BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favoured successor was swept into a new storm Tuesday, with her apparent call for limits to free speech around elections stoking further anger rather than putting down a raging youth-led YouTube revolt.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s call for “rules” for online media around election-time came after her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its centre-left coalition partner SPD suffered their worst scores in Sunday’s European parliamentary vote.
The CDU, in particular, had been put on the back foot in the days leading up to the polls as 70 YouTube stars urged voters to punish the party for its failure to take adequate action to halt global warming.
Addressing the debacle on Monday, Kramp-Karrenbauer called for checks on the online influencers, saying that if 70 newspaper editors had made a concerted call to boycott parties ahead of an election, that would be classed “clearly as propaganda”.
“The question is… what are rules from the analogue realm and which rules should apply to the digital realm?”
“I’ll tackle this discussion quite aggressively,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she is dubbed in Germany.
Her comments immediately unleashed a storm with #AKKRuecktritt (AKKresign), #annegate and #AKKgate making up the top three topics trending on Twitter in Germany.
Kramp-Karrenbauer then took to Twitter to defend her comments, saying it was “ridiculous to insinuate that I want to regulate expressions of opinion”.
“Freedom of opinion is a precious value in a democracy.”
“What we have to talk about are rules that apply during elections,” she wrote on Twitter.
But that only fanned the fires, with leading media and political figures reminding her of Article five in the German constitution guaranteeing freedom of opinion, speech and writing.
“With her insulting musings on ‘propaganda’ and control of it, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer confirms the criticism of young YouTubers – and reveals her authoritarian thinking,” said Spiegel Online.
For the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), AKK’s call was “not just nonsense but also a violation of the constitution”.
Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), warned that any attempt at limiting freedom of speech would “definitely not be possible with my party”.
“This is absurd. Nobody would get upset if an actor or an athlete made an election recommendation,” he added.
Merkel herself also dubbed the uproar “absurd.”
“All those I know in the CDU… support the idea of freedom of expression as a basic principle,” she said after an EU leaders summit in Brussels.
Petition to ‘stop the censorship’
Two YouTubers – an 87-year-old called Marmeladenoma and a 29-year-old, HerrNewstime, launched a petition addressed to AKK, telling her to “stop the censorship and attack against freedom of opinion”. By Tuesday afternoon, 32,000 people had signed the petition.
AKK, 56, replaced Merkel as head of the CDU last December and is expected to seek the top job when Merkel’s term ends in 2021.
But her popularity ratings have fallen to close to 20 percentage points behind Merkel’s.
And her latest misadventure has left some wondering if she was suitable to succeed Merkel as Germany’s leader.
CDU heavyweight Armin Laschet on Tuesday also voiced disapproval at AKK’s latest comment – saying that “one could have been smarter in the last few days.”
Within the CDU, Merkel herself came under fire over her environmental policy.
“After the result of these European elections, the CDU should wonder why, after 14 years of the ‘climate chancellor’, we are falling short of our climate goals,” Friedrich Merz, an also-ran in the contest to succeed Merkel, told the Spiegel.
The CDU has been struggling to find a response after it was caught off guard by an almost hour-long blistering attack by online star Rezo, who blamed the centre-right-led coalition for failing to tackle poverty and climate change.
Posted online on May 18, the clip had been viewed 12.7 million times by Tuesday.
Rezo received the backing of the 70 other influential online stars, who two days before the EU polls posted a joint call to shun the CDU, SPD as well as the far-right AfD.
The CDU ended up receiving just 13 percent of the vote among under-30s, compared with the Greens, who garnered three times as many.