The real bombshell came right at the end: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has been the leader of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) for a year, went in for a bit of brinkmanship, saying that she would give up her position on the spot if the party wanted her to.
Her strategy paid off: The conference delegates gave her their full backing, replete with long, rhythmic applause — with even her most vehement critics declaring their loyalty and praising her speech.
The pressure on Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly known as AKK, ahead of the conference had been great, even overwhelming. She had her back to the wall. And that is why she pulled out all the stops. The fact that this was necessary after such a short time in the position shows that she has made a lot of mistakes.
In her speech, she touched on topics for the future: digitization, artificial intelligence, innovation, education and a new defense policy. Kramp-Karrenbauer clearly laid out her party’s position for a changing world that is worrying many people. And she successfully connected this policy presentation with the issue of her leadership.
In the past months, her critics had set in motion a process of self-destruction of a kind that the CDU has not seen in a long time. The caustic caviling from within its own ranks crippled the party and cost it large numbers of votes in recent elections. This, although the trademark of the CDU used to be unity, and the party was successful whenever it was unified.
If the unity achieved now during her conference speech is to be of any notable duration, Kramp-Karrenbauer has to change her strategy. So far, she has watered down her profile and put dents in her authenticity and her credibility by making too many concessions to the opposing camp. In her first year as CDU leader, Kramp-Karrenbauer met her critics halfway. She tried to dissociate herself from her predecessor, Angela Merkel, and make the party more conservative. She won over a CDU general secretary from among her critics. But all of this did not bring her any benefits. Now, in her speech, she has very clearly defined the CDU as a party that holds to the societal middle ground.
At the party conference, Kramp-Karrenbauer demonstrated that she wants to show grit and learn from her mistakes. She is a tough fighter. Now, she has to use this impetus for a new start. She holds all the cards to carry it through. As defense minister, Kramp-Karrenbauer has to show that she can manage a difficult government position and be an actor on the international stage as well. As a party leader, she has to show that she can reposition the party with a modern, substantive agenda.
The next parliamentary elections are still a long way off — at the latest in 2021 — unless, of course, the current grand coalition is called off by the Social Democrats, making new polls necessary. There are competitors at the ready who are just waiting for the right opportunity and for any new mistakes by Kramp-Karrenbauer to join the race for the chancellorship. It was still too early now for them to show their hand. For the CDU party leader, being selected as candidate for chancellor, with the chance of probably becoming the successor to Merkel in that position as well, is still not at all certain.