Dream team? What Merkel ally’s party win means for the chancellor and the CDU

The victory in a party leadership battle of a close ally of Angela Merkel greatly boosts her chances of seeing out her fourth term, but 2019 will bring new threats for the world's most powerful woman.

Dream team? What Merkel ally's party win means for the chancellor and the CDU
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Angela Merkel on Saturday. Photo: DPA

As the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wrapped up a conference in Hamburg at the weekend, Merkel, 64, could celebrate that her handpicked deputy party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, won the race to succeed her after 18 years at the helm.

The career politician dubbed “mini-Merkel” by the media is now in pole position to lead Germany's biggest party into the next general election, set for 2021.

She would then have a strong chance of replacing the chancellor when Merkel leaves the stage for good.

The CDU's choice marked a vote for relative political stability in Europe as British Prime Minister Theresa May faces Brexit turmoil and French President Emmanuel Macron's government is rocked by violent street protests.

Merkel made the surprise decision in October not to stand again for the CDU leadership following a string of poll setbacks.

“I don't see her as weakened at all — on the contrary, she can continue to govern as a powerful chancellor,” Matthias Middelberg, a CDU delegate from Hanover, said of Merkel, who was this week again crowned the world's most
powerful woman by Forbes magazine.

“And now she can count on a party leader she can work well with.”

SEE ALSO: Merkel loyalist wins CDU party vote to succeed her

'Stop the exodus'

“Merkel can now work with a woman she's known for a long time and who won't harbour ambitions of chasing her out of office. Meanwhile Kramp-Karrenbauer will welcome the chance to prepare her leap to the chancellery,” top-selling
daily Bild said.

News weekly Der Spiegel noted that the CDU's moderate course under Merkel had kept the trained physicist in power since 2005.

But it warned that centrist continuity under AKK could leave more conservative Christian Democrats feeling politically homeless.

It also allows the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third biggest party in parliament, to seize on fears linked to migration and crime and pick off traditional CDU voters.

Three risky state elections are on the calendar next year in the ex-communist east, where the party has made major inroads.

Bild noted that Merkel's fateful 2015 decision to welcome more than one million asylum seekers fleeing crisis zones such as Syria and Iraq continues to roil German politics.

“It is essential for the CDU's survival to stop the exodus toward the AfD, to find the right words to discuss asylum policy and immigration and to turn them into action,” it said.

Jörg Forbrig, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a political commentator predicted that the new leader's aim would be to focus on winning back people who have drifted to other parties such as the right-wing to far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

“I think it is clear that under Angela Merkel the shift to the middle of the conservative party has opened up a space for alternative political players especially the AfD on the right,” he told The Local. “So this is obviously the path for the person who takes over.”

A further risk factor is the European elections next May, which are expected to prove particularly punishing for mainstream parties.

But while the CDU could suffer bruising losses, the elections could prove devastating for its junior partners in government, the Social Democrats. A debacle could destabilize Merkel's “grand coalition”.

“Holding this country together will be the toughest job we face in the next year,” CDU parliamentary group leader Ralph Brinkhaus told the conference.

SEE ALSO: Annegret-Kramp Karrenbauer: The woman behind the 'mini-Merkel' headlines

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Angela Merkel on Friday after AKK's win. Photo: DPA

'Continue to sulk'

AKK, 56, won a wafer-thin majority over multi-millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz, who had spent a decade in the political wilderness reportedly harbouring a grudge against Merkel, who stripped him of a key party post.

National broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung said Merz's supporters could be reluctant to fall in line behind AKK, choosing to wait for her to stumble.

“If they continue to sulk or even openly oppose the winner then this springtime for the CDU could come to a quick end,” it said.

Commentator Forbrig also said a tight vote could create problems in the party.

“It may be very hard to keep the conservative party together as we know it,”  he told the Local.

However, in a gesture toward unity, AKK nominated a representative of the party's right wing, Paul Ziemiak, 33, to replace her as the CDU's number two. He won with 63 percent of the vote.

Despite the challenges for the party, observers said the conference still had historical importance.

“Kramp-Karrenbauer marks the first time in a major country of the Western world that a woman follows a woman at the top of a ruling party,” conservative daily Die Welt wrote.

“Hence it could be the first time in the west that a woman follows a woman at the top of a government. In the United States, they could only dream of such prospects.”

SEE ALSO: 'Merkel appreciates Feierabend': CDU Scot gives the inside scoop

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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”.