Merkel heir faces widespread criticism after proposal to regulate online opinion

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, chairwoman of Germany's Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) attends a news conference in Berlin, Germany, on Monday. — Reuters

BBERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel's heir apparent faced criticism from across Germany's political spectrum on Tuesday after she called for rules about expressing online opinions before elections in response to a YouTube video that criticized her party.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who replaced Merkel as leader of the ruling CDU last year, denied she was promoting censorship after her comments, which were prompted by a YouTube video by a popular 26-year-old blogger named Rezo.

Germany's two main parties were both hammered in an election for the European Parliament over the weekend, with voters under the age of 30 in particular largely deserting the conservative CDU and its Social Democratic coalition partners, the SPD.

In the video, seen by millions ahead of the vote, Rezo called on voters to reject the two parties for betraying the young by not addressing the climate crisis.

"I asked myself what would be the response in this country if say 70 newspapers issued a joint appeal two days before the election, saying: 'Don't vote CDU or SPD.'" Kramp-Karrenbauer, widely known by her initials AKK, told reporters on Monday.

"That would have been clear propagandizing before the election, and I believe it would have unleashed a lively debate," she added. "So the question remains: what are the rules from the analog era and how do they apply in the digital era?"

She later defended her remarks: "It is absurd to assume that I want to regulate opinions," she tweeted. "But what we have to talk about are the rules that apply during election campaigns."

Political opponents and allies alike responded with a mix of outrage and surprise. Armin Laschet, a fellow conservative who leads North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany's largest state, quoted the free speech clause of Germany's constitution in a speech.

"Seventy years old but still just right for YouTube. The constitution protects freedom of opinion in all media," he said, according to a tweet from his staff.

The leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, tweeted: "I can hardly believe it... On the contrary, we need more open debate - on social media too."

Niema Movassat, a lawmaker with the far-left Linke, tweeted that Kramp-Karrenbauer's comments were "an attack on freedom of opinion" and added that she "should resign immediately."

Germany does not have restrictions on publishing opinions in newspapers ahead of an election, although it does require broadcasters to be politically balanced.

Kramp-Karrenbauer's victory last December in a tight race to succeed Merkel as leader of the CDU put the 56-year-old in pole position to become Germany's next chancellor.

But she has since made a series of gaffes that have raised questions about her suitability to become chancellor once Merkel relinquishes the post, which she plans to hold onto until 2021.

In March, Kramp-Karrenbauer drew sharp criticism from her Social Democrat coalition partners for poking fun at trans-gender people in a light-hearted carnival speech.

In February, she was ridiculed for addressing a high-profile meeting of her conservative CDU party by calling them Social Democrats.

In an opinion piece in its online edition on Tuesday, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote: "Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is making so many mistakes that her suitability as chancellor must be in doubt." — Reuters