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Could Merkel's CDU make a turn to the right?

February 10, 2020

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer intends to step down as leader of the Christian Democrats. Could this development move the party further to the right? Sabine Kinkartz reports from Berlin.

Berlin CDU Pressekonferenz Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

While a violent storm battered much of Germany, a bolt of political lightning struck in Berlin. At a meeting of the governing Christian Democrats (CDU), party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told delegates that she would no longer be running for chancellor in the 2021 general election. AKK, as she is also known, said she would also be stepping down as party leader — for, as she also announced publicly a couple of hours later, "in my opinion, the party leader and its candidate for chancellor should be one and the same person."

The announcement marks the 57-year-old's final acceptance that the ongoing power struggle within the CDU has sapped her authority. AKK was elected party leader 14 months ago as the successor to Angela Merkel. Merkel, however, stayed put in the chancellery. It was an experiment for the CDU, which had combined the two positions under one person for decades.

AKK decision: Patrick Sensburg (CDU) speaks to DW

But that experiment has been a failure. Even though the chancellor herself ostentatiously remained above the fray, AKK was unable to muster the strength and authority embodied for so long by Merkel. On the contrary, it became increasingly clear under AKK that the CDU was deeply divided: One wing sought a return to quintessentially conservative politics, and one, like Angela Merkel, preferred to focus on the socio-liberal center ground.

Merkel's liberal bent

AKK did not last long as the woman at the head of the national CDU after being elected on December 7, 2018. At the time, she was widely seen as Merkel's choice and had beaten back two considerably more conservative challengers in a poll restricted to CDU members.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
AKK has been criticized from within her own party for showing a lack of leadershipImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

It was already clear from the internal party debate that the CDU was at a crossroads. For 18 years, Merkel had led the party, opening it up to the left and causing it to take on, in an adapted form, many ideas previously considered the realm of the Social Democrats (SPD). This strategy proved successful: Whenever the CDU applied this concept, the SPD's approval ratings fell.

But the approach had its drawbacks, too. For one, it exposed a gap to the right of the CDU, a void that the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which started out as a conservative party before moving ever further toward the extreme right, quickly filled. It also led to a conservative countermovement growing within the CDU, which, under the name of Werteunion (Union of Values), is gaining more and more traction and attention.

Read more: AfD: What you need to know about Germany's far-right party

'AKK's achievement'

In the beginning, AKK tried to harness the conservative wing — without success. One of the questions now is whether this part of the CDU will become more influential. One of the conservative figureheads is Friedrich Merz, the former Bundestag leader of the CDU and the allied Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). The business lawyer withdrew from active politics over 10 years ago because of differences with Angela Merkel. He made a comeback in 2018 but was — very — narrowly defeated for the CDU leadership by AKK.

Friedrich Merz talking at a microphone, hands raised
Does Merz have another chance?Image: picture-alliance/S. Simon

Another potential successor is the North Rhine-Westphalia state premier, Armin Laschet. He is considered a loyal supporter who has stood with Merkel since 2015, when she began coming under heavy fire for her asylum policies. Laschet, regarded as belonging to the liberal wing of the CDU, has so far remained silent on whether he has designs on the party leadership and candidacy for chancellor. He said the CDU and CSU would have to make a persuasive offer based on the "policy breadth of our party organizations and the regional roots of our state chapters."

Armin Laschet during a DW interview
Laschet, a former journalist, has been NRW's state premier since mid-2017Image: DW/R. Oberhammer

If Merz were to become the head, "the CDU would soon be in coalition with the AfD," said the leader of the Left party, Katja Kipping. "AKK's achievement was to maintain the firewall to the right of the conservatives and save the soul of the party," she said. Kipping forecast that the battle for the CDU leadership would also become a fight over its future policy.

This battle has already come to one head in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the candidate of the Free Democrats (FDP), Thomas Kemmerich, was elected head of government by the votes of the CDU, the FDP and AfD on Wednesday. The CDU's joining forces with the far-right AfD prompted outrage throughout Germany and was regarded as a breach of a long-standing taboo. This view was shared by many members of the CDU — but not all of them.

Read more: Why is everyone in Germany talking about Thuringia and AfD? 

The CDU's firewalls

Though there is a general consensus in the west of Germany that the only option is a strict rejection of the AfD, in the former East Germany there are plenty of Christian Democrats who actively wish for political cooperation with the AfD, in whatever form that might take. On the other end of the political spectrum, there are also different views in east and west over how to deal with the Left party.

AKK has made her own position clear: "No rapprochement and no cooperation with the AfD and the Left party." The AfD "contradicts everything that we stand for in the CDU," AKK said in her press statement on Monday. But she also added: "The history and policies of the Left party are absolutely irreconcilable with key points of the CDU's principles. It is not possible for the CDU to enter into cooperation with the Left."

Will AKK be able to maintain this line? Now that she has announced her intent to step down, she is merely a temporary solution. Given her lack of authority and power hitherto, how is she supposed to do better now? She gives the impression that her fighting spirit remains: "I was party leader, I am party leader, and I will remain so for the foreseeable future."

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