In Merkel's Shadow: What Brought Down Kramp-Karrenbauer
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that she will not run for Chancellor and will step down as leader of Germany's ruling CDU party. It was a slow implosion over the past year, with Angela Merkel's mixed messages partly to blame.
BERLIN — In the end, her decision came swiftly. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that she will not run for Chancellor and will step down as leader of Germany's ruling CDU party. The result of a regional vote in Thuringia – where some local CDU politicians voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to elect liberal leader Thomas Kemmerich – was the spark, but Kramp-Karrenbauer didn't lose her authority in one fell swoop. It happened little by little. She was unable to achieve consensus between the CDU factions in different parts of the country, another sign of her lack of authority that was evident throughout her time as party leader.
After her narrow victory over Friedrich Merz at the CDU party leadership election in Hamburg in 2018, Kramp-Karrenbauer wanted to bring the party together. However, this led to a lack of conviction, a wavering that weakened the CDU's standing as well as her own. With a great deal of fanfare, she promised not to take on a cabinet position and instead focus on the party itself, but backtracked when she was offered the role of Defense Minister.
Kramp-Karrenbauer & Chancellor Angela Merkel — Photo: Frank Hoermann/Sven Simon
It was a decision that damaged her credibility and didn't pay off politically either. Kramp-Karrenbauer announced plans to deploy more troops abroad, but she couldn't control the foot soldiers within her own party. Kramp-Karrenbauer was the architect of her own downfall, but she wasn't helped by fellow party heavyweights. Her rival Friedrich Merz never truly supported her after she defeated him in the leadership contest. He kept himself in the game, but never took responsibility when it would have been helpful to do so.
CDU deputy chairman Armin Laschet didn't have the guts to stand for the party leadership in 2018, but he was happy to criticize Kramp-Karrenbauer whenever the opportunity presented itself. It's worth noting that of all people, it was Jens Spahn, one of the greatest thorns in Angela Merkel's side while she was CDU leader, who showed his loyalty by keeping quiet. Of all Kramp-Karrenbauer's possible successors, he is the only one who has improved his political standing and gained respect over the past year, although he also had the most catching up to do.
It was Merkel herself who brought her experiment crashing down.
Angela Merkel's experiment of separating the Chancellorship and party leadership during the transition period has also failed. As party leader, Kramp-Karrenbauer remained in the Chancellor's shadow. In the end it was Merkel herself who brought her experiment crashing down: She criticized the election results in Thuringia vehemently, and pushed her authority as Chancellor to the edge of acceptability in demanding that an elected local president step down. And she was only able to save the coalition with the SPD by making concessions that Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader could not agree to.
The question of how long Merkel will remain Chancellor depends on who the CDU chooses as new party leader and Chancellorship candidate. It will also depend on how much support Merkel still has in the CDU, especially in the East. Her recent decisions have shown that Merkel is thinking like a Chancellor, not in terms of managing compromises within her party.
And there is an insurmountable contradiction between Merkel and growing swathes of her party: Many in the CDU see the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), one of their biggest problems at the moment, as a result of the Chancellor's own politics. Merkel, however, thinks it is the CDU's lack of open opposition to the AfD that has allowed the far-right party to grow in popularity.
Merkel may hope to rule through the end of Germany's stint in the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union next autumn. But it would be more through the support of the public than from her own party.