Why it's all going wrong for Merkel's chosen successor

Justin Huggler
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer has been under pressure following a lacklustre European election campaign - AFP

Angela Merkel’s chosen successor faced open rebellion last week as members of her own party challenged her right to lead them into the next German election.

It’s all going wrong for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Six months ago she was elected leader of the ruling Christian Democrat party (CDU) with Mrs Merkel’s personal blessing.

With the veteran chancellor pledged to stand down in 2021, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s path to succeed her appeared clear.

But after six months of mis-steps and a disastrous European election campaign, serious questions are being asked about the woman they used to call “mini-Merkel”.

Her personal approval ratings are in freefall, dropping 12 points in a month to just 24 per cent, and a recent survey found only 13 per cent of Germans believe she has what it takes to be chancellor.

Armin Laschet stood aside for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer in December's leadership election but has been back on manouvre  Credit: Florian Ebener/Getty Images Europe

The conservative wing of the CDU this week challenged her automatic right to be the party’s candidate for chancellor in Germany’s next elections, and called instead for US-style primary elections to choose a candidate.

The news is no better from the moderates. Armin Laschet, the party heavweight who stood aside to give Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer a free run at the party leadership in December, was on open manoeuvres this week to position himself for a run at the chancellorship.

And Friedrich Merz, the rival she narrowly beat in December, is still lurking in the wings, waiting for a chance to replace her.

There were even reports last month — swiftly denied — that Mrs Merkel has lost faith in her protege and abandoned her plans for the succession.

The catalyst for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s woes was a lacklustre European election campaign that saw a panicking CDU seemingly unable to respond to a takedown from a 26-year-old Youtube star with blue hair.

But her problems go deeper. Mr Laschet’s assessment of her attempts to rebrand the party in a recent interview was brutal.

“The CDU’s recipe for success of the CDU under Angela Merkel was to deal with issues pragmatically and to address many citizens beyond the party’s core voters. We should stick to that,” he told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

And that is coming from one of Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s supporters in December.

Long derided as “mini-Merkel”, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she prefers to be known,  has tried to break out of her mentor’s shadow since taking over as party leader.

In a clumsy attempt to reach out to the party’s conservative wing, which had opposed her as leader, she publicly joked about transgender toilets and then doubled down with a tirade against political correctness.

Friedrich Merz, whom Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer narrowly beat to the party leadership in December, is waiting in the wings Credit: OMER MESSINGER/EPA-EFE/REX

And she has flirted with a return to more traditional party values. But the tactic appears to have alienated her former supporters on the party’s moderate, Merkellian wing, without winning over the conservatives.

Her biggest error may have been a rather unsubtle attempt to get Mrs Merkel to step down ahead of schedule as chancellor.

In the run-up to the European elections, all the talk was of early retirement for Mrs Merkel and Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer taking over.

And in the wake of the election results came the rumours Mrs Merkel had decided her protege wasn't up to the job. Although the reports were denied, it appeared someone close to the chancellor was briefing against AKK.

Since the European election debacle talk of an early exit for Mrs Merkel has subsided. And while AKK’s approval rating continues to tank, the chancellor's own remains at a very healthy 53 per cent.