Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer brings her faith into the public square. Will it stop her speedy rise to the top of German politics?

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, having just formed her fourth government, has established herself as one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders. But she enters her new term of office in a weakened position, and speculation has been turning to her possible successors.

In last year’s general election Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) polled the lowest share of the vote in its history, and has remained in power only because its rivals are even weaker and unable to form a majority. Merkel has also come under fire from party colleagues for giving away too much ground on core policies during the months-long coalition talks with the minority Social Democrats (SPD). As a result, she has had to make concessions to critics on her right, notably appointing Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, an immigration hawk, as federal interior minister.

But Merkel has also been arranging her own succession, with the election of Saarland state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (better known simply as AKK) as CDU general secretary, the role Merkel held when her mentor Helmut Kohl was grooming her for the leadership. This puts AKK in the leading position to succeed Merkel on her retirement, and is a big advance for a politician little known outside her home region.

The Saarland, with only a million inhabitants, is one of Germany’s smallest federal states. On the border with France, and long disputed between both countries for its coal and steel industry, it is one of only two of 16 states – along with Bavaria – still to have a majority of its population identifying as Catholic. The CDU’s conservative wing has long been powerful in the region, but not totally dominant – for years the Saarland was ruled by the maverick left-wing populist Oskar Lafontaine. But this makes it a swing state, and AKK’s landslide victory in last year’s regional election is credited with boosting Merkel towards her fourth term.

AKK is usually described by German observers as a centrist rather than someone who belongs to the CDU’s right wing, and her understated style has led her to be described as “Mini-Merkel”. But in many ways she is very different from Merkel, with a background in state rather than federal politics. She comes from the far west of the country, while Merkel’s roots are in the former East Germany.

She also differs from Merkel in being Catholic. Indeed, AKK is known for a serious approach to her faith, and is currently a member of the Central Committee of German Catholics, the country’s leading lay association. She also brings her faith into her politics, leaning to the left on economics – which puts her at odds with the party’s pro-business wing – while being conservative on moral issues. This isn’t, however, an unusual combination in the CDU, and AKK is very popular with party members, not least for her record in winning elections.

Issues of faith have quickly become controversial, as the new coalition government has been arguing over whether to retain Germany’s ban on advertising abortion services. The ailing Social Democrats, whose support is increasingly confined to pensioners, desperately need an issue to connect with young urban left-wingers.

But change is being resisted by prominent Catholics in the CDU, including AKK and another potential Merkel successor, agriculture minister Julia Klöckner. The traditional position remains popular with the CDU’s rank and file – it’s also been taken up by openly gay health minister Jens Spahn, not known as one of the party’s conservatives – but the question is whether it can gain majority support with the public.

This shows that, although the CDU remains by far Germany’s leading party, and can win elections, it still has a long-term identity problem. The Catholic-oriented conservatism of party founder Konrad Adenauer, which dominated Germany in the 1950s, is less viable in a country where Catholicism itself is in long-term crisis.

This has been clear since the 1980s, when Helmut Kohl’s pragmatic approach defeated the traditionalists around Bavarian premier Franz-Josef Strauss. Merkel’s cautious and technocratic style of leadership, with its fudging of ideological divisions, has proved popular with German voters over the years, but it has not resolved this problem.

It’s also unclear how a conservative Catholic leader would be received by the wider public. The last time this was put to the test was in 1980, when the CDU backed Franz-Josef Strauss for chancellor. Strauss’s enormous popularity in Bavaria did not translate well to the rest of Germany, and the party was soundly defeated. The CDU has not been keen to repeat the experiment.

The Germany of 1980 was a very different country, with a still vibrant Catholic culture. Today’s German Church is rich and powerful, but with largely empty churches. For the CDU to choose a strongly Catholic leader, rather than a cultural Catholic in the Helmut Kohl mould, would be quite a departure for a party that often mirrors Merkel’s cautious personality.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the March 23 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here