Merkel’s Would-Be Successor Rolls Dice on High-Risk Cabinet Post
(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel’s would-be successor is gambling that one of Germany’s riskier cabinet jobs will help get her chances of becoming chancellor back on track.
In an unexpected about-face, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will take command of Germany’s military as defense minister. It’s a position that has ended several political careers in the past, though her predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, just landed the job of leading the European Commission in Brussels.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK in Berlin, had previously said she would steer clear of Merkel’s cabinet, preferring to distance herself from a coalition government that’s fraying at the seams. Instead, she planned to build her case to replace Merkel after the next election, due in 2021, from her position as leader of the Christian Democratic Union.
But AKK has struggled to boost the fortunes of the CDU since taking charge in December. She fumbled with overtures to the party’s right wing and saw a slide in the polls. As of May, Merkel had grown more determined to stay in office amid doubts that AKK was up to the job, according to party officials close to the chancellor.
By opting to take over Germany’s fighting forces, Kramp-Karrenbauer exchanges her independence for a position that could be the ultimate proving ground for her abilities.
“If you want to show leadership you don’t think about the risk, you just get on with the job,” Ralph Brinkhaus, head of the CDU parliamentary caucus, said in an interview with ZDF television Wednesday. “In life, just as in politics, there are always risks, but if you don’t trust yourself to take on difficult tasks, then you don’t belong in politics.”
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Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision was already exposing fresh tensions between the CDU-led bloc and its Social Democratic coalition partner. SPD lawmaker Johannes Kahrs, a senior party official on the parliamentary budget committee, took aim at AKK for going back on her word not to join the cabinet and for lacking credibility.
“Breaking a promise is not a good start for a defense minister,” Kahrs told Spiegel Online. “I’m sorry for the German military.”
In Germany’s defense ministry, which oversees more than 180,000 active-duty troops, there are risks aplenty. AKK’s four predecessors, all in Merkel’s bloc, have seen their political fortunes fade. Two of them resigned in disgrace.
When von der Leyen took over in 2013, she herself was tipped as a potential chancellor. After almost six years in the post, she has been mired in accusations about Germany’s military readiness, with helicopters that can’t fly, submarines that can’t sail, and an investigation into her use of outside consultants. The call to Brussels got her out of a fix.
With about two years left in Merkel’s fourth term, AKK may manage to avoid some of the pitfalls of the defense ministry. But she will have to navigate deteriorating transatlantic relations.
Germany has been a regular target of calls by President Donald Trump for U.S. allies to boost funding for the military. Merkel, who turns 65 on Wednesday, has stood by a NATO-sponsored target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense, even if it takes longer to get there than Trump wants.
However, officials in the Social Democratic Party -- which controls the Finance Ministry -- says the 2% target is an arbitrary number that they have no intention of reaching.
“I’m taking on this task as defense minister with great respect, with a full heart and full conviction,” Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters after arriving at the Defense Ministry in Berlin, where a military band played in honor of the change of leadership.
(Adds SPD criticism in seventh, eighth paragraphs, AKK comment in last.)
--With assistance from Iain Rogers.
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