Chancellor Angela Merkel has been accused of killing German politics with her boa constrictor-like dominance and her contempt for electioneering fireworks. But on Friday, as she handed over the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union, it was clear that exciting political competition is alive even within the CDU, and that Germany’s next chancellor and Europe’s next de facto leader will be a star politician.
That star is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel disciple and chosen successor, who wiped tears from her eyes when the chancellor finished her farewell speech with a heartfelt "It was a joy and an honor." That doesn't mean a heated debate over the direction of German conservatism and Germany itself is over.
The 1,000 delegates assembled in a cavernous hangar-like hall at the Hamburg Fair picked Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is known as AKK, over the corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz and Health Minister Jens Spahn. AKK won as much thanks to her convincingly emotional delivery as to her deep knowledge of the party and her weeks of tirelessly canvassing local CDU organizations.
Post-World War II German politics have rarely been a show, especially in the Merkel era. The last competitive CDU election was in 1971. On Friday, though, party members enjoyed a rare spectacle.
First, Merkel delivered a farewell speech. It was low-key; she even joked about “typical Merkel — bone dry and to the point.” The point was her pride that the conservative party she took over in 2000 has changed beyond recognition, taking on a broader outlook (the leadership candidacy of Spahn, who is openly gay, would have been all but impossible at the turn of the century). The chancellor, who has helped make the party a consistent election winner, was rewarded with an almost-10 minute standing ovation as delegates waved signs saying “Danke, Chefin” (“Thank you, boss”). She was presented with a conductor’s baton as a farewell gift and shown a touching clip of her historic moments, set to The Kinks' “Days” (“And though you’re gone, you’re with me every single day, believe me.”)
The sentimental part over, it was time for the three candidates to try to win over the delegates. Both AKK, who spoke first, and Spahn, who took the floor last, used rhetorical devices: AKK's theme was "courage" (to leave one's comfort zone), Spahn's refrain was "I care" (about what Germany will be like in 2040: At age 38, Spahn was the youngest candidate). Merz scorned oratory and was true to his image as a prickly truth-teller, pointing out that the CDU was losing voters to the right-wing populists from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and not doing enough to differentiate itself from its Green and Social Democratic rivals on the left.
All three, however, agreed about one thing: The CDU, they said, is the last remaining Volkspartei (people's party, the German term for a centrist umbrella party) in Germany, perhaps even in Europe. These moderates, both on the center left and the center right, have been losing elections from France to Poland, and the potential CDU leaders stressed they couldn't allow that to happen to their party.
Most of the delegates were already familiar with the candidates' positions on the issues: The trio had been campaigning since early November at regional CDU conferences, in TV appearances and newspaper interviews. The differences between the two leading contenders were clear ahead of time. AKK, the former minister president of the small state of Saarland and CDU general secretary, is more socially conscious; Merz more of a business-friendly libertarian. AKK inherits Merkel's focus on tolerance, while Merz leans toward identity politics. AKK is in favor of forging compromises; Merz aims to show strength. AKK is softer on immigration, though she is tougher that Merkel. Merz has questioned the necessity of the constitutional provision spelling out the right to asylum and has proposed kicking out immigrants who commit crimes and banning them from the European Union.
These differences are important for the future direction of the CDU and even the future of German conservatism. But the lively debate and the cliffhanger leadership election — none of the candidates won convincingly in the first round, and Spahn's original voters ended up deciding the outcome narrowly in favor of AKK — are more important for Germany as a whole.
The CDU is a deeply traditional party; only 6 percent of members are younger than 30 and only 15 percent are under 40. At the beginning of the conference, it took Merkel several minutes to read the list of prominent CDU members who died in the last few months. And yet the party has shaken off the mothballs. It looks alive again, and that's helping with voters: Just before the conference, a poll showed the CDU at 30 percent after months of lounging in the 20s.
It’s still Germany’s biggest political force, by far, and the internal debate is a rehearsal for the next election, which isn’t likely before 2021 because AKK won’t try to unseat Merkel as chancellor and the CDU’s coalition partners need time to try to recover public support. The race should reawaken Germans' interests in politics as a spectacle, as something of a sports competition that’s more fun than the Merkel-era snoozefests, even though voters shouldn’t expect an American-style smackdown, given the traditional importance of a wonkish command of policy issues .
AKK, with her honest emotions, her oratorial skill and her mastery of Merkel-like backroom politics, has the potential to be an even stronger leader for the party and for Germany than her mentor has been. She's as forceful, but not as boring, and won't dominate her party the way Merkel did. If big-tent politics still has a fighting chance in today's fragmented landscape, she just may be the leader to seize this chance.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.