Merkel 2.0: Five Reasons Her Heir Apparent Is Still in the Game

(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel’s playbook for power holds lessons for the woman she’d like to see as her political heir.

At a convention vote on Friday, a dose of Merkel’s skill at outmaneuvering male rivals and turning the tables on those who underestimate her would go a long way for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a top party official who’s vying to take over Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union.

Merkel 2.0: Five Reasons Her Heir Apparent Is Still in the Game

She’s already withstood a five-week media buzz surrounding BlackRock’s Friedrich Merz, an industry-friendly social conservative who’s seeking a political comeback after clashing with Merkel more than a decade ago. While he’s endorsed by former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, most CDU delegates haven’t tipped their hand and say the race is wide-open.

“Merz does have a slight advantage because he’s such a great orator,” said Jan Techau, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. Kramp-Karrenbauer has the better “antenna with the psyche of the party.”

Merkel 2.0: Five Reasons Her Heir Apparent Is Still in the Game

When CDU delegates meet in Hamburg, it’ll all depend on their appetite for change after Merkel’s 13 years as chancellor and 18 years as party head. Here are five factors that may favor Kramp-Karrenbauer in the party’s first competitive race for the top post since 1971.

Public Opinion

National polls suggest she’s more popular than Merz, reflecting Germans’ preference for stability at the top. The 1,001 CDU delegates, who are mostly elected federal, state and municipal officials, can hardly discount that sentiment. While 35 percent of respondents say Kramp-Karrenbauer understands average people’s concerns, only 11 percent said so of Merz, who was ahead on leadership and economic competence, according to a Forsa poll published Monday. “If the CDU is looking to maintain or improve its success in future election campaigns, they can’t get past Kramp-Karrenbauer,” Forsa head Manfred Guellner said in a statement. “Citizens consider her to be closer to the people, more trustworthy and more sympathetic than Friedrich Merz.”

Feel for the Party

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s task when Merkel named her general secretary in February was to engage with a rattled party base after the CDU’s support fell to a seven-decade low in the 2017 federal election. Her summertime “listening tour” with local chapters gave her an additional platform to lobby grass-roots members and officials ahead of the convention, something Merz didn’t have.

Skepticism of Merz

Merkel 2.0: Five Reasons Her Heir Apparent Is Still in the Game

Merz’s reservoir of support lies with an energized conservative base, including groups such as business associations and the CDU’s youth wing, which leans right. But he hasn’t spread that energy everywhere. Last month, he stumbled by calling Germany’s asylum law into question, only to retreat, and stoked internal ire by saying the CDU under Merkel “shrugged off” the rise of the anti-immigration AfD party. This week, he proposed tax breaks for retirement investments in equity funds, prompting a renewed public focus on his closeness to an industry many Germans view with suspicion.

The Women’s Vote

The CDU women’s caucus backs Kramp-Karrenbauer and polls suggest she’s more popular among women generally than Merz. About a third of delegates are women, according to a survey of state chapters by Berliner Morgenpost. It’s a potential counterweight to conservative and industry supporters aligned with Merz, including a coalition of CDU members that support Germany’s famed Mittelstand small and midsize companies. The party’s bloc of municipal officials, which boasts 461 delegates, endorsed Kramp-Karrenbauer on Tuesday.

Merkel’s Playbook

We’ve seen this play out before. If Kramp-Karrenbauer fends off Merz, she’ll be following the lead of Merkel, who made a career out of shunting aside challenges from self-assured male contenders. Merz was on the receiving end after Merkel pushed him aside as opposition leader in parliament in 2002. There’s a lesson in holding the line when it comes to beating an opponent who has the edge on excitement.

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