Will Competition over Merkel’s Succession Divide or Revive her Party?
Will the CDU be able to contain the sudden outburst of competition caused by Merkel’s succession? Or will the party end like many of its European sister parties – deeply divided over the direction of reform?
As a German saying goes, “competition is good for business.” This also applies to the competition that has started emerging around who will be replacing Angela Merkel as leader of her Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) in December, and thereby get on the radar for a bid to lead the next German government.
Angela Merkel’s announcement to not seek re-election as the leader of her party and as head of the German government has yielded two types of reactions common to moments of replacing a long-standing political leader.
On the one hand, every end entails the charm of a new beginning. There is the excited anticipation of change following a period that is often characterized by a lack of initiative and the refusal to leave the all too familiar paths of the past. Observers of German politics are reminded of the final years of Helmut Kohl’s era, which then Federal President Roman Herzog captured so eloquently in his urge that there must be “a jolt going through Germany.”
On the other hand, there is always uncertainty. What comes next? Will the party that seemed to have lost its ability to argue after 18 years under Merkel be able to contain this sudden outburst of competition? Or will the CDU end like many other of its European sister parties – deeply divided over the direction of reform?
CDU’s Ideological Traditions
The party does well in fully embracing the competition around finding a new party leader because it allows re-sharpening its profile along the three ideological lines that have been key to its long-standing dominance in German politics: social Catholicism, economic liberalism, and social conservatism.
The CDU emerged as a cross-class party after Germany’s defeat in World War II. It integrated a breadth of very different social groups, ranging from members of the Catholic working-class and trade unionist movement to the liberal middle-class and conservative Protestants.
It succeeded in fighting off the rise of centrist and right-wing rivals in the 1950s by developing an internal bargaining system that allowed its Catholic, liberal, and conservative pillar to shine. Allowing them to make their voice heard during moments of intra-party reform helped the party to get through difficult times in the 1970s and late 1990s.
Indeed, it is often forgotten that Merkel’s own rise to power in the early 2000s relied on mediating between these different groups – an ability she seemed to have increasingly lost in recent years.
The upcoming leadership contest between candidates representing each of these traditions can be an important step toward the re-establishment of this “politics of mediation” – a term Professor Kees van Kersbergen once coined to describe the integrative nature of European Christian Democracy.
Who will Succeed Merkel?
Contenders Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Friedrich Merz, and Jens Spahn each represent one of the three ideological traditions of the CDU.
Party secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer, while defending slightly more socially conservative positions than Merkel, is the candidate of the centrist and social-Catholic wing of the party – especially after Armin Laschet, currently governor of Germany’s largest state and a leading figure of the party’s social-Catholic wing, has declared not to run.
Merkel stepping down as CDU leader following losses in Hesse election; Friedrich Merz who had left politics after losing the power struggle in the CDU against Merkel in the early 2000s has thrown his hat in the ring. #cdu #ltwhe2018 #ltwHE
https://t.co/mCmy8K5qWx via @faznet
— Matthias Dilling (@MatthiasDilling) October 29, 2018
For many in the CDU, Merz is the symbol of the “good old days” when the rather market-liberal Leipzig manifesto was passed in 2003.
In turn, Spahn, minister of health in Merkel’s cabinet, seems to have tuned down his previous focus on market-liberal positions and has been enjoying himself in the role of the party’s conservative hopeful.
Whoever wins will not be able to radically shift the party’s platform. The CDU is a complex organization with internal checks and balances that have proven effective in avoiding the long-term dominance of a single ideological wing.
However, this does not mean that nothing will change. This leadership contest has the potential to importantly revive Germany’s last remaining people’s party, the Volkspartei. This will not be done by shifting the party’s program to the social-conservative or economic left or right. Instead, it will require appreciating the diversity of opinions within the party that has often represented a wide range of the German public.