The race to be crowned chancellor-in-waiting will culminate early next month in a vote at the ruling Christian Democratic Union’s annual convention. It is fast shaping up as a referendum on Merkel’s 13-year run, with the chancellor’s legacy and the direction of Europe’s largest economy on the line.
If Kramp-Karrenbauer is chosen, Merkelism will live on in Germany and Merkel will have a shot at an exit that is gradual and graceful, potentially finishing her full fourth term as chancellor before retiring in 2021.
But success for either of the other main contenders would set Germany on a different course: an end to Merkel-style moderation in favor of ideologically committed conservatism, and a potentially messy ejection of the woman who has been one of Europe’s most consequential modern leaders.
It is not clear which way the party’s 1,001 delegates will swing. Merkel long held unquestioned dominance of the CDU. But that has crumbled amid backlash to her 2015 decision to allow in more than 1 million asylum seekers.
With the party’s poll numbers sagging and internal discontent brewing, Merkel announced late last month that she would not run for another term as the party’s leader. Along with Kramp Karrenbauer, two Merkel critics from the party’s right flank — former CDU parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz and Health Minister Jens Spahn — quickly jumped into a race that is highly likely, although not certain, to determine who will lead Germany.
Merkel, 64, has not officially endorsed a candidate. But Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56 — whose tongue-twister of a name, even for Germans, often yields to the simpler AKK or “mini-Merkel” — is widely perceived to be the chancellor’s pick. Merkel named her the party’s general secretary in the spring, the same position that began her own rise to the top.
Merkel’s blessing is, even supporters concede, a mixed one.
“People who basically want continuity but with a different face will choose Annegret,” said Karl Rauber, a close ally of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s within the CDU who has known her for decades. “The problem is that people don’t want things to continue as they are. They want changes.”
Polls of CDU members show Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer running neck and neck, with Spahn a distant third.
Launching her campaign last week in Berlin, Kramp-Karrenbauer declared the “end of an era” defined by Merkel — and walked a characteristically pragmatic line in her pitch for how to follow it.
“Such an era cannot be simply continued or reversed,” she said. “The decisive question is what you do with what you have inherited.”
Should Kramp-Karrenbauer win the CDU vote, it would cap a rise nearly as unlikely as Merkel’s head-spinning ascent from unknown East German physicist to leader of Germany’s dominant postwar party in just 10 years.
Kramp-Karrenbauer has had little experience in the rough-and-tumble of German national politics. Instead, she has forged nearly her entire career in the tiny western region of Saarland, which both literally and figuratively sits about as far as one can get in Germany from Berlin. With just 1 million people, it is the country’s second smallest state. Even its biggest city, Saarbrücken, has the coziness of a remote provincial capital — which is exactly what it is.
“Can she handle the transition from the Saarland stage to the Berlin stage?” said Daniel Kirch, chief political correspondent at the region’s major newspaper, the Saarbrücker Zeitung. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
Within Saarland, where she served for seven years as state premier, she has legions of admirers and few enemies. Even her political opponents credit her with a consensual style of governance.
Still, few say they ever regarded her as someone with the makings of a future chancellor.
“She’s very humble and very nice and you wouldn’t necessarily think she’s ambitious,” Kirch said. “But you don’t get to where she is without being very ambitious.”
The second-youngest among seven siblings, Kramp-Karrenbauer grew up in Püttlingen, a modest city near the French border that was hard-hit in her youth by the closure of coal mines where her ancestors had toiled for generations.
The family was devoutly Catholic and conservative. Her mother managed the home while her father served as principal at a school for children with developmental disabilities. (Merkel’s father was a Lutheran pastor at a home for the disabled.)
Kramp-Karrenbauer would passionately debate politics with her father, although she shared many of his views, said Hans-Guenther Kramp, an older brother. She was studious and sang in the church choir — while dabbling in a taste for slightly harder-edged music, including metal band AC/DC.
“She would fight with our younger brother about whose band was the best,” said Kramp, who, like three of his four surviving siblings, still lives in Püttlingen. “But she would always let him finish his arguments before it was decided that both bands were equally good.
“She does this in politics, too. It’s her virtue.”
She also can be resolute when principle is at stake, say those who have known her longest.
When the local branch of the German Communist Party invited a Soviet official to Püttlingen’s city hall in the late 1970s, Kramp-Karrenbauer and fellow young CDU activists built a Berlin Wall replica in front of the building — forcing the official into an embarrassing maneuver around it on his way inside, said Rudolf Müller, a former mayor.
As a young woman on Püttlingen’s city council, Kramp-Karrenbauer was initially greeted with skepticism in a chamber dominated by older men, Müller said. But she won them over, pushing through a highly successful program to help laid-off workers.
“She really listened, and only spoke when she had something to say,” said Müller, who led the city for 27 years. “It took time to convince them, but she did.”
In a conservative party, some were still thrown by how she balanced the demands of her career and motherhood. She accepted an interim appointment to the German parliament only days after one of her sons was born and appeared at debates with a baby in her arms. Her husband, a mining engineer, took leave from his job to care for their three children.
Petra Berg, a leader of the center-left Social Democrats in Saarland, said Kramp-Karrenbauer was not taken as seriously as she should have been by male rivals. Merkel must also know that feeling. But Berg said the similarities between the two go far beyond gender.
“It’s too simplistic to say they have a connection because they’re both women,” she said. “The fact is, they have very similar personalities. That’s what ties them.”
Like Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer is reluctant to rush into a decision, preferring to wait until she has considered all available data and spoken with everyone involved.
It is an approach that has served her well in Saarland, where one of her first tasks after rising to premier was to trim 10 percent from a cash-strapped state budget.
What might have been political poison became the path to a pair of decisive reelection victories, with Kramp-Karrenbauer convening roundtable meetings to agree collectively on how to mete out the cuts. Participants credited her with a process that was fair, even when it was painful.
“She’s not like other politicians in those situations. She’s very clear,” said Volker Linneweber, a former president of the University of Saarland. “She told me, ‘I don’t promise anything I can’t deliver.’ ”
Although Kramp-Karrenbauer is on the left of her party economically, she has appealed to the right on cultural issues. She opposed same-sex marriage when the parliament approved it last year. And she advocated a tough approach to asylum seekers, including mandatory age tests for those claiming to be minors.
But it is unclear whether that will be enough for the conservative wing of a party that hungers for a return to ideological roots after more than a decade camped out in the center.
On refugee politics, in particular, Kramp-Karrenbauer has not gone as far as many conservatives would like. She has stood by Merkel’s decision to keep the country’s borders open in 2015-16, while saying, as Merkel does, that the influx should not be repeated.
“I have a lot of respect for AKK, and really value her both personally and as a politician,” said Stefan Rabel, who leads the CDU in the Saarland city of Völkingen and favors a more restrictive approach to immigration. “But after so many years of Merkel, there’s appetite in the party for real change.”