Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the embattled leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, has told party rivals to put up or shut up as she seeks to stabilise her status as a frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer used a combative speech to her party’s annual conference to call on her critics to show their hand, saying those who did not share her vision of Germany “should speak their minds today and end it there — here and now and today”.
Her challenge, almost a year after she took over from Ms Merkel as leader of Germany’s ruling party, was seen as aimed at Friedrich Merz, whom she beat in the leadership contest. The businessman is still widely seen as a potential CDU candidate for chancellor in 2021.
In response Mr Merz pledged loyalty to Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party and the government and promised to play a positive role in the CDU. “If you want me to join in, I will,” he said. But he also warned the party leader not to “marginalise” critics.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer “threw down the gauntlet, and no one picked it up”, said Armin Schuster, a CDU MP.
The CDU has been enfeebled by a series of disappointing elections in which it bled support to the far-right Alternative for Germany, and is at risk of being supplanted as Germany’s most popular political force by the Greens.
The CDU’s pride in its unity is also being eroded. Voters view the party as deeply split and unsure of its direction. In a recent poll by the Allensbach Institute, 53 per cent of respondents said the CDU appeared disunited. Only 4 per cent thought the same of the Greens.
The CDU leader, who is also defence minister, admitted her year in charge “had not been an easy one” but sought to shut down speculation about the post-Merkel succession. She said voters wanted to know how the party was planning to secure Germany’s prosperity.
“It is a question that interests them much more than the question of who in the CDU can be who, when, how, what and where,” she said. People’s response to such debates was that “you were elected for us, not for yourselves”.
When Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer won the CDU leadership contest last December, she was catapulted into pole position to succeed Ms Merkel, who has said her fourth term as chancellor, due to end in 2021, will be her last.
However, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s time in office has been marred by a string of mis-steps that have raised doubts about her suitability for Germany’s top job. Mr Merz’s popularity ratings are far higher.
While Mr Merz, an old rival of Ms Merkel who once led the CDU’s parliamentary group, has substantial backing in the party, he has enraged many members with his sniping from the sidelines. He recently described the government’s work as “abysmal”, and said Ms Merkel’s “inertia and lack of leadership” had spread a “carpet of fog” over Germany.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer swept aside the criticism, saying Ms Merkel’s time in office “are and were 14 good years for Germany, and we can all be proud of that”.
She said previous party conferences had also been preceded by criticism and talk of disunity. “We can withstand such discussions and we won’t allow ourselves to be written off,” she said.
“For the party that carries this government to stand there and say that everything was bad . . . I do not know how we are supposed to campaign like that in an election,” she said. “That is not a successful campaign strategy.”
Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the central state of Hesse, said there had been talk of “revolution” ahead of the party meeting. “But instead we have experienced a party conference where we have celebrated our leader,” he said.
Mr Schuster said that with her speech, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had “brought some peace to the party”. But her work was not over. “If she wants to be chancellor, she still badly needs to improve her approval ratings in the population at large,” he said.
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