German 'CDU' at a Crossroads

Michael Koß

7 mins - 11 de Julio de 2023, 07:00

The Christian Democrat CDU can easily be regarded as the single most important domestic reason why Germany finally became a consolidated democracy after 1949. Of course, international factors like the Cold War and the economic boom of the mid-20th century also contributed significantly to this development, but it was the CDU that turned these favorable factors into success. To understand why this was the case, it is worth remembering that German politics had always been characterized by multiple cross-cutting conflicts to an extent unknown in most other European political systems. Apart from the widespread socioeconomic conflict between left and right, the most notable of these conflicts were those between the center and the periphery, agrarian and industrial economic interests and – very German –, the one between the Protestant and the Catholic Church. 

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As a merger of the Protestant Conservative and the Catholic Center Party, the CDU was, for the first time in German history, able to internally accommodate conflicting religious, territorial, and economic interests. This paved the way for the socioeconomic conflict with the Social Democratic SPD to become the dominant one in the German party system. Cross-cutting conflicts as the major reason underlying previous breakdowns of German democracy finally became a problem of the past. Additionally, the CDU became a center-right catch-all party which could either absorb or marginalize all right-off-center parties with the only exception of the liberal FDP. Until 2015, one should add. Once the European migration crisis came to dominate German politics in 2015, a party to the right of the CDU was again able to permanently establish itself in basically all state legislatures and, since 2017, also the in the Bundestag. Since then, the AfD aimed to capitalize on the multiple crises haunting politics in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, most notably the climate, Ukraine, and migration crises. It represents the traditional-authoritarian-nationalist counterpart of the Greens. In doing so, the AfD embodies a transnational conflict which, finally, also stirs up the German party system and – danger! – has the potential to cross-cut with more traditional economic conflicts.

During the long chancellorship of Angela Merkel (2005–21), the CDU pursued centripetal policies: Losses on the ideological right were considered acceptable since they could be more than matched by gains in the center, especially since Merkel became notorious for de-mobilizing the voters of the CDU’s major center-left opponent, the SPD. However, the CDU’s rank-and-file always remained skeptical of Merkel’s relative success vis-à-vis the SPD and deplored that the chancellor forfeited previously precious policy platforms (such as sealing the fate of nuclear power plants in Germany in the wake of the Fukushima incident in 2011). This is why Merkel was first forced to step down as CDU chair in 2018 and then half-voluntarily announced that she would not run as chancellor in the 2021 election. It was the CDU and no one else that brought down Merkel. Unsurprisingly, a fierce intra-party battle emerged over the question of succession, a battle which cost the CDU the chancellorship in 2021 since party unity, which had always been the CDU’s unique selling point, vanished. To its own surprise, the SPD appeared as united compared to the CDU and consequently received the largest share of the vote with 25.1%, 1.6 percentage points ahead of the CDU.

At first sight, the CDU’s intra-party struggles came to an end when Friedrich Merz was elected party chair and leader of the parliamentary party in 2022. Merz had promised to break away from Merkel’s centrist course without embracing the AfD – eating the cake and having it, that is. Key to his strategy was a new policy platform to be widely discussed among the CDU’s rank-and-file. German political parties are very much into programmatic statements. This also applies to the CDU, despite its self-image as Germany’s natural party of government (which it is, obtaining the chancellorship for 52 years out of 74).

Little more than a year after Merz’ election, this strategy has been shattered by political realities. To be sure, the CDU is again the strongest party in surveys with about 30%. But the AfD is back at its previous all-time high of 18%– some surveys see it even above that mark and, more importantly, ahead of the SPD. Even worse from a CDU perspective, intra-party battles have also resurfaced. Whereas in the 2021 election campaign, conflicts largely occurred between the CDU and its slightly more conservative Bavarian pendant, the CSU; the 2023 battle cuts right across the CDU leadership. Two contenders challenge Merz’ strategy to win back voters lost to the AfD on the CDU’s right with growing intensity. Both of them are Minister Presidents: Daniel Günther from the Northern state of Schleswig Holstein and Hendrik Wüst from Northrine-Westphalia, with 18 million inhabitants the by far largest German state. Both Günther and Wüst argue that, on one hand, the CDU can only win political battles in the center and, on the other hand, the marginalization of the AfD will only occur if centrist policies show successes and not if the CDU copies radical policy platforms.

This humble observer agrees with Günther and Wüst for two main reasons, one domestic and one more general. First, the CDU may feel and behave like an opposition party, but it does nonetheless participate in governing Germany. The second chamber, the Bundesrat, needs to approve all finance legislation, that is, all important legislation. As much as the CDU currently criticizes the government’s most controversial legislative project envisaging to sustainably modernize private heating systems over a 30-year period, it needs to approve this bill just like all other important ones in the Bundesrat, where the current government only controls 16 of 49 seats. By the look of things, the CDU will under no circumstances veto the heating systems bill at the end of the day. Criticizing this bill almost as severely as the AfD thus qualifies as a performative contradiction which electorally only serves the interests of the AfD.

Second, no policy platform, irrespective of how much the CDU’s rank-and-file (which is, like that of other European center-right parties, far more male and older than the electorate at large) appreciates it, will ever pacify the party to an extent comparable to electoral success. Electoral success, however, will not come from the fringes of the political spectrum. Historically, the CDU was able to marginalize the right because its centrist policy platform of Western integration and a moderate liberal economic policies (the “social market economy”) proved very successful and ensured German security and prosperity. The CDU needs to rediscover a similarly appropriate answer to the current crises, not an emulation of the AfD’s desire to turn back time. Center-right parties which imitate their radical counterparts either break bad or apart, just like the US and French Republicans, respectively.

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