Speculation of leadership coups and surprise policy decisions abounded before Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) convened for its annual party convention in Leipzig this weekend.
But contrary to these predictions, the party silenced unruly factions and united behind Chancellor Merkel’s hand-picked successor, CDU chairwoman and Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The party presented game plans on hot-button issues from digitization to climate change and plotted out a common path forward for Germany’s largest party in the post-Merkel era.
Asked directly if she wanted to be Merkel’s successor, Kramp-Karrenbauer responded that she would focus on strengthening the party.
“I want us to win the next federal election,” she told DW. “We are working on that, above all, in terms of content. We are improving in terms of organization; we’re expanding our personnel. We have seen many strong minds and heard strong voices here at the party conference. And that’s what I wish for as party leader. I want to be the leader of a strong party.”
AKK is here to stay — for now
Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly known as AKK, has had a rough year, to say the least. From poking fun at intersex individuals at a carnival celebration to unilateral foreign policy decisions and spars with YouTubers, the CDU chairwoman walked into the Leipzig Trade Fair grounds with her back against the wall.
But this seems to be a comfortable position for Kramp-Karrenbauer. Just as she did at last year’s party convention in Hamburg, when she narrowly won the party’s leadership race, an emotional and policy-packed speech revived confidence in her ability to unify the party and silenced dissenters.
Delegates gave her a standing ovation without end after her marathon 87-minute speech — even after she challenged the party to get on board with her platform or push her out.
“I have told you all the things I’m convinced of. I have told you all the path I’m proposing. I won’t deceive you: That path won’t always be easy,” she said on Friday.
And Kramp-Karrenbauer’s own possible path to the chancellery is also one riddled with potholes. On Saturday, opponents launched an impassioned, if unsuccessful, motion to force an inner-party contest for the CDU’s next candidate for chancellor. Delegates told DW they still believe this issue is up for debate within the party.
“AKK held a strong speech, but the challenges that were there before remain,” said Dr. Johannes Lis, a CDU delegate. “The question of the next candidate for chancellor will still be asked within the next year.”
‘Mutti’ takes a bow
Chancellor Merkel clinched the country’s highest political post 14 years ago and was anointed Germany’s “Mutti,” or mother, shortly thereafter.
Now that she has announced her retirement from politics in 2021, high-ranking party members used this year’s convention as an opportunity to perform rhetorical acrobatics to thank her for her service while also signaling they are more than ready for a leadership change.
“The time for an awakening is here,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn, a longtime Merkel opponent, said in his remarks on Friday.
Chancellor Merkel’s long tenure comes with a longer list of controversies. Her decision in 2015 to keep open Germany’s borders to 1 million refugees and asylum-seekers splintered the party and contributed to the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Others contend that Merkel never fully carried through with the country’s transition to renewable energy, giving a boost to the environmentalist Green Party.The party is currently polling at 22%, just behind the CDU at 26%, according to one recent poll contracted by German broadcaster ARD.
Speaker after speaker thanked Merkel for her service, obviously moving a normally stoic politician. But even Kramp-Karrenbauer, one Merkel’s most recognizable party allies, advocated for a new, future-oriented platform to win back voters.
“You cannot just win back trust,” she said in her remarks. “You have to back this up with hard work.”
A new strategy
That hard work took the form of hundreds of party motions that will set the tone for Germany’s largest party, and subsequently the entire nation.
Delegates overwhelmingly approved a climate protection policy that respected the social and Christian values for which the party stands. Meanwhile, the party hotly debated digital innovation, concluding that it would move to inject more funds into domestic firms working on digitized solutions to pressing problems of the future, instead of relying on possibly dubious foreign companies, like Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Renewal also took the form of new media strategies to combat the success of the AfD in the Twittersphere. For the first time, the party shelled out for massive, modern public-relations studios and social media campaigns that live-streamed the event and carried personal interviews with prominent party members.
At the same time, the CDU’s offerings outside the discussion hall in Leipzig highlighted its traditional tight business ties, while also making space for gay and lesbian members, as well as women.
“The party is now looking to assert itself across generations,” said Lucas Schopphoven, 23, leader of a Christian Democratic student association in Saxony.