What Merkel’s Successor Will Mean for German Politics

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer Has a Tough Road Ahead

Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer at the CDU party congress in Hamburg, December 2018. Kai Pfaffenbach / REUTERS

Almost 2,000 journalists descended on Hamburg last week to witness a spectacle not seen since 1971: an open competition for the leadership of Germany’s most successful political party. The 1,001 delegates to the party congress of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had to choose the successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been party leader for 18 years before announcing in October that she would quit following a round of bad electoral showings and sinking poll numbers for her party. Although Merkel plans to remain chancellor until the next federal election in 2021, the delegates were aware they would be voting for not just a party chair but also Merkel’s likely successor as head of government. 

They chose Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s 56-year-old secretary-general and the former prime minister of Saarland. AKK, as she is known, beat Friedrich Merz, a 63-year-old millionaire corporate lawyer, by a razor-thin margin of 35 votes—52 percent to 48 percent. A Merz victory would have signaled a return to the West German alpha males whom Merkel finished off one by one and a sharp conservative turn for the CDU. Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, was Merkel’s preferred heir and is seen as guaranteeing broad continuity in the CDU’s political positions and rhetorical style. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer takes power at a difficult time for the CDU. Since the 2017 election, her party and German politics at large have been more volatile than in decades. She needs to unite the CDU, help stabilize the shaky coalition government, sharpen her own political profile on domestic and foreign policy, fight four difficult regional elections in 2019, and prepare for a general election that could come as soon as next year. 


In her speech at the party congress, Kramp-Karrenbauer called the CDU “the last unicorn in Europe”—the last Christian democratic party to have preserved its status as a Volkspartei, a big tent with an appeal that cuts across society. The CDU unites three distinct elements: a labor wing, an economically liberal wing, and a conservative wing.

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