LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel’s would-be successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, urged delegates from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to back her vision for Germany at their party congress on Friday or else “let’s end it here and now”.
CDU delegates gave her an immediate standing ovation and Friedrich Merz, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s chief rival for the party chair last year, pledged her his loyalty - drawing a line under months of leadership speculation, for now.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, 57, has made several gaffes since taking over as CDU leader last December that have dented her popularity and raised questions about her suitability to be the party’s candidate for chancellor when Merkel leaves office.
“If you are of the view that the Germany I want is not the Germany you imagine, if you are of the view that the way I want to go with you is not the way you think is the right one, then let’s speak today and let’s end it today, here, now,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said to gasps from delegates.
“But, dear friends, if you want this Germany, if you want to take this path together ... then let’s roll up our sleeves here and now and make a start,” she added, before the seven-minute ovation.
Meeting under the banner “Germany’s strong middle”, the CDU is aiming to reassert itself in the political centre ground, where the Greens have surged.
Merkel, 65, has been in power since 2005 and said she will not seek re-election at the next national election, due in 2021. The CDU is trying to boost its image and appeal to hold its position as the leading governing party after she goes.
In her speech, Kramp-Karrenbauer painted a grim scenario of economic decline for Germany in which its companies cease to register patents in 10 years’ time, and young people leave the country complaining of a lack of creativity.
“That could happen, but it doesn’t have to happen,” she said, urging the CDU to back a vision for the future that delivers prosperity “not despite digitalisation but with digitalisation”.
On Kramp-Karrenbauer’s watch, the CDU suffered losses in a May election to the European Parliament and setbacks in regional elections. She described this as “painful” in a speech lasting close to 1-1/2 hours.
“It isn’t and it hasn’t been an easy year,” she said.
An INSA poll on Monday put support for the CDU at 25%, way down from the 32.9% the party won in the 2017 federal election.
Merz has been circling and last month criticised the government’s record as “abysmal”.
But speaking shortly after Kramp-Karrenbauer addressed the conference, he threw his weight behind her and took a swipe at the Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior partners in Merkel’s awkward ‘grand coalition’.
“The Social Democrats are structurally disloyal. We are loyal - to our chairwoman, and to the government,” Merz told delegates.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Alexander Ratz; Editing by Michelle Martin, Frances Kerry and Andrew Heavens