The leadership race in Germany’s CDU is over: the party’s general secretary, 56-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, co-opted by Chancellor Merkel into the central party leadership only in February this year, has won a bitterly fought fight more akin to America’s culture wars.
The contest was about much more than the legacy of the Chancellor, or the future direction of the party: it was about the future direction and soul of Germany and to a large extent, the future direction and soul of Europe. Her opponents, 63-year-old Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer who used to head the party’s parliamentary group until he fell out with Angela Merkel in 2002, and 38-year-old Jens Spahn, currently serving as Germany’s Minister of Health, opposed Merkel’s policy and vision, in particular when it comes to the issue of migration; it was the Chancellor’s open-door policy, the Willkommenskultur, that they vehemently opposed. They advocated a turn that many different parties among the European People’s Party’s members have taken or are tempted to take: a turn to the right.
The CDU has just narrowly rejected that and stayed the course of the Chancellor: a moderate, centrist, tolerant, Christian democratic course that have served her well in her 18 years as party leader and 13 in government. Angela Merkel’s approach has been grounded upon two tenets: her strong Christian ethics and a belief that elections are won in the political centre. Although she has not been directly criticised for the first, her policies founded upon those values did. But she has been vindicated for her strategic choice to swift an otherwise conservative party to the centre, winning four consecutive elections along the way. Even the latest result in Bavaria, where the CSU, the CDU’s sister party in Germany’s biggest länder, lost more voters to the Greens than the AfD, confirmed her strategy. A recent forsa Institute study showed that twice as much CDU voters have been migrating to Greens than the AfD. The CDU might be losing, but the Chancellor’s policies are winning, despite the fact that parties other than her own that have come to embody her standpoint are now benefiting out of that, in the face of a fierce battle within the party against her.
Now that this is over, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, by sticking to the middle ground, has a chance to reverse that trend and show her political family in Europe a different way: reclaiming the centre rather than espousing the policies and politics of the Eurosceptic right.