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ANGELA MERKEL

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: The woman behind the ‘mini-Merkel’ headlines

Best known to Germans as "AKK", the even-tempered and unpretentious Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is so used to being compared to her mentor Chancellor Angela Merkel that she is unfazed by her "mini-Merkel" nickname.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: The woman behind the 'mini-Merkel' headlines
AKK smiles during her visit to the Altona Children's Hospital in Hamburg, which she visited before the start of the CDU party conference on Friday. Photo: DPA

But the newly elected leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, replacing Merkel after 18 years, is the first to say she is no carbon copy of her famous predecessor.

Widely seen as the chancellor's chosen heir, AKK has promised to stick closely to Merkel's centrist course, insisting that the weakened CDU needs to position itself as “the people's party in the middle”.

Yet the devout Catholic and mum-of-three is more conservative on social issues like gay marriage, and has vowed a tougher line on migration as the party seeks to woo back voters lost to the far-right.

“I have my own mind and that has led to conflict with Angela Merkel,” the  56-year-old recently told the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.

“But I'm not about to artificially distance myself from her,” she added with trademark loyalty.

The protegee's win will come as a relief to Merkel, whose chances of staying on as chancellor until 2021 partly hinge on how well she gets on with the new CDU chair.

Flowers from Merkel 

Born in Saarland, a tiny, hill-strewn state tucked against the French border, AKK grew up in a large, Catholic family as a self-described nerd who adored reading and never dared to cut class.

She married Helmut Karrenbauer in 1984, the same year she started her studies in law and political science.

The couple have three children and AKK has paid tribute to her husband for 
being a stay-at-home father so she could climb the career ladder.

A popular figure in local politics, AKK held several state ministerial posts before becoming Saarland's premier in 2011.

She shot to nationwide attention when she scored a thumping re-election in 2017, a rare bright spot in a slew of regional poll disappointments for the CDU.

It was Merkel herself who handed the short-haired, bespectacled politician a bouquet of flowers after the win.

AKK then played a key role in the tortuous coalition talks that followed an  inconclusive general election, winning plaudits for her determination and  pragmatism in the marathon meetings.

In February Merkel rewarded AKK by tapping her to become the party's number two as general secretary, luring her from Saarland to Berlin.

'Cleaning lady Gretel' 

As CDU leader now AKK is in pole position to be the party's next candidate  for chancellor – a job she admits she has her sights on.

Batting away criticism that she stands for more of the same at a time when the CDU needs to be reinvigorated, AKK has said she sees no need “toundo” Merkel's legacy.

But she has made moves to carve out her own profile.

While praising Merkel's divisive 2015 decision to allow in hundreds of  thousands of asylum seekers, AKK says stronger action is needed to allay German fears about security and integration.

Convicted asylum seekers should be expelled not just from Germany but Europe's entire Schengen zone, AKK has argued.

And she has floated the idea of re-introducing military service or a year of national service to boost social cohesion.

Perhaps most controversially, she opposed gay marriage which was legalized in 2017 and supported by Merkel.

A keen participant in her region's annual carnival celebrations, AKK has over the years endeared herself with the public by dressing up as “cleaning 
lady Gretel”.

She reprised the role last year, taking to the stage complete with a smock 
and broom to poke fun at the political bigwigs in Berlin – about as un-Merkel as its gets.

Despite these differences, to most Germans AKK stands for continuity in a country readying for the post-Merkel era. 

“There's a desire for more inclusion and self-confidence in the party,” she has said. “But I don't sense a desire to completely break with the current course.”

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POLITICS

Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
 

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.

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