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Domestic squabbles plague German defense minister in Africa

Austin Davis
October 8, 2019

An organizational snafu between two of Germany’s highest-profile politicians overshadowed new policy goals in Africa and fueled speculation of what is to come in a post-Merkel era.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in Jordan
Image: picture-alliance/M. Kappeler

Newly appointed Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reportedly denied a request from Minister of Health Jens Spahn to visit German troops stationed in Mali while on a four-country tour of central Africa to assess how nations are fighting the spread of Ebola, wrote German daily Bild.

The incident was less a snub than an organizational issue, representatives of both ministries told local media. Kramp-Karrenbauer is currently meeting with troops in the region and preferred to visit Mali — the German military's most dangerous foreign deployment — before the health minister.

Regardless, the optics of the planning snafu only added to a prevailing narrative that Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly known as AKK, is struggling to retain her post as head of Germany's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) as the party prepares for the departure of its longtime chancellor, Angela Merkel.

"It's no surefire thing that AKK will become [the CDU's] candidate for chancellor," German political scientist Werner Patzelt, whose research focuses on the CDU, told Bild. "Trust in her within the party and in the public realm is plummeting.”

Read moreAngela Merkel's heir apparent: Can AKK still cut it as chancellor?

Jens Spahn, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Friedrich Merz
Minister of Health Jens Spahn (left), lost to now Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in a CDU leadership contest late last yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Public gaffes

With the personal backing of Chancellor Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer emerged victorious from the CDU's leadership conference late last year. In October 2018, Merkel announced she would step away from German politics at the end of her current term in 2021.

Even so, she has fielded one controversy after another in the months since taking office. During a jovial appearance for Germany's beloved Carnival celebrations in March, she made transphobic jokes, and later implied she supported constraints on free speech after a YouTuber's attack on her party went viral just before May's elections for the European Parliament.

More recently, she faced ire from both within and outside of her party for successfully vying to take over Germany's influential defense ministry when the post opened in July. Critics saw her surprise interest in the position as a political maneuver to raise her sagging profile.

Read morePotential pitfalls for Germany's new defense minister

Rival increasingly visible

Germany's young health minister, Jens Spahn, an outspoken critic of Chancellor Merkel who launched a failed bid against Kramp-Karrenbauer for the CDU's top post last year, was initially tapped to receive the defense portfolio, government sources told DW at the time.

Though he had little direct experience for the post, it would have provided Spahn a strong platform to launch a campaign for the chancellorship, political analysts told DW under the condition of anonymity.

Controversial and outspoken himself, Spahn's popularity has risen since becoming health minister in 2018. During his 18-month tenure, he has adopted over a dozen mostly popular reforms for Germany's ailing health system.

Meanwhile, only 11% of voters trust Kramp-Karrenbauer as Germany's future chancellor, and conservative factions of the CDU are discussing holding another leadership race before federal elections in 2021, Bild reported, citing party sources.

German Minister of Health Jens Spahn
German Minister of Health Jens Spahn has become far more popular than Merkel's heir apparent Annegret Kramp-KarrenbauerImage: Imago/J. Schüler

Future chancellor?

Spahn's diplomatic focus on international health issues during his trip to Africa last week showed a budding chancellor in the making, news weekly Die Zeit opined last week.

During his visit, he not only promised to allocate 4 million euros ($4.4 million) for emergency funds and early-warning detection methods in the fight against Ebola. He also confronted Germany's colonial role in stoking ethnic tensions that led to the Rwandan genocide, displaying a level of reflection befitting a future chancellor, Die Zeit wrote.

"Now he has gained historical seriousness — for AKK it will be difficult," the op-ed read.

Press about the internal squabble between two of Germany's most high-profile ministers far overshadowed Kramp-Karrenbauer's own mission in Africa to address the security, political and humanitarian issues in Mali and Niger currently contributing to migration to Germany and Europe.

It also fed into a pesky narrative CDU supporters tell DW has been long plaguing their party: Kramp-Karrenbauer is too concerned with internal party power struggles; and Jens Spahn may be the better choice in a post-Merkel era after all.

"After Angela Merkel, he [Spahn] is the best that we have to offer at the moment," Angela Kerstan, a 53-year-old pharmacist in the eastern German city of Cottbus, told DW during a political event with Jens Spahn in August. "He's doing a lot and doesn't boast about it and he doesn't put himself at the middle of discussions like others in the CDU do."

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