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Standing ovation for CDU's Kramp-Karrenbauer

Austin Davis Leipzig
November 22, 2019

The chancellor's embattled heir apparent Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gave a rousing speech that unified a party riddled with dissent. But questions persist about whether she can lead the CDU into the next elections.

Kramp-Karrenbauer waves to the crowd at the CDU conference Leipzig in 2019
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer

As Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took the stage at her party's annual conference in Leipzig on Friday, rumors rumbled about whether the new chairwoman of Germany's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) had the energy to silence political rivals seeking her ouster.

A coup, however, was not to be had. In a rousing 87-minute speech, Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly known as AKK, pegged herself as a unity figure able to bridge Germany's growing ideological gaps and move the country into the future, despite the mistakes she's made during her short tenure at the head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

"If you are of the opinion that the Germany I want is not the one you want ... then we should end it. Here, now and today," she said. "But if you're of the opinion that we should go this path together, then let's roll up our sleeves and get started."

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The six-minute standing ovation that followed signaled a capitulation of her loudest rivals before they even took the stage.

"Our party chairwoman, AKK, gave a fierce speech this morning, and we're all extremely proud," said Friedrich Merz, who narrowly lost the party's leadership race to Kramp-Karrenbauer last year.

Many had speculated that Merz would use his time on stage to double-down on recent criticisms of both the chairwoman and Merkel's government. Instead, he insisted that he was not there to split the party.

"We're loyal to our chairwoman and to our government, which the CDU has led for the past 14 years," he said.

Merz speaks at the podium during the CDU conference in Leipzig 2019
There was speculation Merz might use the conference to criticise Kramp-Karrenbauer, instead he backed the CDU leaderImage: picture-alliance/S. Simon

Discourse over dissent

Kramp-Karrenbauer's yearlong tenure as chairwoman of Germany's leading party has been marred with gaffes and electoral setbacks.

Once seen as the clear heir apparent to Merkel, public-relations nightmares combined with huge electoral losses to parties on the left and right of the political spectrum tanked voters' trust in the CDU's newest leader.

Only 18% of respondents said they were satisfied with the direction in which Kramp-Karrenbauer, who also serves as defense minister, was taking her party and the country, according to a November survey by Infratest Dimap. In January, the pollster reported that almost half of all respondents expressed satisfaction with her.

Factions within the CDU also questioned her ability to lead the party through a post-Merkel era. As the CDU's poll numbers continued to sink, many openly called for a new vote about the party's next candidate for chancellor, a full year before the natural end of her tenure as chairwoman.

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The CDU's support currently stands at just 26%, compared to the once-fringe environmentalist Greens, who are polling at 22%, according to a November survey conducted for German public broadcaster ARD.

But those inner-party tensions had all but dissipated by the time Kramp-Karrenbauer took the stage on Friday. Without losing momentum for an hour-and-a-half, she reflected on the strides made by Merkel, while sketching out plans for climate-change policy, digital innovation, education reform and migration policy, all with the common thread of strong Christian values.

"The 'C' in CDU isn't cosmetic," she said. "It's bloody serious. It's a responsibility to make sure that others around the world are also doing alright."

"The signal out of Leipzig is that the CDU is not fighting with factions, rather we are moving forward together," Jens Gieseke, a member of the European Parliament and a CDU delegate, told DW.

Merkel speaks at the podium during the CDU conference in Leipzig
Merkel opened the conference by pointing to her long record as chancellorImage: Reuters/M. Rietschel

Stronger than before?

The chairwoman followed Chancellor Merkel on the podium, who reflected on the progress Germany has made in the 14 years under her leadership. Unemployment has been more than cut in half and Germany began its transition to renewable energy production, she said.

Coincidentally, this year's party convention fell on the very day that Merkel was appointed chancellor on Nov. 22, 2005.

"I would have never in my wildest dreams believed then that four legislative periods would follow," Merkel said.

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Kramp-Karrenbauer used her speech to draw parallels to the challenges the party faced at the time of Merkel's assent to today and to peg herself as the next Christian Democrat to pick up the baton.

While delegates acknowledged the strength of such comparisons and her stature on stage, they were not completely convinced that a leadership race before the next federal elections in 2021 is out of the question.

"Many are asking the [chancellor] question, which is where this debate about a leadership primary is coming from," Lucas Schopphoven, state chairman of the Ring of Christian Democrats in Saxony, a student association, told DW.

"She's a strong party chairwoman, as the applause showed," he added. "But we have to have an extra discussion about her candidature for chancellor."