The popular female premier of tiny Saarland state is set to take over as secretary general of Angela Merkel's conservative party, sources said Monday, fuelling speculation the chancellor is lining up her potential successor.
Merkel is expected to tap Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to take the reins from close ally Peter Tauber, who at the weekend said he was stepping down for health reasons.
The announcement will be made at a meeting of top brass from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party later on Monday, sources close to the party told AFP.
The move would boost the national profile of Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, whose star has been rising in recent months as she played a key role in the tough coalition negotiations with the centre-left Social Democrats.
"And so Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer send the first clear signal in the debate about Merkel's succession in four years' time at the latest," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.
The daily said the two women had agreed "months ago" that AKK should take over from Tauber, who reportedly indicated even before September's general election that he wanted to step down over his struggles with an intestinal illness.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed the "Merkel of Saarland" by German media, is expected to be formally appointed to the top role at a CDU congress on February 26.
The change-over comes as Merkel, in power for over 12 years, is under fire within her party over the concessions she made to seal another loveless "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats (SPD) -- with the loss of the powerful finance ministry portfolio a particularly bitter blow.
By appointing one of her closest confidantes to a top CDU role, Merkel is also responding to critics who have been calling for fresh faces to reinvigorate the party after the disappointing September election.
The hard-fought coalition deal struck with Social Democrats must still be approved by the SPD's 460,000 members. The result of the postal ballot is expected on March 4.
The outcome is considered wide open, as the SPD's youth and left wings are fiercely opposed to another term governing in Merkel's shadow.
Merkel herself has been badly weakened by her lengthy struggles to form a new government and media are openly speculating that she may not complete a full fourth term as chancellor even if the SPD rank-and-file give the thumbs up.