FILE - Germany's Christian Democratic party's, CDU, general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gives a statement in Berlin, Oct. 28, 2018.
FILE - Germany's Christian Democratic party's, CDU, general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gives a statement in Berlin, Oct. 28, 2018.

The German chancellor’s protege, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is seeking to step out from her mentor’s shadow and shed her "mini-Merkel" nickname, saying she wants to restore voters’ sense of belonging to a German homeland.

“An era has come to an end. We need to work out a way for people here to feel at home,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said this week as she launched her leadership bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chair of the ruling Christian Democrats, or CDU.

Merkel announced last week she would step down as party leader in December, ending a two-decade era during which she moved Germany’s most powerful party from the right of the political spectrum to more to the center. Her decision followed two regional elections in which the CDU and its center-right allies, as well as the left-leaning Social Democrats, suffered their worst election reversals in decades, benefiting the Greens and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Kramp-Karrenbauer's comments came in the wake of an opinion poll that suggests a majority of Germans feels like strangers in their own country, primarily because of immigration. According to a survey conducted for Leipzig University, one in three Germans thinks the state has been “overwhelmed by foreigners to a dangerous degree.”

Doubts Merkel will finish term

The influx of 1.6 million refugees and migrants since 2014 is widely seen as having doomed Merkel’s fourth term in office. She plans to finish her term as chancellor, due to end in 2021, but there are rising doubts whether she will manage to do so. Many observers don’t expect her "grand coalition" government to survive amid mounting signs that the Social Democrats may decide to walk out of the fraying governing alliance next year.

German Chancellor and chairwoman of the German Chr
FILE - German Chancellor and chairwoman of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel, right, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, left, secretary general of the CDU, talk at meeting in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 4, 2018.

A poll published by the newspaper Bild this week shows growing impatience with Merkel’s decision to stay on as chancellor, with 62 percent saying she should give way for a successor and step down by the end of the year.

Kramp-Karrenbauer has been groomed by Merkel, who plucked her in February from the region of Saarland, bordering France and Luxembourg, where she served as chief minister, to make her the CDU’s general secretary. She has been slower off the mark than her chief rivals for the party chair job. One-thousand CDU delegates will choose their new leader at a party congress in Hamburg early next month.

Kramp-Karrenbauer is considered the most liberal of the contenders and the most in tune with Merkel’s centrism. So her acknowledgement on the importance of a "sense of belonging" is being seen as an appeal to more conservative party activists, who have long chafed at Merkel’s march to the center and her wooing of Social Democrat voters.

‘Conservative disrupter’

A devout Catholic, she will need to court all sections of the party if she is to beat her biggest threat, Friedrich Merz, a politician-turned-businessman and an old Merkel rival. The 62-year-old Merz left active politics in 2009 for a lucrative career in business and finance after losing to Merkel. He has been a conservative darling, fondly remembered by them for arguing that immigrants should assimilate and adopt German culture. He is seen as unpredictable and has been labeled a "conservative disrupter" by the German press.

FILE - German conservative Friedrich Merz arrives
FILE - German conservative Friedrich Merz arrives for a news conference about his candidacy to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democrats, in Berlin, Germany, Oct. 31, 2018.

The combative Merz for years rejected any idea of a return to frontline politics, and his announcement last week that he would seek the party leadership wasn’t something Merkel had expected, her aides acknowledge. It has also transformed a predictable contest between the clear front-runner, Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Health Minister Jens Spahn, seen as an also-ran.

According to business newspaper Handelsblatt, Merz would change the CDU, turning it into the “party of law and order instead of friendly selfies with asylum-seekers - the party of churchgoers, entrepreneurs, and, above all, the party of men.” Most German commentators accept as inevitable that if Merz is elected, it would be impossible for Merkel to finish her term.

Merz has taken an early lead in the race to succeed Merkel; but, he has disappointed some on the right for praising European Union reform plans advocated by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, which would see the bloc more tightly integrated, and for arguing that Germany must do more to keep the EU together.

“We have to tell the people in this country that the Germans have to contribute more than others to the success of the European Union,” Merz said at an event held by a research group this past week. “We have to do more than we are actually doing because if Europe fails - and this is a clear option, no one can deny it, Europe is really at the threshold at the moment - if Europe fails, the Germans will be those who suffer most from that,” he added.