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German conservatives pick a Merkel ally to be party leader, signaling continuity and a long goodbye

In Hamburg Dec. 7, Germany’s conservatives selected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as party leader. (Video: AP)

HAMBURG — After a year in which she was repeatedly written off as politically dead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was given new life and a more secure legacy Friday when her fellow conservatives picked her close ally and preferred successor to take over as party leader.

The selection of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a 56-year-old moderate whose unflashy and consensual style resembles Merkel’s own, signaled a preference for continuity over radical change among members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Kramp-Karrenbauer now becomes the de facto chancellor-in-waiting, though it may be several years before she ascends to the nation’s top office. Merkel has said she intends to stay until 2021, and with her ally as party leader, that is at least possible. 

Merkel’s hold on power would have been dramatically weaker had the party picked the other main contender, 63-year-old corporate chieftain Friedrich Merz. He had represented for many supporters a chance to return the CDU to its conservative roots after 18 years in which Merkel has steered the party to the center — and even the left.

Kramp-Karrenbauer won Friday’s vote at the CDU’s annual convention in the second round of balloting, eking out a bare majority in a closely divided party. The final tally was 517 votes for Kramp-Karrenbauer and 482 for Merz after a third candidate, Health Minister Jens Spahn, had been eliminated.

The result electrified the hall and prompted an unusual display of elation from a normally stoic Merkel: She welcomed Kramp-Karrenbauer to the stage with a hug and squeezed her shoulders, all the while beaming.

A visibly moved Kramp-Karrenbauer wiped away tears and celebrated with a speech appealing to party unity, vowing to “keep the center strong.” Then, in line with her reputation for inclusiveness, she invited her rivals to share the stage.

In a conciliatory concession speech that reflected the friendly tone of the campaign, Merz urged his supporters to “use all your strength to back AKK.”

Merkel has been a giant not only of German politics but also of European and world affairs. She has transformed the country during her tenure and played a central role in resolving a seemingly endless string of international crises. 

Now she has a chance at the sort of satisfying end to a political career that has eluded other major world leaders, including her friend former president Barack Obama: an amicable transfer of power to a successor of her choice, one likely to protect her legacy.

In Kramp-Karrenbauer, she gets a partner who shares both her outlook and her style. Last spring, Merkel tapped her to be general secretary — the No. 2 job in the party — in a move widely seen as an effort to groom her for national leadership. Before that, Kramp-Karrenbauer had been state premier in the tiny west German region of Saarland, where she was known for working across party lines and earned widespread approval. 

She is an observant Catholic who is conservative on some social issues, including in her opposition to same-sex marriage. But she has also championed women’s rights and continued to pursue a high-octane political career while raising three children. In Saarland, a once-wealthy coal mining region that has fallen on hard times, she was considered a strong advocate for worker protections.

In a fiery speech making her pitch for the party leadership, Kramp-Karrenbauer urged the CDU to be true to its values and not merely react to proposals of the far-right.

“The question of what the future looks like, whether in the coming years we have even more populists, whether the E.U. holds together or falls apart, whether we have an international world order without rules that’s gamed by egotists and autocrats . . . All of that is a threat,” she said. “But the answer doesn’t lie in our stars. It lies with us.”

At a time of growing political fragmentation in Europe, she called the CDU “the last unicorn in Europe — the last large remaining ‘people’s party.’ ”

The term is used in Germany to describe broad-based movements of the center. But whether it still applies has been up for debate: The CDU, which has governed Germany for 49 out of the last 69 years and long enjoyed the backing of 40 percent or more of the population, has seen its support shrivel to the high 20s. 

That is still the most of any German party. But other parties once relegated to the fringe — including the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the progressive Greens — have seen their poll numbers surge.

Merz had campaigned on a pledge to slash AfD support in half, and some of his policies, especially on immigration, had seemed specifically targeted at winning back CDU defectors to the far-right. Ultimately, however, the CDU opted for incremental change over an ideological lurch.

If anything, Friday’s vote underscored the political stability in Germany compared to other major European powers. As Britain tears itself apart over Brexit and France confronts riots, Germany once again looks steady and centrist — even in a year of unusual political upheaval.

“There’s such a broad consensus in Germany right now, and not only within the CDU,” said Hans Kundnani, a Germany expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Merkel opted to stand aside as CDU leader after disappointing election results. When she stunned the German political world in October by announcing the move, it was widely seen as a gamble — one that could bring her career to a quick and inglorious end. 

But Friday’s vote showed that Merkel still has clout. Before the balloting, she was treated to an affectionate goodbye, with party members waving signs reading “Thanks, boss” and giving her a standing ovation that lasted more than nine minutes.

“I wasn’t born as chancellor and party leader,” Merkel said in her final speech in the latter job. “I am filled with one overwhelming feeling: a sense of gratefulness.”

While Merkel never publicly endorsed a successor, her preference for Kramp-Karrenbauer was widely known. 

And in her speech, Merkel subtly signaled it: She celebrated the party’s electoral victories in Saarland — where Kramp-Karrenbauer was at the helm — and insisted that the CDU could not go back to what it had been before the turn of the millennium. 

“Our CDU is a different one than in 2000, and that is good,” she said. 

If the traditionally minded Merz would have been a throwback to an earlier era, Kramp-Karrenbauer solidifies the CDU’s transformation under Merkel into a more modern party that is accepting of women in top roles.

With her victory Friday, Germany is likely — though not certain — to have a second female chancellor.

That prospect was a source of delight for some in the hall.

“I’m unbelievably happy,” said Katja Rathje-Hoffmann, a delegate who backed Kramp-Karrenbauer. “She is a modern woman and she is able to unite the CDU.” 

But in the meantime, Merkel remains in charge — perhaps with more latitude to participate in international affairs after a year in which her focus was primarily on the domestic.

“I don’t expect her to scale back,” said Olaf Wientzek, coordinator of Europe policy at the CDU-aligned Konrad Adenauer Foundation, “but to reengage with full force.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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