BERLIN • Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday appointed a close ally as general secretary of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), potentially paving the way for the party loyalist to succeed her as German leader.
"This is about strengthening the CDU at all of its roots, not only in one - but in its full breadth," Dr Merkel said at a joint news conference in Berlin to announce the promotion of Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the premier of the western state of Saarland.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer will succeed another Merkel ally, Mr Peter Tauber, who confirmed yesterday that he was stepping down for health reasons.
Asked what Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer's appointment means for a succession, Dr Merkel responded: "It's your privilege that you're always three steps ahead of the others."
Known as AKK, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, 55, is a centrist who supported Dr Merkel's initial open-border policy during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.
She has been on the short list of party grandees considered to eventually replace Dr Merkel.
The general secretary manages the party and oversees election campaigns. Dr Merkel herself took the job in 1998. Less than two years after that, she took over the party leadership.
By appointing the up-and-coming AKK to a top role in the CDU, Dr Merkel is in part responding to critics who have been calling for fresh faces to reinvigorate the party after it suffered its worst electoral result since 1949 in September.
She surrendered two powerful ministries to the Social Democrats (SPD) as part of a coalition agreement earlier this month, and is aiming to be sworn in for her fourth term as German leader next month, after more than 12 years in office.
The hard-fought coalition pact, in which AKK also played a key role, must now be approved by the SPD's 460,000 members, with the result of the postal ballot expected on March 4.
"We are experiencing one of the most difficult periods in the Federal Republic of Germany," Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer said yesterday. "We need strong political parties."
Dr Merkel said she will announce the list of Cabinet appointees next Sunday.
A member of the CDU's executive committee, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has governed Saarland - a state of about a million people on the border with France - since 2011.
She is described as a pragmatic and unpretentious politician seen as a safe choice to preserve Dr Merkel's legacy. But "to interpret her as a simple copy of Merkel would be a misunderstanding", Die Welt newspaper commented.
A staunch Catholic and mother-of-three, AKK could also appeal to the more conservative wing of the CDU, which has accused Dr Merkel of undermining the party's traditional values.
She first caught the national spotlight last March, when she stormed to victory in a state election seen as a test of Germans' mood just months ahead of September's nationwide polls.
After then-SPD leader Martin Schulz appeared to pose a real challenge to Dr Merkel early last year, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer's effortless re-election was taken as the first sign that the CDU had nothing to fear.
Mr Schulz ultimately led the SPD to its worst score in decades in the general election and stepped down as SPD chief last week, just days after he clinched the coalition agreement with Dr Merkel that has divided his centre-left party.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE