The rise and fall of Merkel's 'mini-me'

Michelle FITZPATRICK
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Merkel's onetime protegee in the end found it impossible to operate as the CDU's nominal leader when her mentor still held the chancellorship

In the end, the "mini Merkel" nickname was perhaps too big to live up to.

Barely a year after replacing her mentor as head of Germany's CDU party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has thrown in the towel -- unexpectedly upending Chancellor Angela Merkel's succession plans.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, best known by her initials "AKK", said she was standing down as CDU leader and would not seek to become the centre-right party's new chancellor in a general election slated for next year.

She said her stint as party leader had been "a difficult time" as mainstream parties grapple to respond to the rise of the far right.

It's a swift fall from grace for AKK, whose spell in the spotlight was marred by high-profile blunders and weak showings by the CDU in regional polls.

A political fiasco in the small state of Thuringia last week cast further doubt on her leadership skills and proved the final blow.

Not only did AKK fail to persuade rebellious CDU lawmakers there against siding with the far-right AfD in a key vote, she couldn't get them to back snap polls afterwards in the face of nationwide outrage.

Merkel had to weigh in from South Africa to condemn the vote as "unforgivable" -- breaking an unwritten rule not to comment on domestic rows from abroad.

Even before the Thuringia debacle, critics had long argued that AKK, who is also defence minister, had not lived up to expectations.

"She acted and manoeuvred in such clumsy ways that she must have realised herself: this can't go on," the centre-left Tagesspiegel wrote.

- Rival Merz -

A popular premier in her tiny home state of Saarland, the Catholic mum-of-three was catapulted into the big leagues in early 2018 when Merkel tapped her to become the CDU's number two as general secretary.

The move was read as a sign that the veteran chancellor was preparing her exit and AKK, dubbed "mini Merkel" by German media, was the chosen heir to continue her centrist policies.

When Merkel later announced she was stepping down as party chief after 18 years and would not seek reelection when her fourth term ends in 2021, it was her protegee who took the reins of the CDU in December 2018.

But AKK, 57, only narrowly fended off a strong challenge from the ambitious Friedrich Merz, an old Merkel rival backed by the CDU's more conservative and pro-business wings.

Once in the job, AKK sought to carve out her own profile in a party thirsty for change after years of Merkel's moderate course in a loveless coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats.

She championed a tougher stance on asylum seekers and floated the idea of reintroducing compulsory military service. She also spoke out against gay marriage.

But Merkel's decision to abandon the party leadership while staying on as chancellor made it difficult for AKK to impose her authority.

In an implicit rebuke, AKK on Monday said the separation of the roles was "weakening the CDU" and the same person should hold both positions in future.

- Gaffes -

AKK's standing in the party was badly weakened by a string of bruising elections, particularly in eastern Germany's former communist states where the CDU bled support to the anti-immigrant AfD.

Several blunders further eroded confidence in her ability to turn the tide.

A transgender bathroom joke backfired badly, while an ill-judged retort to a YouTube star's criticism of the government's climate policies left her looking out of touch.

Born into a large, Catholic family, AKK grew up a self-described nerd who adored reading and never dared to cut class.

She married Helmut Karrenbauer in 1984, the same year she started her studies in law and political science.

The couple have three children and AKK has paid tribute to her husband for being a stay-at-home father so she could climb the ladder.

A keen participant in her region's annual carnival celebrations, AKK is famous for performing a comedy routine dressed up as "cleaning lady Gretel" who pokes fun at the political bigwigs in Berlin.

She has no plans to reprise the role at next week's festivities.