5 min read
After Merkel: The CDU’s Identity Crisis?
Gerald F. Hetzel

This week, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) published its programs of policies it will enact, if elected to power in the September elections in Germany. The CDU program is very vague in many areas. For example, it demands the implementation and expansion of pro-climate protection measures, but does not set any concrete goals for practical implementation of these measures. Its economic aspects are particularly ambiguous, perhaps to leave room for negotiations in future coalition talks, as well as to appeal to a broader voting demographic. However, in some key issues, its program is more concrete, as in its details of the importance it attaches to the special relationship and friendship with Israel, which the CDU sees as a key value for Germany's post-WW2 identity and foreign policy. 

The publication of the CDU’s program is of particular importance for Germany's largest party, because it defines the future direction of the party's political values. Furthermore, the significance of the recent publication of the CDU's policy program is even greater since Angela Merkel will no longer be leading Germany and the CDU. After 16 years of leadership, Merkel will retire and not run again for chancellor, so her personality will no longer be a key factor in the CDU’s victories and therefore there is a heightened importance for the party to create a good policy program to clarify its future policies and strengthen its appeal to voters. There is now an open question of what the CDU will stand for in the coming elections and the ambiguity of its election program reflects the compromises that will be necessary for CDU’s post-Merkel future. 

The CDU’s post-Merkel identity crisis was already brewing since 2018, when Merkel stepped down from the party leadership. Traditionally, in the CDU when the party has the chancellery, the chancellor is also the chairman or chairwoman of the party. Merkel, however, wanted to groom a successor to the chancellery, so she supported Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German’s current defense minister and former prime minister of the state of Saarland, to the post of the party chairwoman. Kramp-Karrenbauer was viewed as a symbol of continuation of Merkel’s policies and failed to establish her own profile on the strength of her credentials. She was elected in 2018 by the party's leadership and became the chairwoman of the party, however she later stepped down in 2020 from her leadership of the party, after her approval rating fell and subsequently her standing within the party. Kramp-Karrenbauer´s national approval ratings were unusually low, with only 6% of voters approving of her (after 39% in 2018), and she was quite unpopular with the party’s base. 

Armin Laschet, acting prime minister of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, was elected as CDU party chairman as her replacement. Though Laschet is generally considered to be continuing Merkel´s legacy, he also has his own national profile. Laschet has a reputation of being a unifier, including a broad range of people in his political circle, which is crucial in a party with deep internal divisions. For example, well-known conservative CDU politician and former rival for the leadership of the party, Friedrich Merz supports Laschet, as well as the more left-wing CDU prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, Daniel Günther, highlighting Laschet’s ability to bring together both the right- and left-wing parts of the CDU. 

In general, the CDU has been very successful over the decades by refraining from adoption of any strong ideology or political position, instead, the CDU’s modus operandi has been defined by a combination of conservative and progressive opinions. Merkel’s approach, often called “asymmetrical demobilization”, was to adopt many positions of center-left parties, so that left wing voters do not see a big difference between the CDU and their party and consequently are not motivated to vote in the elections. 

However, this strategy led to a feeling of alienation amongst conservatives over the direction of the party towards the center left, even though they still vote for the party en masse. The far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is not an alternative for most German conservatives, because the AfD is considered too far to the right. Furthermore, as long as the CDU won elections with high margins, this discomfort was mollified. Nevertheless, some say that the conservative critics of the CDU have led to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They contend that this exodus from the CDU was fueled by unpopular progressive decisions taken by CDU-led administrations. These include the shutdown of all nuclear energy plants and the process of cutting coal production, which caused Germany to have the highest electric energy prices in Europe. 

Another factor contributing to conservatives feeling alienated from the CDU was Merkel’s controversial decision to allow the immigration of millions of unregistered refugees to Germany. This was also the main criticism by the AfD toward the CDU government, while all left-wing parties generally supported the idea to allow immigration of refugees into Germany. 

The passions that the immigration debate evoked in Germany caused the murder of Walter Lübcke. Lübcke was the president of a governmental district and a local CDU politician who spoke out publicly to support a controlled and value-based immigration to Germany. His views on immigration led to a surge of hate messages from AfD supporters, and on 2nd June 2019 , he was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. This was the first murder of a politician in Germany since the 1970s and served to demonstrate the high tensions the topic of immigration has evoked. 

Since the rise of the AfD, the CDU has been divided into one camp that strongly supports the center-left policies of Merkel, and another camp that urges the party to have more traditional conservative positions in order to win back voters from the AfD. The state elections of the last 2-3 years showed that both strategies had problems: In Bavaria´s last state election, the CDU´s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) earned its worst result since 1950, while campaigning on a right-wing anti-Merkel program. After this, CSU’s chairman Markus Söder changed many of his policy positions to move towards the left, taking positions similar to Germany’s Green Party. On the other hand, CDU leaders promoting solely progressive positions did not achieve good results either. This can be seen in the case of a local branch of the CDU that performed unusually poorly, with electoral results of 13% this year, after gaining 21% of the vote count in 2019, 33% of the votes in 2014 and 31% in 2009. 

It seems that the best way forward for the CDU is its approach of adopting centrist positions and thus continuing its role as “the people's party”, in other words, an amalgam of political interests and beliefs. The CDU’s strategy of continuing to be an umbrella party for both conservative and progressive positions, has led to an improvement of the CDU’s image amongst the public in recent weeks. When there was public in-fighting between the progressive and the conservative wings of the party, the CDU performed poorly at the polls. After Laschet united both wings by including key figures from both camps in his leadership of the party, such as Friedrich Merz (a more conservative figure) and Norbert Röttgen (a more progressive oriented politician), the CDU has found a way to work together, which could be a reason for the recent improvement in the CDU’s poll numbers. This improvement at the polls for the CDU has occurred even amongst younger voters, who tend to vote for progressive and leftist parties. The polls showed that the CDU was on track to getting the lion’s share of the youth vote in this year's September national elections.

Just a few weeks ago, the parliamentary election in Sachsen-Anhalt brought a surprising result of 37% of the vote going to the CDU (which is 17% higher than the second highest party with 20%). The re-elected CDU prime minister of Sachsen-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, adopted more conservative positions, like rejecting an increase of mandatory TV fees and his support for the conservative CDU wing in the chancellor candidates’ debate, but he was careful to distance himself from the AfD, a party that includes extremist positions. The CDU's success in this election indicated that many voters appreciated the more conservative positions of Haseloff and provided voters in the region with a viable conservative alternative to the AfD. 

The national election in September will determine how things will fare for the CDU and play a large role in determining the direction of the party’s overall political identity. If the CDU wins, the party will be unified in creating the government and the party’s wings will be satisfied with the strategy Laschet pursued. If the party performs poorly at the ballot box and the CDU is outperformed by left-wing parties, the infighting between the CDU’s more liberal and conservative wings may break out again, forcing it to choose a more defined political identity moving forward.

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