Musa Okwonga on why the fight to become Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor will indicate whether Germany will change paths or continue her legacy.
These are pivotal political times for Germany.
Britain, one of its longest-standing political allies, is on its way out of the European Union. America is heading towards its next Presidential Election and the prospect of four more years of regressive rule under Donald Trump looms ever larger. The conflict in Syria somehow seems to have found fresh depths of horror, resulting in the displacement of many more Syrian citizens in the direction of Europe. This turbulence feels like precisely the wrong time for Germany to be undergoing a grand transition of its own and, yet, here we are.
The unexpected decision of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred successor, to step down as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) means that there is now a fresh contest for the leadership of the country. In late 2018, when Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected to this position, there was a widespread sense that Germany would continue on a broadly centrist path, even though Kramp-Karrenbauer was more conservative than Merkel on several social issues.
Now, however, Friedrich Merz – the most vocal figure in the succession race – looks as if he would like to take his party, and therefore Germany, sharply right in both policy and rhetoric.
To do so, Merz aims to target some of the voters of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party, with his reasoning being that, whilst some of that party’s voters are far-right, there are several others who are merely “bourgeois and conservative”. However, judging by the recent elections in Hamburg, there is little indication that many of those voters are desperate for a new home. In that election – the first after the far-right terror attack in Hanau – the party’s turnout remained substantially unchanged: out of a total of around 214,000 votes, it lost a few thousand and gained about the same amount back.
Merz, who lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer by a few dozen votes, has taken little time in setting out his hardline stall. Following the murder of 10 people in Hanau by a far-right extremist who then turned the gun on himself, Merz had the perfect opportunity to call for a thorough investigation of the far-right’s influence in German politics and society. But he didn’t. In a strikingly cynical move, he mentioned far-right extremism, but he also chose that moment to stress the need to deal with criminal gangs and open borders – themes which both play well with voters wary of any more non-white immigrants entering the country.
Time will shortly tell if Merz has caught the prevailing mood. At present, it appears that he may be on to something.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has just pledged €700 million to assist Greece in keeping people who have been displaced by conflicts in Syria and elsewhere away from its borders. Von der Leyen’s move must be read in the context of Merkel’s controversial decision in 2015 to allow almost a million refugees from Syria into Germany. It is no coincidence that, in the three years following, violent far-right attacks in Germany – already occurring at a significant rate – soared beyond those anywhere else in Europe. There is a significant segment of German society that resents Merkel for what she did and Merz knows this all too well.
Yet, there is a different path that the CDU could, and arguably should, take. The party suffered a significant blow to its reputation a few weeks ago when, in a local election, some of its members agreed to an informal coalition with the far-right AFD in order to take power. The site of that election was Thuringia, a place historically significant since it was where the Nazis first took power in the 1930s. The vote was met with an extraordinary backlash: at the elections in Hamburg, the CDU’s vote plummeted, while that of the Green Party doubled in size.
The possibility of a Green Party Chancellor, working in alliance with the left-wing SPD, could be likely and that is why, for the best chance of success at a national level, the CDU might do better to pick Armin Laschet as Merkel’s successor.
He supported Merkel in her decision to admit refugees and has defended her overall record. He has also shown an unwillingness to get drawn into US-style culture wars, dismissing the discussion as to whether Muslim women should be banned from wearing the burqa as “a phony debate”. He is positioning himself as the unity candidate, speaking of the need for cohesion within his party and, to that end, he has taken the step of working with Jens Spahn, a younger and far more conservative figure who is presumably more attractive to the right-wing of the CDU. Spahn, who ran for party leader himself in late 2018, is still only 39 and is probably biding his time before another attempt at the summit.
Laschet seems, at present, to be the most pragmatic choice and if the CDU has learned anything from the Merkel years then it is the value of pragmatism. Merkel’s legacy, though it encompasses many things, is most striking for the way in which she navigated her way to power and then maintained her hold upon it. This is something which Laschet seems to understand and wishes to emulate.
For all of the headline-grabbing comments of Merz in recent months, he must be careful not to generate more heat than light. Regardless of who wins on 25 April, one thing is clear: the next leader of the CDU may be a decisive statement about the future direction of the country.