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The German Christian democrats have de facto only known one party leader in the 21st century: Dr Angela Merkel. Elected in 2000, she led the party through five national elections, three European elections, and countless state elections. History thus felt tangible this 7 December, as the Chancellor bequeathed her sceptre to the CDU’s General-Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Plenty of articles have been written about what Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s rise will mean for Germany on the European and global stage. This piece will not attempt to do so. Instead, it will focus on another question: how will Merkel’s successor shape the German Christian Democrats? How does she fit into the wider shifts within Western conservatism?

Upon her election, much media commentary – not only but especially abroad – reduced Kramp-Karrenbauer to a “Mini-Merkel”. A continuity candidate with little credentials of her own. Neat as this narrative is, it could not be further from the truth. For one, “AKK”, as she is known in Germany, is very much a successful politician in her own right, not a mere protégé of the Chancellor: prior to her appointment as General-Secretary, AKK had been the First Minister of the state of Saarland where she won her last election in 2017 with 40 per cent of the vote – increasing the CDU’s vote share by five per cent.

The narrative of the “continuity candidate” becomes even more untenable when looking at AKK’s politics, however. Whilst Merkel had focused on making the Christian democrats more socially liberal and open to cosmopolitan voters, her successor is more conservative. Born and long based in the small village of Püttlingen, she is not an urbanite. She is aware of the challenges faced by the rural population and the value of community. A devout Catholic, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s faith has led her to embrace a moderate social conservatism. Yet growing up in the Saarland, which borders on France, is also the source of AKK’s internationalism: as for so many Germans, the European Union is not simply a transactional economic alliance to the fluent French speaker but a unique experiment in supranational democracy and peace-building. This, if anything, may be the more obvious parallel to Merkel. Economics is another one: Kramp-Karrenbauer is more likely to continue Merkel’s centrist economic agenda that was open to compromises such as the introduction of a minimum wage, long the bête noire of the CDU’s ordoliberal orthodoxy. Indeed, this may have been – purely ideologically speaking – the more important dividing line in the Christian democrat leadership contest: AKK’s main opponent, Friedrich Merz, is an ardent free-marketeer and would have shifted the party towards a more neoliberal programme. That he had, as often insinuated, a monopoly on social conservatism is more than questionable however.

At its heart, the contest between AKK and Merz was not principally about whether the party should become more conservative. It inevitably was going to be. There was a much more fundamental question at stake: would the Christian Democrats be a party of government or one of ideological self-indulgence? Merz very much promised the latter: a rival of Merkel outgunned in the mid-2000s, his candidacy seemed to herald a return to a simpler, more comforting time. When Germany could (counterfactually) deny that it was an “Einwanderungsland” (country of immigrants) and the CDU could roll the drum for untrammelled free markets. A return to pre-2008 crash politics. AKK in turn presented the realist option: the recognition that politics in the post-Brexit, Trumpian age is messy and in flux. That Germany has changed since 2000, that it is more secular and diverse. A time of complex, not easy answers. And most importantly, a time when politicians ought to think of society as a whole, rather than to merely retreat into their echo chambers.

As one centre-right party after the other seeks refuge in conceding to the populist spirit, this is an important step: an attempt to show that democratic conservatives needn’t imitate the destructive, uncompromising politics of Nigel Farage, Salvini, and Trump to remain a competitive political force. Whether the AKK experiment succeeds may well offer an insight as to what course conservatives across the West may take in the future.

Henrique Laitenberger is a Student Ambassador for Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.