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Looking ahead to the CDU conference: The changing face of Germany’s centre right

Article by Dr Ed Turner

January 14, 2021

Looking ahead to the CDU conference: The changing face of Germany’s centre right

This Friday and Saturday will see the twice-delayed Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party conference finally take place virtually. On the Saturday a leader to replace Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (colloquially known as AKK) will be elected. AKK’s time as leader was not a happy one, and she stepped down after being unable to assert her authority over the CDU’s state party in Thuringia, where its parliamentarians had voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany on the choice of a new Minister President there.


Yet since AKK stepped down, much has changed, making the conference unpredictable. Three candidates were quickly out of the blocks: Armin Laschet, the Minister President of North Rhine Westphalia, Norbert Röttgen, Chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and Friedrich Merz, one-time parliamentary leader of the CDU and AKK’s opponent in 2018, only losing very narrowly after a notably poor speech. Laschet was endorsed by AKK’s other opponent of 2018, Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn. Yet since then, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the respective fortunes of the runners and riders. Laschet has had a pretty wretched crisis. His pressure to remove restrictions more quickly than Chancellor Merkel wished has not stood the test of time, blaming outbreaks in meat processing plants in his state on the Bulgarians and Romanians who worked there made him look nasty, and images of his mask dangling beneath his nose did little for his standing. By contrast, Spahn is reportedly kicking himself for tying his colours to Laschet’s mast, having cut an impressive figure as a minister during the crisis (at least until the start of the vaccination programme – on which the jury is still out), and become the CDU’s most popular politician apart from Merkel. Röttgen was a surprise entrant to the contest – his decision to stand often attributed to a desire to raise his profile and secure the job of Foreign Minister in a future government. But he has become a possible recipient of backing from CDU members who like the idea of continuing with Merkel’s centrist political positioning, but feel underwhelmed by Laschet. Merz – by virtue of not holding elected office – has had a low profile in the pandemic, and a policy platform of distancing the CDU from Merkel’s approach has lost attractiveness given her exceptional popularity at present. Commentators tend to say that whereas Merz has strong support amongst the party’s grassroots, Laschet will probably have more backing from delegates. But perhaps the digital format will mix things up here too, reducing in some way the pressure to vote along lines pre-agreed with the state party.


It seems very likely that, whoever wins, there will not be a quick decision to install them as the chancellor candidate of the CDU/CSU for the next federal election in September 2021. The leader of the CSU (the Bavarian wing of German Christian Democracy, organised as a separate party but with a joint group with the CDU in the Bundestag), Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, has had a pretty good crisis. He has consistently supported tougher restrictions and his popularity ratings put him behind Merkel, narrowly ahead of Spahn, and streets ahead of Armin Laschet. On the two occasions when the CSU has fielded the CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate things have not gone well for them – the rhetoric needed to be a popular Bavarian Minister President, celebrating all things Bavarian and embracing conservative social values, tends not to go down so well outside the region. However, Söder has struck a more consensual tone, and has been at particular pains in recent months to emphasise his green credentials. Söder has not ruled out a run, and some interpreted his demotion of Bavaria’s health minister last week as a statement of intent. Jens Spahn has also not ruled out a tilt at the top job, and the Spiegel news magazine reported he had been taking soundings. Another dark horse to watch may be Ralph Brinkhaus, the CDU/CSU parliamentary leader.


Oddly, there is no established process to agree a chancellor candidate. When the Bavarian Franz Josef Strauss was chosen in 1980 (fun fact – his opponent was Ernst Albrecht, father of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen), it was after a vote amongst CDU/CSU MPs. When Edmund Stoiber of the CSU claimed the role in 2002 ahead of Angela Merkel, it was by private agreement, famously over breakfast at Stoiber’s home. Party grandees are suggesting it will be important for the CDU to get two tough regional elections in mid-March out of the way before taking this decision. Both are difficult nuts for the party to crack, as the states in question, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate, are ones where the CDU should, on the basis of demographics, do well, but has underperformed and will face a job to displace the popular incumbents from the Greens and SPD respectively. Poor results in these states would make the choice of Spahn, Söder or even Brinkhaus more likely.


Does all this matter? Absolutely it does. Given Germany’s position in the EU is as strong as ever (a point very powerfully demonstrated during its EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020), the election of Merz would send a pretty strong message about the pace of fiscal consolidation that not only Germany, but also the rest of the EU, would expect to follow. The contenders also have very different instincts on foreign policy: Laschet is significantly more friendly to Russia than his two opponents are, for example. Merz’s views on climate policy are such that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens – by far the most likely outcome of the 2021 election – would be far harder to assemble. And of course, all this uncertainty reminds us just how big a void the departure of Angela Merkel from the political stage will leave.


Image by Arno Mikkor under (CC).

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