Germany at the crossroads?

Compromises with the hard right AfD led to the resignation of Merkel’s anointed successor. Glyn Ford looks at the next steps for the ruling party

On April 25th the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Emergency Congress was due to elect a new leader after Angela Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned in mid-February as the party struggled to find its way. The post-war dance around the political centre – between the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), on the one hand, and the Social Democrats (SPD) on the other – was finally over. It had been a long time coming as the electorate splintered away from history over the last three decades. First the Greens appeared in the West, then the Left Party dawned again from the ashes of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party and finally the Alternative for Germany (AfD) erupted everywhere. The quandary for the CDU’s leadership was where to find safe harbour in a new world where old maps no longer told the way.

The dilemma was whether to cling to the centre and repel the Green surge, or heft to the right and the AfD. Merkel herself preached and practised the former. To the fury of her conservative colleagues she had welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country as those around her were slamming their doors. Her actions fed the growth of the AfD, a xenophobic party with fascists in it, whose Members of the European Parliament spent 2014-16 in the same group as Cameron’s Tories. The conservatives believe at best their policies on immigration, security and fiscal policy should be tailored to suit AfD voters, and at worst the political quarantining of the AfD itself from the cut and thrust of day to day political manoeuvring should be laid aside. The transformation of theory into practice was October’s election in the former East German state of Thuringia. Here the parties of the Grand Coalition scored barely 30% between them, with a majority of voters going to the two extremes – 31% to the Left Party, 23% to the AfD – leaving the CDU holding the baby in the middle.

For the CDU it was a choice between fascist-lite and the heirs of the Stasi. When the local CDU finally opted to vote with the AfD to elect a state premier from the small, liberal Free Democrats, Merkel said it was “unforgivable”. The vote was re-run with the Left Party’s candidate, Bodo Ramelow, re-elected, but not before Kramp-Karrenbauer had jumped.

Eighteen months earlier in the leadership election, with Merkel’s full backing, she had only beaten Friedrich Merz, the conservative candidate, 52-48. The leadership was now his to lose. Three candidates declared: Merz, the long-time rival of Merkel; Armin Laschet, a Merkel loyalist and state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia; and rank outsider Norbert Röttgen. Yet if, as Harold Wilson said, ‘a week is a long time in politics’, a month is an eternity. Merkel took the first steps to control the spread of coronavirus on March 22nd.

Crisis is the hour for those in power. In the immediate wake of the Thuringia fiasco, both the Economist and the Financial Times were saying it was time for Merkel to go. But Germany has – to date at least – had a rather good pandemic. The combination of a well-funded and well-resourced health service, early intervention and the round mantra of “test, trace, treat” has Germany as a global success story, particularly in the shadow of Italy, Spain and the UK. Now Merkel’s ratings and those of the CDU have soared, taking support and voters from every other party. Inside the right the winners have been Laschet, Jens Spahn, the Health Minister, and the CSU Bavarian state premier Markus Soder. Merz has been stranded by events. Testing positive for Covid-19, he’s been abandoned on the sidelines, blogging his symptoms to an audience that’s stopped listening. The CDU’s Extraordinary Congress has been postponed sine die.

When normal service is finally resumed the new favourite to succeed Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader will be Armin Laschet, particularly with the deal he’s done to run in tandem with Jens Spahn, the gay conservative Health Minister, as his deputy. What is less clear is whether he follows Merkel as Chancellor. The Bavarian CSU, always well to the right of the CDU, has been increasingly restless over Merkel’s social liberalism. While success is a great healer there has never been a CSU Chancellor. It’s that time again. Twice they had candidates: in 1980 when Franz-Josef Strauss lost, and again in 2002 when it was Edmund Stoiber’s turn for failure. Markus Soder now has the opinion polls saying he would be the best candidate to ensure a CDU/CSU victory in the October 2021 federal elections. If that was the outcome Germany would – largely – continue its current domestic trajectory, particularly with a CDU/CSU-Green coalition in Berlin; but in Brussels there would be a demand for a more assertive EU, leaning to the right in terms of security, defence and foreign affairs.

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