Mini-Merkel faces down her critics with ‘back me or sack me’ challenge

Angela Merkel’s chosen successor faced down her rivals with a defiant performance at her party conference on Friday.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared to head off a growing rebellion against her leadership of the Christian Democrat party (CDU) by challenging her critics to back her or sack her.

“If you think that the Germany I want is not the Germany you imagine, if you think that the path I want to walk with you is not the right one, then let’s have it out today. Let’s end it today. Here and now,” the woman known as "mini-Merkel" told the party conference in Leipzig.

The response from delegates was a seven-minute standing ovation that appeared to silence any challenge to her authority — at least for now.

Friedrich Merz, the rival who had openly advertised his plans to question the party’s direction, ended up making a low-key speech pledging his loyalty.

“The applause shows: today is not an end, Annegret. Today it really gets going,” said Michael Kretschmer, a senior delegate.

It was a rare triumph for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she likes to be known, who has had a torrid time since taking over as CDU leader a year ago.

Mrs Merkel stepped down from the party leadership last year so a new leader could reinvigorate its fortunes following a series of poor election results. 

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But the results have only got worse under AKK’s leadership. The CDU was beaten into third place by the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in regional elections last month, and there have been growing calls for some one else to take over as the party’s chancellor candidate in the next general election.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had hoped the party leadership would open the way for her to succeed Mrs Merkel in government, has been left fighting for her survival.

She took on her critics in a marathon 90-minute speech on Friday, defending the CDU’s record in government.  “These have been 14 good years for Germany, and we all have a lot to be proud of,” she told delegates on the 14th anniversary of the day Mrs Merkel first became chancellor.

“As the party that shaped this government, to stand up and say it was all bad is not a successful campaign strategy. We should not get used to it…We have to be careful that such discussions do not lead us to ruin.”

Her remarks were a clear criticism of Mr Merz, her chief rival, who has been absent from politics for most of that time.

After losing the party leadership to Mrs Merkel in 2002, Mr Merz quit politics in 2009. He attempted a comeback last year and was narrowly defeated by AKK in the race to succeed Mrs Merkel.

But amid the speculation over Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s future, Mr Merz has been back on manoeuvres. He let it be known that he planned to make an intervention in a speech at this year’s conference, but Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared to have headed him off.

In the event, he delivered a low-key address to muted applause from delegates. “I’m grateful for your brave, combative, forward-looking speech,” he told Mr Kramp-Karrenbauer. The CDU was unlike rival parties, he said, because “We are loyal to our leader”.

Setting out her vision for the future, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer called for a new digital ministry and pledged her support for the German carmakers.

She was pleased Tesla had decided to build its first European factory in Germany, she said, but added it was more important to her that cars continue to be built in Stuttgart, Munich and Wolfsburg — the homes of Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen.

It was a performance that saw off her rivals for now. But Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer needs to improve the CDU’s standing in the polls — or Mr Merz and others will be waiting for another chance.

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