Angela Merkel's favored candidate for successor to the Christian Democratic Union in Germany promised a new chapter in the party's history as the Merkel era came to an end.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she would build on the legacy of Mrs. Merkel and said that politicians always "stood on the shoulders of their predecessors". However, she distanced herself from the Chancellor and described the performance of the great coalition government of Mrs. Merkel in recent months as "a leaden time", after which the CDU members felt frustrated, worried and unsure.
"An era is over, and now we have to start a new chapter and regain our strength with new themes and a new style," she told the reporters gathering on Wednesday to witness the launch of their campaign.
Mrs. Merkel shocked Germany last week when she announced that she would resign as CDU president after a disastrous election campaign by the party in the elections in Hesse.
Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as "AKK", is one of twelve candidates who competed at the next conference of the party in Hamburg in December for the succession of Mrs. Merkel. This makes them an unpredictable and democratic choice for the job in CDU history.
However, the competition is essentially based on a three-horse race in which Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer competed against Friedrich Merz, a competitor of Ms Merkel, formerly of the CDU parliamentary group, and Minister of Health Jens Spahn. Both men are conservative and are supported by the CDU members, who are annoyed at how Ms. Merkel has put her at the center of German politics.
Ms. Merkel has said she would like to remain Chancellor until her fourth term officially ends in 2021. But few in Berlin believe that she can keep her job if either Merz or Spahn are elected party leader.
Unlike the two male candidates, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer is considered a Merkel loyalist, sharing her liberal views. She said Wednesday that Ms. Merkel should remain Chancellor as long as she has a majority in the Bundestag.
Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former Prime Minister of tiny Saarland on the French border, was appointed Secretary-General of the CDU by Mrs Merkel in February. The 56-year-old quickly embarked on a large audio tour of the country, making more than 40 meetings with local CDU associations and working on a new political manifesto for the party.
She promised that if elected, she would introduce more domestic democracy and ensure that the CDU plays a more active role in shaping government policy. This was a weak blow to Mrs. Merkel, who was often accused of committing her party with reckless behavior.
She said political decisions had been taken too often by the government and presented to the party members as an accomplished fact. "This way of doing things does not fit with the times we live in now," she said. "We have to change the process."
She also distanced herself from the other two main candidates, in particular from Mr Spahn, who sharply criticized the criticism of Ms Merkel's immigration policy. He has often said that it is a mistake to keep Germany's borders open at the height of the 2015-16 refugee crisis, which has led to an influx of more than one million migrants to the country.
"What happened in 2015 is reality and fact and can not be reversed," said Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, adding that people wanted answers to specific problems – such as sending refugees back to crime.
She said many Germans felt insecure and had lost confidence in a strong state – and that needed to be addressed. In an excavation with Mr. Spahn she said: "They do not restore people's belief in law and order with shrill tones, but with real guidelines."