She was meant to be the “mini-Merkel” who would grow to fill the German chancellor’s shoes. But after a series of own goals and a poor result for her party in the European elections, and with further trouble looming in state polls in eastern Germany in early September, questions are growing over Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ability to act as a peacemaker between the conservative and liberal wings of her party.
Promoted first to leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2018 and then to the post of defence minister last month, Kramp-Karrenbauer remains the most promising candidate to take over when Merkel steps down at the end of her current term.
But if AKK, as she is known, used to enjoy a reputation as a decisive risk-taker while state leader of the Saarland region, she is now increasingly criticised for her thin skin and impulsive communicative missteps.
In March, Kramp-Karrenbauer bewildered modernisers in her party with jokes about gender-neutral bathrooms at a carnival event. In May, when a leading German YouTube star released a viral video in which he took apart the CDU’s track record in government, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response seemed to exacerbate rather than calm the storm.
A joke about the CDU being held responsible for the “seven plagues of Egypt” backfired: did the Catholic politician really not know the Old Testament listed 10 plagues? An attempt at a more serious response, talking of the need for clearer rules for digital opinion formers, led to her being accused of trying to censor the internet.
“A few little digs are enough for AKK to break out of her reserve”, wrote the newspaper Die Welt. “She’s different to chancellor Merkel, who would have just pulled the plug by refusing to take any more questions or escaping into platitudes.”
In June, many were irritated by the manner in which Kramp-Karrenbauer celebrated a CDU candidate beating an AfD rival to the mayorship in the town of Görlitz, seemingly forgetting that the Green and left parties had withdrawn their candidates to put up a united front against the far right.
And this week she faced criticism from the youth wing of the CDU for implying that she could expel a former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency from the party.
Talking about Hans-Georg Maaßen, who alarmed many of his peers by sharing far-right views in tweets and interviews, Kramp-Karrenbauer said: “There are high hurdles for expelling someone from a party, and with good reason. But in Mr Maaßen I no longer see an attitude that ties him to the CDU.”
In the same interview with Funke Media Group, she likened the Werteunion, a rightwing pressure group within the CDU of which Maaßen is a founding member, to America’s Tea Party movement.
Although Maaßen is a controversial figure in the country at large, some CDU campaigners see the former civil servant as useful in upcoming elections in Brandenburg and Saxony on 1 September, where the CDU could be defeated by the far-right AfD.
“I would have preferred us to achieve victories on the town squares of Saxony and Brandenburg”, said Tilman Kuban, the leader of the CDU’s youth wing, telling Deutschlandfunk radio that it was important to tolerate internal differences of opinion. “I didn’t necessarily expect own goals from Berlin,” Kuban said. Kramp-Karrenbauer later clarified that she did not intend to expel Maaßen.
The latest rhetorical misstep has further tarnished Kramp-Karrenbauer’s standing in her party and prompted memories of Merkel’s ability to smooth over internal divisions during her time as party leader.
“Since taking over as leader of the CDU, Kramp-Karrenbauer has worked hard to reach out to the rightwing of her party”, said Kristina Dunz, a journalist for the Rheinische Post newspaper who has written a biography of the politician. “But in the process she has deserted the political centre and alienated many people who supported her candidacy in the first place.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer had manoeuvred herself into a tight spot, suggested weekly Der Spiegel. “The conservatives in her party now know that they can’t count on their leader. The liberals don’t trust her to protect Merkel’s legacy”.
The newspaper Die Zeit said of the Maaßen row: “This would never have happened to Angela Merkel. She would have simply ignored Maaßen until he lost his wit or left the party for the AfD out of his own accord.”
Opinion polls for the Saxony elections suggest the CDU could win by the narrowest of margins over the AfD. The polls put the party on 28%, compared with 39% in the last elections in the state in 2014.
In the state of Brandenburg, also in the formerly socialist east, the party that has dominated postwar German politics could even come second behind the far right, with only 18% of the vote.
“If the CDU drops below the AfD in Saxony and Brandenburg on 1 September, it could be the case that she has to bury her dreams of becoming chancellor”, said Tilman Mayer, a political scientist at Bonn University.
Mayer told Focus magazine that the mounting pressure on Kramp-Karrenbauer could lead to the CDU going into the next election with a more conservative candidate such as Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary leader, or a more clear-cut liberal such as the North Rhine-Westphalia premier, Armin Laschet.
The Rheinische Post’s Dunz said: “In the age of social media, it’s increasingly impossible for politicians to get things right in the public eye at all. But the fact is that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is still trying to find her feet on the national stage, and she is running out of time.”