Germany’s CDU leader rallies troops with optimistic address

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer tells critics in ruling centre-right party to put up or shut up

Christian Democratic Union’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: “I don’t want to be head of a party that finds itself great because it once was great.” Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP

Christian Democratic Union’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer: “I don’t want to be head of a party that finds itself great because it once was great.” Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP

 

Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has used a closely watched party conference speech to challenge powerful critics inside her ruling centre-right party to put up or shut up.

A year after she won the party leadership by just 51 per cent, followed by 12 months of missteps and election disasters, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer stroked her party’s ragged soul and secured a seven-minute standing ovation.

Over nearly 90 minutes, the CDU leader delivered an ambivalent look back at the 14 years of the Merkel era – with her predecessor looking on – and threw down the gauntlet to murmuring dissenters and party delegates alike: back my vision to renew Germany and the CDU, or withdraw your support.

“Let’s talk about this here, today, let us end this today, here and now and today,” she said. “If you want what I want, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Clear challenge

It was a clear challenge to the CDU conservative-liberal camp and their frontman, Friedrich Merz, who lost the leadership race, still dreams of the chancellery and threatened to disrupt the conference. Instead Mr Merz delivered a speech echoing her call for renewal – but without binning entirely his ambitions.  

Though not up for re-election until next year, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, known to all as AKK, was fighting an uphill battle in Leipzig. She acknowledged poor poll numbers, a series of disappointing regional and European elections and a mountain of work ahead to renew the party.

Suggesting the government is doing “everything wrong” – as Mr Merz did in a recent interview – is, she suggested drily, “not a good campaigning strategy”.

Reaching out to Mr Merz, her runner-up-turned-rival, she said: “I welcome everyone who helps us down the road . . . who makes our country better. We certainly have enough to do.”

Merkel’s shadow

But her speech was light on how she plans to renew the party while in power, while double-jobbing as federal defence minister and CDU chair.

Complicating matters is the lingering shadow of Dr Merkel, and a struggling junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), that has been leaderless since June and may decide to leave power when a new leader is appointed next week.

Keeping optimistic and general, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer warned instead that the best way to squeeze out the rising extremist fringes is to hold the political centre – in Germany and in Europe – by cranking up Berlin’s flagging work ethic.

“I don’t want to be head of a party that finds itself great because it once was great,” she said, “but because it is doing great politics today and tomorrow.”

Friday was about rallying the troops with far more rhetorical flourish as CDU leader than Angela Merkel ever managed.

“When I arrived I was a little sceptical but she totally carried me along emotionally,” said Martina Schrage, a CDU delegate from North Rhine-Westphalia. “It was a fighting speech with clear words, she gave me confidence to fight for the CDU.”