Merkel's 'mini-me' with a twist

Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has promised to stick closely to the centrist course, insisting that the weakened CDU needs to position itself as "the people's party in the middle".
Mrs Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has promised to stick closely to the centrist course, insisting that the weakened CDU needs to position itself as "the people's party in the middle".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN • Best known to Germans as "AKK", the even-tempered and unpretentious Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is so used to being compared to her mentor Chancellor Angela Merkel that she is unfazed by her "mini-Merkel" nickname.

But the newly elected leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), replacing Dr Merkel after 18 years, is the first to say she is no carbon copy of her famous predecessor.

Widely seen as the Chancellor's chosen heir, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has promised to stick closely to Dr Merkel's centrist course, insisting that the weakened CDU needs to position itself as "the people's party in the middle".

Yet the devout Catholic and mother-of-three is more conservative on social issues like gay marriage, and has vowed to take a tougher line on migration as the CDU seeks to woo back voters lost to the far-right.

"I have my own mind and that has led to conflict with Angela Merkel," the 56-year-old recently told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. "But I'm not about to artificially distance myself from her," she added with trademark loyalty.

The protege's win must come as a relief to Dr Merkel, whose chances of staying on as Chancellor until 2021 partly hinge on how well she gets on with the party's new chair.

Born in Saarland, a tiny, hill-strewn state tucked against the French border, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer grew up in a large, Catholic family as a self-described nerd who adored reading and never dared to cut class. She married Mr Helmut Karrenbauer in 1984, the same year she started her studies in law and political science.

The couple have three children and she has paid tribute to her husband for being a stay-at-home father so she could climb the career ladder.

 

A popular figure in local politics, she held several state ministerial posts before becoming Saarland's premier in 2011. She shot to nationwide attention when she scored a thumping re-election last year, a rare bright spot in a slew of regional election disappointments for the CDU.

It was Dr Merkel who handed the politician a bouquet of flowers after the win. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer then played a key role in the tortuous coalition talks that followed an inconclusive general election, winning plaudits for her determination and pragmatism in the marathon meetings.

In February, Dr Merkel rewarded her by tapping her to become the party's No. 2 as general secretary, luring her from Saarland to Berlin.

As CDU leader, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer is now in pole position to be the party's next candidate for chancellor - a job she admits she has her sights on.

Batting away criticism that she stands for more of the same at a time when the CDU needs to be reinvigorated, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has said she sees no need "to undo" Dr Merkel's legacy.

But she has made moves to carve out her own profile. While praising Dr Merkel's divisive 2015 decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has said stronger action is needed to allay German fears about security and integration. Convicted asylum seekers should be expelled not just from Germany but Europe's entire Schengen zone, she has argued.

And she has floated the idea of re-introducing military service or a year of national service to boost social cohesion. Perhaps most controversially, she opposed gay marriage which was legalised last year and supported by Dr Merkel.

A keen participant in her region's annual carnival celebrations, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer has over the years endeared herself with the public by dressing up as "cleaning lady Gretel". She reprised the role last year, taking to the stage complete with a smock and broom to poke fun at the political bigwigs in Berlin - about as un-Merkel as its gets.

Despite these differences, to most Germans, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer stands for continuity in a country readying for the post-Merkel era.

"There's a desire for more inclusion and self-confidence in the party," she has said. "But I don't sense a desire to completely break with the current course."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 09, 2018, with the headline 'Merkel's 'mini-me' with a twist'. Print Edition | Subscribe