Tears and cheers as Merkel ally wins race to lead CDU party

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory puts her in pole position to be German chancellor

Amid tears and cheers, Germany's ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union backed evolution over revolution on Friday and elected an Angela Merkel ally as its new leader.

Dr Merkel stood down after 18 years and, after the CDU’s most passionate leadership race in half a century, delegates elected as successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with a narrow majority of just 35.

Wiping away tears, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer promised to unite the party and restore trust in mainstream politics.

“I accept the election result and thank all for their trust,” she said, securing a standing ovation after capturing 517 out of 999 delegate votes – 51.8 per cent – in a second-round run-off.


Close behind her was Friedrich Merz, a conservative-liberal corporate lawyer who was edged out of the CDU by Dr Merkel in 2002.

Denying he was still nursing a grudge, Mr Merz returned to politics promising delegates a “fresh start” under his leadership. After losing out on Friday, he promised “full support for our new leader”.

Mindful of her narrow victory, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer asked Mr Merz and third-placed Jens Spahn, federal health minister in Berlin who secured almost 16 per cent support, to join her party front bench.

In a passionate pre-vote speech, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer denied she was a “mini” Merkel but, in her 18-year rise in the southwestern state of Saarland, she learned that “leadership depends on inner strength, not volume”.

Amid pressure by party conservatives to shift the party right, she insisted the CDU must remain a confident party of the centre and not one “looking fearfully left and right”.

But she promised “courage for change” and a more open leadership style to build “a strong party that debates and thinks”.

It was a gentle swipe at the approach of her predecessor, who hopes to serve out her term as chancellor to 2021.

After succeeding Dr Merkel as CDU leader, Friday’s vote opens the door to follow her into the chancellery.

European integration

With more than 1,800 international journalists – and all of Europe – watching, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer promised to push Europen integration, a European army and EU security council.

“The question of whether the EU holds or falls apart . . . doesn’t lie in the stars, it lies with us,” she said.

First the new CDU leader faces a series of challenges at home: boost sluggish public support at 28 per cent, beat back a growing far-right challenge and salvage Berlin’s struggling grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Her most pressing task: to reach out to disappointed CDU conservatives and Merz supporters, drowning their sorrows with free beer outside the main hall and whispering about a split.

Many eastern CDU delegates were mournful, seeing a missed opportunity with Mr Merz to take on the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

“The mood in the party grassroots is extremely tense, we need to unite after this vote,” said one senior CDU official.

Merkel farewell

Earlier, after 6,815 days and a final, 10-minute standing ovation, a teary Merkel bowed out as CDU leader in Hamburg, the city of her birth, and where she joined the CDU in October 1990.

“I’m filled with a great feeling of thanks, it was a joy and honour,” said Dr Merkel, her voice catching with emotion for a split second, as she gazed out at a sea of delegates in navy suits and pearl-twinset combos.

Visibly unburdened, she apologised to staff and party colleagues, “driven demented” by her indecisiveness and her conflict aversion towards political rivals.

And, in a final riposte to her critics, she said she was “proud” of her controversial decision to keep open German borders three years ago to more than one million refugees and asylum seekers.

She mentioned Brexit in half a sentence and delivered a double dig at US president Donald Trump. Two days after attending the funeral of George HW Bush, Dr Merkel thanked Bush for resisting triumphalism at the cold war's end, and warned against abandoning the post-war multilateral order in favour of political as "deals".

Before she departed Hamburg, her party gifted her a baton, dedicated to “world politics’ most important conductor”.

Ingo Senftleben, delegate from the eastern state of Brandenburg, said: “She was an eastern German and we feel pride and thanks.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin