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With the upcoming CDU leadership elections set to determine the direction of German politics, Open Europe's Zoe Alipranti examines the three main candidates and what is at stake in the battle
04 December 2018
1,001 CDU members are set to elect a new leader in the CDU Party Congress on the 7th of December following Angela Merkel’s decision in October to step down as CDU leader. The two strongest contenders in the leadership battle are Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), CDU General Secretary who is seen as Merkel’s ideological ally and dubbed as mini-Merkel by the German press, and Friedrich Merz, a businessman with a longstanding grudge against Merkel after losing the parliamentary leadership to her in 2002. The third prominent candidate lagging behind them in polls is Health Minister Jens Spahn, situated in the more conservative anti-Merkel camp. AKK is the candidate most likely to win, being most popular among CDU members. She is now also more popular among CDU voters; in a CDU voter survey, she came across as the most “credible” and “sympathetic,” and polled highest in the category “represents the interests of the everyday citizen.”Despite his initial lead among the CDU members, Merz’s disclosure of the 1 million euros he earns yearly and his claim that he was upper middle class received a lot of criticism and placed him in a permanent second position in most polls.
The leadership race comes during a critical period in German politics, where major political realignments have seen a steep decline for the establishment parties, the CDU and SPD. CDU percentage fell by 8.6% in the 2017 elections and a November 2018 poll showed unprecedentedly low numbers for the Christian Democrats (27%, compared to 33.8 and 35% in 2013 and 2009). This trend has been accompanied by a breakthrough of two other forces in German politics, specifically the populist far right Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) and the centre-left Greens. As identity politics and immigration have seeped into German political landscape and made it more fragmented, the CDU has to confront a significant strategic dilemma. With the simultaneous rise of two parties articulating diametrically opposed views, the future CDU leader will be called to preside over the fractured German political scene and challenges at the European level. Indeed, the main feature of German politics is polarisation, as Leopold Traugott has pointed out in previous blog entries.
One of the central issues that CDU leadership candidates are grappling with is the challenge of immigration. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders in 2015 fuelled anti-immigration sentiment and led to the rise of the far right party AfD. Spahn, an admirer of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, became an outspoken critic of immigration and Merz has promised to win back at least half CDU voters who defected to the AfD over disillusionment with Merkel’s immigration policy.
To regain terrain ceded to AfD, Merz previously questioned the asylum provision enshrined in the German constitution, but backtracked after the backlash his statement sparked and claimed he merely suggested a greater alignment of German with European asylum policy. He has since tried to delicately recast his views on immigration, stating that he does not intend to steer the party in a more right-wing direction and instead wants to open up discussion on issues that had been neglected in the past years. However, Merz has made the pledge to recapture AfD votes very a pronounced part of his campaign. This triggered a stark response by AKK who declared that the CDU has stood against the hostility, deliberate poisoning of the political climate and in part open hate speech that the AfD has brought to German politics.
AKK has articulated a position similar to Merkel’s, endorsing the 2015 decision, whilst emphasising the need to move on and address immigration through a European framework. Calling for “flexible solidarity”, she boldly stated that populists should not be feared and European states should maximise cooperation to create an effective framework. However, she has insisted that refugees should learn the language and adopt the values of country they move to. AKK has also been trying to push forward other issues such as housing and education policies that tend to get less press coverage.
Although AKK is projected to win the leadership race, domestic opposition by the AfD is unlikely to abate on immigration, due to AfD popularity in some areas of East Germany. However, it must be stressed that the recent regional losses that the CDU has suffered were inflicted by voters who turned from the Christian Democrats to Greens. Adopting hard anti-immigration rhetoric could only further alienate these voters and perpetuate the loss of votes to the Greens.
Although CDU politics is becoming more inward looking, the future of the European project remains important in the CDU agenda due to the prominent role of Germany in Europe. All three candidates broadly subscribe to the two main pillars of Christian Democratic foreign policy, namely the twin commitment to the EU and the trans-Atlantic relationship. Macron’s ambitious proposals for a stronger EU have not been warmly received by Merkel and it is unlikely that any of the potential successors will push for closer economic integration in areas that involve risk sharing between Eurozone members. Moreover, it must be underlined that, in contrast to Macron who ran his campaign on a European platform, none of the CDU leadership candidates has articulated a grand European vision with concrete proposals.
Merz believes that Germany has the greatest responsibility for European cooperation, claiming that the EU has been a vehicle for German prosperity in a time of growing competition. “Germans have to become faster and better and that’s only possible with our European partners,” he said. However his conservative credentials make it improbable that he’ll want to take on ambitious Eurozone reform measures, particularly when the Hanseatic League is emerging as a powerful alliance against Macron’s Eurozone proposals. Kramp Karrenbauer is a Francophile and is likely to show greater acceptance to Macron’s plan than the others, but is as likely as Merkel to water down plans that contain far-reaching ambitions. Although both she and Merz have come out in favour of a European army, the pledge seems more rhetorical than actual substance. German politicians have tended to make remarks in favour of a European army, but in practice evince limited appetite for that, as the brakes put on recent PESCO negotiations highlights. Merz has also called for a reduction of NATO spending targets. Spahn has openly positioned himself against a European army.
The broader picture that emerges from the leadership contest is that two potential paths lie ahead. The election of AKK would mark continuity with the path Merkel forged that made the CDU a party of the centre. AKK appeals to conservative family values and espouses socially conservative positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, but also champions workers rights and appears to have a liberal immigration stance in the CDU spectrum. The widely held perception of similarity with Merkel may prove a liability, with Der Spiegel having expressed the CDU yearning for something new in February, but the way this will affect Kramp Karrenbauer’s political career remains unknown. Even if AKK wins and effectively continues the status quo, are there deeper structural problems that the CDU must address to shore up its power?
On the other hand, Merz or Spahn would pursue a more traditional, conservative path that would take the party further to the right. Ultimately, this leadership battle is about the Christian Democrats evaluating the success of Merkel’s premiership and deciding whether to preserve the centrist course that the party embarked on in the last years. Importantly, this will occur in the most polarised political environment Germany has seen since 1945 with a lingering lack of consensus about a way forward.
There have only been three CDU leaders since 1973, increasing interest in this leadership battle due to the longevity of CDU leaders’ time in office. Helmut Kohl served as German Chancellor from 1982 to 1998 and Angela Merkel has served since 2005, leading the party since 2000, with Wolfgang Scauble briefly holding the post in-between their reigns. Also, in contrast to leadership elections usually taking place behind closed doors, this time the process is more open to the public, with the candidates holding public debates in 8 states.
Domestic politics has become tumultuous in Germany and this new, fractured German political landscape will remain challenging regardless of who the future CDU leader is. However, the leadership race will not have far-reaching implications for German policy in Europe, given the fragile domestic consensus that Germany faces and the lack of a German European vision.