Merkel’s wish has come true: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is the new head of the CDU. However, the strong performance of main rival Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn’s respectable performance should be a warning to Merkel’s favorite. The party seems to have had enough of the Merkelian way of doing politics.
There will be journalists who describe the CDU party conference in Hamburg as a thriller because it was not clear until shortly before the end how the event would turn out and who would inherit Angela Merkel as CDU leader. After the first ballot, Jens Spahn was eliminated with 157 votes. There it was: the expected duel between Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz. She received 450 votes, he 392 – a second ballot was needed. In the second ballot Kramp-Karrenbauer achieved 517 votes, Merz lost with 482 votes. So he was only 18 votes short to return as triumphant victor after a long absence in German politics. What was the decisive factor of ‘AKK’s victory over Merz? Perhaps in the end it was above all this: Merz applied for chancellorship, Kramp-Karrenbauer for party chairmanship.
For former party leader Angela Merkel, the day was like a festival: Not only did all the speakers on the stage pay respect and praise her for her eighteen years of work at the head of the party. In the end, she seemed to have done everything right: Her desired candidate prevailed. In the morning she gave a farewell speech that hardly anyone will remember in a few days’ time. Merkel only insisted on bringing her party back to light from a deplorable situation: Several times she referred to the donations scandal that had discredited her party eighteen years ago. On the future of the CDU, however, Merkel made hardly any comments; no thoughtless remark or partisanship should jeopardize the election of Merkel’s favorite.
Merkel feels the end of her era
For the times in which Merkel’s recommendation would have helped are long over. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s reputation as a “Mini-Merkel” was more of a handicap for her election. Whatever the party’s decision, there is an overwhleming demand for change and a return to a clear party image. What remains of Merkel on this day are not words. It is her unusual touch. At times she sat on the stage as if in a state of disarray. She seemed to feel the end of her era had arrived.
The three candidates competed in their speeches for the votes of the delegates. Kramp-Karrenbauer made the start. She wore a black and white checkered blazer – a model that only attracted attention because it did not remind one of Merkel’s blazer type. So Kramp-Karrenbauer was already visually distancing herself from her mentor. She said she wasn’t a mini-Merkel: “I stand here as I am and as life has shaped me. When leading a party, it’s not volume that counts, but inner strength.” As Saarland’s prime minister, I proved that I can win elections.” She referred to the CDU as “the last unicorn in Europe”, the last old great people’s party – which she is determined to preserve. Measured against Kramp-Karrenbauer’s rhetorical possibilities, it was almost an inspiring, powerful speech.
Friedrich Merz first laid out the map of the world in his speech: Russia, America, China – how had these countries changed? It almost seemed as if he was realizing for himself what had changed in his absence in politics. That would be the modest interpretation. But it almost seemed as if he was already shaping German foreign policy from the Chancellery. He seemed to make one step too much. First of all, the CDU must win elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg in 2019.
The people’s parties were losing and populists from left and right were becoming stronger and stronger, Merz continued. Recently he had said that the CDU had accepted the emergence of the AfD with a “shrug of the shoulders”. That didn’t go down well. Now he said there was good will on the part of the CDU to win back AfD voters, but it did not succeed. “This situation is unbearable for me,” Merz announced, earning great applause for it. The CDU needs a change of strategy. It must again reach 40 percent of the electorate.
Spahn and praise for the debate
No speaker received as much applause as Merz, and he made the CDU sound like something that many had missed and that had been seriously neglected by Merkel. But it wasn’t enough; Merz was probably absent for too long, while Kramp-Karrenbauer had just started a “listening tour” and listened to the worries and hardships in the party. He had been talking for weeks about the necessity of profiling the CDU, but in the end he was guilty of saying until Friday what this profiling should look like.
Jens Spahn could afford a certain airiness in speaking because he himself knew that he had no chance. In the beginning he seemed to fritter away his speaking time almost negligently: He went “into politics because he was impatient with the state of things and because it matters to him”. In the end, however, it was his speech that the party should take to heart most if it really wants to remain a People’s Party. In recent weeks, the party has debated and opened its windows. A new spirit can be felt in the CDU. This spirit and this joy in the debate must be preserved, no matter how the election turns out. Spahn may have expressed something that everyone in the CDU feels: after eighteen years of Merkel, the period of “my way or the highway” should be over. Merkel still led the party to success with her style, but it has exhausted itself. The different wings want to have a say and they want to be represented.
Armin Schuster, member of the Bundestag, twittered this afternoon: “I have been a Merz supporter for many years, but I will vote AKK. She has earned it within the party, she is closer to the people – and she will win elections! Who guarantees political power? That is always the decisive question for the CDU, not the question of ideology.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is obviously a little more trusted than Merz. His strong result, however, speaks for the fact that there can be no business as usual in the CDU. The party must change and partly also change back: the conservative soul of the party wants to be nurtured. Kramp-Karrenbauer seems to have understood this. The “upswing” that the CDU is experiencing must continue. She invited Merz and Spahn to participate in this process.
Toured the country like a rock band
Merz thanked Kramp-Karrenbauer for an “exciting time”. He was happy to support the party “where it is wanted” in the coming years. Spahn concluded by saying that the regional conferences had toured the country “like a rock band”. He, too, wanted to continue – nobody had expected anything else. At the end the three candidates stood on stage together.
This event was not a crime thriller, and of course there was no rock band. It was the party conference of the Christian Democratic Party of Germany. After a short moment of tension everything took its business-like course.