(CN) – She’s the German politician you’ve likely never heard of but whose decision to step down as party leader is being equated to a political earthquake in Europe.
Her name is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and she is the woman German Chancellor Angela Merkel groomed to be her successor in the chancellorship: A “Mini-Merkel” meant to carry on leading Europe’s most powerful country with a centrist, fiscally conservative and pro-European politics.
But little more than a year after taking over as leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, Kramp-Karrenbauer on Monday threw German politics into turmoil with her announcement she’s stepping down as party leader and will not seek to become chancellor in next year’s elections. She will, however, remain Germany’s defense minister. Merkel, meanwhile, has said she will not seek reelection.
Her resignation comes amid a major fight at the heart of conservative German circles over how to respond to the rise of a far-right political party, the Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials AfD.
It’s a fight between those in the CDU who say the party has strayed too far to the left under Merkel and needs to embrace a more conservative message to counter the rise of the AfD and others, most importantly Merkel, who advocate staying in the political center.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s fall is linked to her mishandling of events last week in the German state of Thuringia when CDU members in the state parliament joined AfD members in electing a pro-business state premier in order to stop a left-wing candidate.
The move by CDU members to join forces with the AfD caused a political firestorm with many critics charging that the CDU was guilty of bringing the AfD into the mainstream. Many on the left warned that what happened resembled the rise of Germany’s Nazis who scored one of their first major political breakthroughs in Thuringia in 1930 with the support of conservatives when a prominent Nazi member, Wilhelm Frick, became the state’s interior minister.
Kramp-Karrenbauer was blasted for not preventing the CDU members from voting with the AfD. The AfD is viewed as a pariah due to its far-right nationalist rhetoric and anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views.
Now the CDU will enter into a leadership battle that will pit the centrists against the right-wing of the party.
This is a defining moment for German politics. Merkel has been the CDU party chair since 2000 and Germany’s chancellor since 2005. She is Europe’s longest-serving head of state. But support for the CDU is eroding as it comes under pressure from the AfD on the right and the Greens on the center-left.
At a news conference in Berlin on Monday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said the events in Thuringia had weakened the CDU.
“The AfD stands against everything the CDU stands for. Every collaboration with the AfD makes the CDU weaker,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news broadcaster.
Besides her handling of Thuringia, her leadership of CDU has been marred by minor scandals, missteps and electoral losses.
Alexander Gauland, an AfD leader in parliament and former CDU member, welcomed Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision and said it opened the door for more cooperation between the CDU and AfD.
The AfD has become one of Germany’s biggest parties and it has seen its support rise across the country, especially in states that were formerly part of the communist East Germany.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)