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Merkel’s Party at a Crossroads: Stay Middle of the Road or Turn Hard Right?

With Bundestag elections in September, Carlo Moll asks how Germany’s Christian Democratic Union will respond to the split between its centrist establishment and right-wing base

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa-Pool/dpa

Merkel’s Party at a Crossroads Stay Middle of the Road or Turn Hard Right?

With Bundestag elections in September, Carlo Moll asks how Germany’s Christian Democratic Union will respond to the split between its centrist establishment and right-wing base

Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign is coming to an end. Now, with September’s national Bundestag elections fast approaching, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is facing a moment of change. 

Her successor as party chairman, Armin Laschet, is a Rhinelander with an affable air reminiscent of Helmut Kohl. He has a solidly centrist record in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia where he has governed for four years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

The CDU has recently enjoyed a bounce in the polls, in part because its strongest competitors the Greens have faced some public embarrassments. These include a series of inaccuracies in their chairwoman’s official vita and a muddled book publication marred by accusations of plagiarism.

But despite this, Merkel’s party appears tired and uninspired. 

Ideological Vacuity

Laschet represents a familiar business-as-usual continuity of Merkel’s supremely pragmatic strategy of asymmetric demobilisation. It’s no surprise then that the political programme he presented to the public really offers no surprises. 

Indeed, it would seem that under Laschet, the CDU will continue to be an ideological free-for-all. It will be both union and business-friendly; pro-European and understanding of Russia; in favour of higher defence spending, and against conscription; welcoming to refugees, but against illegal migration. 

The CDU’s leadership may have settled comfortably into a left-of-centre autopilot-mode. In doing so, it secures moderate results in the polls, in the provinces and among its base.

But elsewhere, the CDU is quietly transforming into another force. One that is more conservative, populist and amorphous than Berlin. 

This development has produced a range of figures who are likely to shape the CDU’s politics in the future. In fact, they may well force Chancellor Laschet off the fence when it comes to questions of economic, domestic, social and foreign policy.  

A New Force

The most prominent conservative politician to have re-emerged in German national politics is Friedrich Merz. 

After having twice failed in his bid for party chairmanship against competitors in Merkel’s mould, Merz has staged a comeback as candidate for the Bundestag in his home district in rural North-Rhine Westphalia. Having occupied the seat from 1994 until 2009, it is now likely he will win again. 

Merz has long been considered Merkel’s arch-rival. He is fiscally conservative, a national security-hardliner and economically liberal. He has been especially vocal in his criticism of the Government’s migration policies. This, along with attacks on so-called gendered speech has become a hot-button issue for the party’s base. 

Taking this stance brings Merz closer to the former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service Hans-Georg Maaßen. 

The controversial conservative firebrand is now running for the Bundestag in the Eastern state of Thuringia. This is in spite of party HQ in Berlin pleading for a more moderate candidate. 

Maaßen prides himself as an expert on migration questions, having drafted Germany’s asylum laws after the country’s unification. However, he was sacked following statements in which he denied the occurrence of race riots in the east German city of Chemnitz in 2018. 

Establishment vs Base

It’s no surprise that Maaßen is emerging onto the electoral scene in East Germany, where the CDU’s transformation into a party of conservative revivalism and populist folklore is most noticeable. 

In the state of Saxony, the party has already rebranded itself regionally as The Saxon Union, seeking to occupy emotive populist buzzwords such as Heimat while keeping a notable distance from Berlin and Brussels. 

Similarly, in the neighbouring state of Saxony-Anhalt, the CDU’s Reiner Hasselhof recently won state-wide elections having lambasted left-wing identity politics, criticised Merkel’s refugee policies and the so-called ‘Berlin bubble’. He did this while cultivating an everyman-image at home that has made him one of the most popular east German faces in his party. 

Outside of Berlin, the CDU is more and more taking a traditional, liberal-conservative line – mixed with populist rhetoric on migration and the expulsion of people seeking asylum. In doing so, it seeks to attract voters lost to the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). 

Perhaps the most visible transformation of the CDU into a party of this conservative base came in April, when Markus Söder briefly contested Laschet’s claim to succeed Merkel as Chancellor. Söder is the Minister-President of Bavaria and chairman of CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The CSU has a right-wing populist streak that combines free-market economics, Catholicism and social conservatism with anti-communism and social welfare.

His challenge allegedly gained the support of a majority of Union MPs in the Bundestag. 

This Bavarian-led takeover of the CDU could only be averted through a hasty, late-night election among the party’s top brass. But while unsuccessful, it demonstrated that Laschet does not enjoy the support of the CDU base.

What Next for Germany’s Political Centre?

The cognitive dissonance between the party’s conservative base in the east and south of Germany, and its centrist leadership in Berlin, is likely to shape the party for years to come and has become increasingly noticeable. 

The magazine Der Spiegel recently claimed the CDU is afraid of a conservative Tea Party movement among its base. Other large daily newspapers, such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung have joined in the chorus. 

To assess the future of the party, it is useful to take a look at the recent history of the Republican Party in the US. 

In 2008, Senator John McCain entered the race as a party insider, following the long, eight-year reign of President George W. Bush. 

Like Laschet, McCain was a candidate with a compelling personal story and a long career in public service. But because he did not speak the populist language of a radicalised base, he needed a more conservative running mate to compensate for a perceived lack of ideological credibility. He found it in Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, whose folksy, populist style was an early, though more rural harbinger of Trumpism. 

Laschet’s more cerebral and refined version of Palin is represented by Merz. The latter has become the CDU’s designated economic expert and is predicted to receive an important ministerial office should the Party retain the Chancellery in September. 

However, should the CDU lose to the Greens, its conservative wing will likely seek to topple Laschet. This could re-shift the party to the right, with Merz poised to take over as chairman. 

Even if Laschet wins the Chancellery, he will still be faced with charismatic conservative deputies seeking to pressure him on key policy issues dear to the right-wing base but which are anathema to the party establishment. 

The CDU is transforming into a Party with a split personality. Laschet will find it hard to tame its conservative elements until, like the USA’s GOP, it might ultimately fall prey to the allures of right-wing populism.

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