What Comes After the Merkel Era?

The new leader of the German Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on Saturday in Hamburg. She will succeed Angela Merkel. Credit Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
The new leader of the German Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on Saturday in Hamburg. She will succeed Angela Merkel. Credit Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

On Friday Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, meeting in Hamburg, elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed Angela Merkel as the center-right party’s leader. Given the party’s dominant — if recently weakened — position in German politics, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will also succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor by 2021 at the latest.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer — or AKK, as she is often called, because even German tongues stumble over that name — won in a tight race against two other candidates: Friedrich Merz, who returned to the political stage after a decade of absence, and the youthful conservative minister of health, Jens Spahn.

Neither of AKK’s contenders would have radically changed Germany’s role in Europe or the world; nor will she. She won’t change the face of German conservatism, either. And yet, Friday felt like a new beginning, for the party and for the country.

The past weeks of intense campaigning by the three conservatives demonstrated both the possibilities and limits of creating a new identity for a big-tent conservative party in a world haunted by right-wing populism and fractured political systems. “We are the last unicorn in Europe,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a speech on Friday before her election, by which she meant: The Christian Democratic Union is one of the world’s last big-tent parties that can still live up to the name. How true.

Often, especially on foreign policy, the three candidates sounded similar notes. Against the backdrop of renewed tensions between Russia and Ukraine, all three expressed a resigned antipathy toward Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline in the making that will transport Russian gas through the Baltic Sea (not a good idea, but probably no longer stoppable). All three pledged to strengthen the European Union and to work on a good trans-Atlantic relationship.

But much of the talk on the campaign trail focused inward. For weeks, the candidates toured the country, speaking with the party’s base. All three tried to distinguish themselves from one another, but they also sought, collectively, to distinguish the Christian Democrats from the Green Party and the center-left Social Democratic Party, and to find a way to counter the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party.

In 2018, Germany’s conservatives learned the hard way that copying the populists doesn’t work. Their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, tried all year to look tougher on migration than the populists, a strategy that resulted in major losses in the Bavarian state elections in October.

The party needed something new. The buzzword of the past weeks was “conservative renewal,” a version of which became the closing theme of all three candidates. They each meant, in their own way, a return to the conservative values that once unified the party and spoke to a large swath of the German public.

But what is conservative in 2018? It is ironic that under the leadership of Germany’s most powerful post-reunification conservative, the country has become deeply, irreversibly progressive. And so even as the three candidates spouted “conservative renewal,” they made telling concessions.

Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, for example, still touted her personal opposition to marriage equality — a reality in Germany — but admitted it could not be reversed. They all spoke to the need for a stronger army, a message that resonated at regional party conventions; but what that means in practice is unclear, since it has been seven years since Ms. Merkel suspended mandatory military service. At one point, Mr. Merz challenged the viability of Germany’s generous asylum laws in a borderless Europe — a common refrain that means little in the face of a set of European and international rules that will keep those laws on the books.

Germany’s conservatives, no matter how renewed they become, won’t be able to escape liberalism, secularization and globalization. The great conservative narrative of preserving traditional values and institutions is no longer tenable. They will have to work on conveying distinctive nuances instead: Marriage for all, yes, but no to adoptions by same-sex-couples. No return to mandatory military service, but mandatory Civil Service for all. Yes to migration and asylum in general, but harder rules for migrants who commit crimes.

Given the weakness of the Social Democrats, currently the junior partners in a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats, it seems unlikely that the country will wait until 2021 to hold new elections. Such elections, though, are unlikely to change the political landscape significantly — perhaps a few more seats for the Greens, who are on a polling upswing, and the Christian Democrats, who might steal back some seats from the Alternative for Germany party, which would no longer have Ms. Merkel and her open-border record as a boogeyman.

But the reality will remain: Instead of two dominant political parties in the Bundestag, charting two sides of the political spectrum, Germany will likely have six, some bigger than others, but all staking out their own corners in a much more complicated landscape. Such landscapes don’t offer much room for big tents.

So why does this feel like a new day? After several weeks of failed attempts at creating a new narrative, this is a chance for Germany’s conservatives, and the country as a whole, to come to terms with this new reality.

If Ms. Merkel was the last chancellor of the mass-party era, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer could be the first to lead a government defined by the complexities of true coalition politics. The previous era was brought to an end by polarization; the new one will require good leadership to bring enough parties together to lead a government — leaders like Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.

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