour for me,” she said. The key challenge for the party was in slogan chosen for the conference: “Bring together and lead together.”

"Whether it's the rejection of multilateralism, the return to nationalism, the reduction of international co-operation to deal-making or threatened trade wars, hybrid warfare, destablisation of societies with fake news or the future of our EU – we Christian Democrats must show what we've got," she said.

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On the streets of Hamburg ordinary Germans were cautious but welcoming of a managed transition. “It is necessary for our times to have stability and the prospect of change,” said Christopher Schifler, who said he was a CDU loyalist.

On the floor of the conference, close observers detected a different tone to the exchanges between delegates as the search for new policies gets underway.

“It was not the case that Angela Merkel was an autocrat for 18 years,” said political commentator Wenge Bornsen. “But she took courageous positions that the base did not like and even risked disputes. It moved the CDU to the left and into the political centre, taking over social-democratic positions.

“It all went well as long as Merkel secured power for the CDU. In these times that's not enough. The CDU has no answers to urgent social issues or no strategy against populists. The voters are leaving.”