German CDU struggles with Angela Merkel's legacy

20 September 2022
 German CDU struggles with Angela Merkel's legacy

Germany's largest opposition party has seen its fortunes rise again lately. But, with the shadow of the last chancellor still hanging over it, what is the conservative party's plan to return to power?

Hobby pilot Friedrich Merz has been a member of the CDU since 1972 and party chairman since 2022

Virtually all of Germany knows what CDU chairman Friedrich Merz did in early July, because the press covered it with no little enthusiasm: The leader of the center-right Christian Democrats piloted his own little silver plane to the wedding of Finance Minister Christian Lindner on the beautiful North Sea island of Sylt.

It was a show in keeping with the 66-year-old's image: A well-heeled conservative capitalist enjoying the fruits of his long non-political career as a lobbyist for multinational investment funds.

Though it might have gone down well with the delegates, Merz did not repeat the entrance when his party gathered in Hanover, central Germany, on Friday for its latest party conference.

Merz was in a fighting spirit as he welcomed the 1,000 delegates. He described the current chairman described the current federal government as "probably one of the weakest of all time."

Conservatives flying high
That was probably why Merz was anxious to appear on the right side of the ecological debate in recent interviews with public broadcasters: He claimed that his propellor plane uses less gasoline than the chancellor's government car (something fact-checkers disputed). True or not, it was a neat encapsulation of the message the CDU is hoping to send right now: You can have your cake and fly it: Ecological concessions do not mean affluent Germans need to give up their luxuries.

The private plane episode perhaps also illustrates how the CDU is still finding the right line to tread as an opposition party in the post-Merkel era. It's an unfamiliar situation for the conservatives. Easily the most successful party in post-war German history, the CDU has now found itself out of government for the first time in 16 years.

The first year of opposition has not been bad: Currently leading in national opinion polls, the CDU has also won two of the last three state elections: In Schleswig-Holstein and in North Rhine-Westphalia. The next of these, in Lower Saxony, is only a month away and is looking a little tighter than many expected: The incumbent Social Democrat State Premier Stephan Weil is only three points ahead of the CDU — which no doubt explains why his CDU opponent Bernd Althusmann is hosting the CDU party conference in the state capital Hanover.

Where is the CDU now?
But some suspect that the CDU's recent successes are relatively superficial. "The fact that the CDU is doing better in the opinion polls has, in my opinion, more to do with the weaknesses of the governing coalition, rather than the idea that the CDU has already made a big transformation," Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing Academy for Political Education in Bavaria, told DW.

Uwe Jun, a politics professor at Trier University, is similarly unconvinced: "The party is still processing the legacy of Angela Merkel," he told DW. "Especially at party level, you see they're still asking: Where do we want to go? What are our mid- and long-term aims? We still don't know what the party's programmatic foundations will look like in the future."

The shadow of Germany's last chancellor is still hanging over the current political situation as well as the CDU: After all, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz pointed out in a fiery parliamentary speech this week, it was Merkel's CDU that largely shaped Germany's energy policy and made the country more dependent on Russian fossil fuels (an argument somewhat undermined by the fact that Scholz's SPD party was in three of her four Cabinets).

Finding the right critical notes
Of course, there are a lot of justifiable criticisms to make about the contradictions and internal strife in the Scholz government, said Münch. "But a large part of the problems that the government has now are things that have grown out of the energy transition (started by the last government), which was handled very amateurishly," she said. "Those things can't only be blamed on this government. And I think that is handicapping the opposition."

Indeed, the CDU's actual criticism of Scholz's policies has been relatively restrained: On Ukraine, for example, the party largely accepted the German government's position, though Merz did call for quicker arms exports to Ukraine — as many did in the early months of Russia's invasion. He also traveled to Kyiv to show his support before the chancellor did so. And the CDU did vote in favor of the constitutional adjustment that allowed the government to borrow extra money toinvest €100 billion into the German military. "If the CDU hadn't agreed to that it would have been a massive humiliation for Scholz," said Jun.

On energy policy and the government relief packages, however, the CDU has been a little more aggressive. In his recent interview with public broadcaster ARD, Merz said the government was right to help pensioners and students, but he argued that payment of €1,000 for low-income earners would have been more effective than a few hundred euros for everybody.

He also said the government had "not offered any answer whatsoever to the question of where power would come from in the next weeks and months." He later described the government's decision only to extend the lives of Germany's last two nuclear power stations in an emergency as "completely absurd."

The CDU's women problem
While it figures out how best to attack the government, Germany's leading center-right party has some internal business to attend to: At this weekend's party conference, the party will decide whether to introduce a female quota into its leadership positions — something already standard in other mainstream German parties.

The vote appears to be on a knife edge, and it is notable the party has declined to let its membership — who are on average over 60 years old, nearly 75% men, and mainly rural — make the decision. The vote has been restricted to the thousand or so delegates at the conference. It is a key question that might shape the party's future idea of itself, and in many ways, the leadership's support of the quota goes against the party's grain.

"In its tradition, in its view of people, and its view of the world, the CDU is a party that doesn't like to make social statutes," said Münch. "But now it has learned that things don't change on their own, at least not for the better, and it has suffered huge losses among female voters. And of course, it has to draw consequences from that."

That is indeed an area where the loss of Merkel appears to have damaged the CDU: With her no longer on the ballot in the 2021 national election, an infratest dimap survey found the party dropped 12 percentage points among female voters compared to 2017, as opposed to only six points among male voters.

But a quota is still a tough idea to swallow for the CDU, and even now, Merz is hoping that a compromise will do the trick: His plan is to have a quota limited to the next five years, by when, he hopes, a regulation will no longer be necessary.

How that will go down at the party conference in Hanover is unclear. In any case, the CDU leader will probably stay on the safe side and leave his little plane at home.

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