Merkel's Grip on Party Signals Stability for Her Final Term

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel won firmer control over her final years as chancellor when her handpicked successor took over as leader of Germany’s biggest political party.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, edged out Friedrich Merz, a Merkel antagonist and conservative champion, to become chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union at a party convention. The outcome of the vote was another defeat for the clique of old, white men who’ve repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to knock the chancellor off her centrist course through almost two decades as head of the CDU.

After the result was announced, a beaming Merkel grasped her tearful protegee to congratulate her.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, a party insider broadly aligned with Merkel’s world view, faces formidable tasks. She’ll have to heal a split between her backers and those who say Merkel has moved the CDU too far to the left, win back voters lost both to the Green party and the anti-immigration right AfD, and decide whether she’ll run for chancellor in 2021.

“The real work begins now,” Bild, Germany’s most-read newspaper, said in an editorial. “What’s needed is to forcefully reclaim issues the CDU has ceded to the AfD for far too long.”

In an overture to the right, Kramp-Karrenbauer on Saturday proposed Paul Ziemiak, 33, head of the CDU’s conservative-leaning youth organization, to replace her as the party’s secretary general.

Backing Merkel

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel ally, said the convention ballot was an endorsement of Merkel’s plan to stay in the chancellery until her fourth term ends in 2021, even after giving up the party chairmanship on Friday.

“We need and we want a stable government,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, often referred to as AKK, becomes the CDU’s second successive -- and second ever -- female leader and de-facto chancellor in waiting. Polls suggest the party is likely to head into the next election cycle as the favorite.

Despite concern during the campaign that her closeness to a weakened chancellor could prove a liability with the party members, the new leader immediately declared her allegiance and sought to project continuity for the government of Europe’s biggest economy.

“The party conference made clear today that it wants Angela Merkel to stay,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “That’s also my personal wish.”

All the same, she faces a challenge in winning round the party’s conservative wing after beating their candidate with less than 52 percent of the vote.

Managed Transition

Some of Merz’s strongest supporters were among industry groups such as the party’s association of small and medium-sized businesses headed by CDU lawmaker Carsten Linnemann. He said he’d already heard from association members who vowed to leave the CDU.

“AKK must now quickly make sure that we are regaining voters whom we have lost,” Linnemann said. “But I fear that will take some time.”

As Kramp-Karrenbauer looks to bring together her divided party, Merkel’s attention may shift to other factors that could still bring her fourth-term government to an early end -- her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are facing grass-roots pressure to pull out of the alliance that has cost them support among voters.

If the Social Democrats hold up, Merkel may eventually face pressure to step aside early to give her successor a clear run at the next election.

“At some point, the two women will put their heads together and work it out between themselves,” Thomas Heilmann, a CDU lawmaker, said in an interview.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.