Angela Merkel’s beleaguered Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party suffered another blow on Monday, after chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced she would not run for chancellor in the 2021 elections and would stand down as party boss.
The sudden resignation of AKK, as she is widely known, leaves the question of who will lead the party, and potentially become the next chancellor after Merkel, wide open.
The 57-year-old announced her decision just days after the CDU lined up with the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to help elect a new state premier in the state of Thuringia, causing political uproar.
Kramp-Karrenbauer told the press in Berlin on Monday that her decision not to run for chancellor and to step down as party leader was not made spontaneously in the wake of the political fiasco in Thuringia state last week. “This decision has matured and grown in me for quite some time,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
“Every cooperation with the AfD weakens the CDU,” she said at the press conference.
Speaking at a press conference with Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán on Monday in Berlin, Merkel said that she was “sorry” to see Kramp-Karrenbauer step down but that she respected her decision.
“This was not an easy decision to make,” Merkel said, adding that she was pleased that Kramp-Karrenbauer would stay involved in the process of finding her successor.
The Thuringia CDU’s move to cooperate with the AfD flew in the face of the party’s promise to never work with the radical-right party. Merkel, who has frequently defended AKK’s actions, this time called the CDU’s actions in Thuringia “unforgivable.”
Even though the freshly elected Thuringia premier Thomas Kemmerich resigned just 24 hours after he won thanks to combined AfD and CDU support, Kramp-Karrenbauer was accused of lacking authority over her party.
On Monday, economy minister Peter Altmaier described Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation as an “unusually seriously situation for the CDU.”
“It concerns our future as a modern, centrist people’s party,” Altmaier added.
The Christian Democrats lost over a million voters to the AfD in the 2017 general election, and its attempts to shift more to the right to win them back has caused rifts in the party ranks.
Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer by training and former parliamentary floor leader is seen as a top contender for CDU chairman. The traditional conservative has often criticised Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merkel and, having stepped down from his job at investment giant BlackRock, would be available for the role of party chairman.
Merz avoided directly mentioning the news today, tweeting that “now would be the right time to inject impulse with economic and financial policy measures.”
North-Rhine Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet is also seen as a serious contender for CDU chief. Health minister Jens Spahn, who vied with AKK and Merz for the party leadership vote in 2018 and came in third, could also be in the running.
Since taking over as CDU leader less than a year and a half ago, AKK has failed to mirror her mentor or unite the party, appearing to stumble from one misstep to the next.
She was accused of supporting censorship after she said the expression of political opinions online during election campaigns should be regulated. She also caused upset by making jokes onstage at the Cologne carnival about gender-neutral bathrooms.
Merkel’s spokesman told journalists in Berlin on Monday that Kramp-Karrenbauer would like to stay in her job as defence minister “and the chancellor supports that wholeheartedly.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer said she will stay on as party chair until a new leader is found at a planned conference in December.