HAMBURG, Germany — ‘She is a moderate centrist with a humble leadership style and wry sense of humor. She does not boast. But she has a track record of forging unlikely consensus — and winning elections.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the new leader of Germany’s most powerful political party and likely future chancellor, sounds a lot like the current one. That is her greatest strength and her greatest weakness as she prepares to take over from Chancellor Angela Merkel, a towering figure both loved and loathed inside her party and her country.
Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union announced its new leader on Friday after a closely watched vote by party delegates who chose from a list of three candidates: Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer and two men who had vowed to take the party to the right.
At a time when voters elsewhere in Europe and the world are clamoring for radical change and are turning to populist — and often male — leaders promising easy answers to complex global problems, Germany’s biggest party on Friday opted for the opposite: a woman succeeding another woman with a nuanced political program that above all represents continuity and stability.
In one sense Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory over her two male rivals was an endorsement of Ms. Merkel’s liberal legacy — and a mandate to preserve it.
But it was an unusually narrow win. With nearly half the votes backing candidates who were openly critical of Ms. Merkel, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer will have to work hard to differentiate herself from the chancellor — and to emerge from her shadow.
“I have read a lot recently about what I am and who I am: Mini. A copy. Simply ‘more of the same,’” she said Friday in an impassioned appeal. “Delegates, I stand before you as the person I am, the person who life has shaped me to be, and I am proud of that.”
“I stand here as the mother of three children, who knows firsthand how difficult it can be to combine family and a career,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “I stand here as a former interior minister, as education minister, as social affairs minister, as a governor, someone who over 18 years served her state and the people in her state.”
She continued, “In these 18 years I learned what it means to lead, and that leadership depends more on inner strength than on the strength of your voice.”
Her fans see Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose unwieldy name is routinely shortened to A.K.K. in the German news media, as having the right mix of liberalism and conservatism to unite a restive party base.
Her policies and life story offer a mix of views with appeal both to voters who like the more modern image Ms. Merkel has given the party and to those who hark back to its more socially conservative Christian roots.
A Roman Catholic who married at 22, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is the main breadwinner in her family; her husband stopped working to help raise their three sons. But she voiced opposition to same-sex marriage even after Ms. Merkel softened her stance.
Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer had supported Ms. Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome a million migrants to Germany. But she adopted a tougher position in handling the roughly 7,000 refugees who arrived in her tiny home state of Saarland, drawing national attention.
“She is able to maintain the Christian Democrats as a centrist party that includes people from different ends of the spectrum,” said Daniel Günther, the governor of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, who voted for her.
On Friday, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who once posed as a cleaning lady during Carnival, joking that she had been “given a shift to clean up” in Berlin, vowed to do just that.
“For me there is no conservative and liberal party, not one that is pro-economy or pro-workers, not one for the East and one for the West,” she said Friday to loud cheers. “For me, there is only the one union, the Christian Democratic Union, that is our family.”
But many of the party’s more conservative and economically pro-market members openly worried about a rift. They had set their hopes on Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s main rival, Friedrich Merz, to change the direction of the party and eventually, the country. An outspoken millionaire and former rival of Ms. Merkel’s, Mr. Merz had promised to restore the party’s conservative values and lure back voters from the far-right party Alternative for Germany. Some delegates told of grass-roots members who had threatened to leave the Christian Democratic Union if Mr. Merz did not win.
Carsten Linnemann, head of the party’s economic association, predicted, “We will now see a split.”
Others worried that Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer simply lacked the political capital needed to bridge divides.
Ms. Merkel has called herself a longtime “admirer” of Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer. But political analysts argue that seeing her simply as a younger version of Ms. Merkel sells short a woman admired for her own political acumen.
In her home state, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has led coalitions with various parties, from the free-market Free Democrats to the Social Democrats, before becoming the Christian Democrats’ general secretary earlier this year. As party leader, she is on course to become the party’s candidate for chancellor during the next general election, scheduled for 2021.
There is no guarantee that Ms. Merkel’s fragile governing coalition with the center-left Social Democrats will survive that long, but Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s election has made it more likely.
“It shows that there is a great continuity in German politics,” said Armin Laschet, the premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s biggest state. “There is no fundamental wish to change things.”
And, he said, it sends a “strong signal” to women to have another woman succeed Ms. Merkel.
Hours earlier, Ms. Merkel gave her final speech as party leader, marking the end of an era. “I wasn’t born as chancellor and party leader,” Ms. Merkel said, as party members in the audience waved signs reading, “Thank you Ms. Chairwoman.”
“I am filled with one overwhelming feeling: a sense of gratitude,” Ms. Merkel said. “It was a great joy and a great honor for me.”
“The question will be whether we are willing to leave our comfort zone and have the courage to do what the people of this country are waiting for,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer said, before ending on an optimistic note: “We can do this. We want this. And we will do this, if that is what you want.”