For over a decade the party at the core of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is no longer in a good way. Even as Germans celebrate thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, election results in the former East are turning against Merkel’s party: in last month’s election in Thuringia, her CDU slipped behind the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in a defeat echoing other recent setbacks in Brandenburg and Saxony.
But these regional-level defeats aren’t the only headache for the CDU, today heart of a grand-coalition government together with the Social Democrats (SPD). A year after Merkel announced she would not seek another term as chancellor — beginning a succession process in the CDU — today it is fighting for its status as Germany’s biggest mass party. The electoral advance of not only the AfD but also the Greens has aggravated tensions in CDU ranks, raising doubts over whether the grand coalition — and the party’s new leadership — can even continue.
This power vacuum has, indeed, come out into the open — not least in the buildup to last weekend’s CDU convention in Leipzig, where Merkel’s heir Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer faced calls to step down as party leader. This was an unusually hasty demand, given the typically unradical standards of German conservative politics. But while “AKK” defended her position as leader, the future of the CDU — and Germany’s government — has never been as unclear.
Having suffered a rather troubled leadership transition from Merkel over the last year, it seems that AKK hoped that she could use the convention to bring to a head the problems she has faced. Indeed, at the end of her ninety-minute speech she effectively called on members to “back her or sack her.” Or, in her own words, “If you think that this path I would like to go with you is not the right one, let us address it today. And then let’s end it today, here and now.” Delegates immediately stood up in standing ovation — apparently, at least, showing their support for her “path.”
Things weren’t meant to be like this. It was just a year ago that AKK won her position as Merkel’s successor, edging out CDU right-winger Friedrich Merz in an internal contest. Merz — a harsh conservative on social policy and a neoliberal hawk on economic matters — was rumored before the convention to be preparing a coup against her. But instead he joined in the applause, even expressing his thanks for AKK’s “brave” speech. This rather had the tone of Mark Anthony praising noble Brutus: in fact, Merz recently called the CDU’s grand coalition with the SPD “abysmal” and seems ready to attack yet again.
Merz had been waiting for this moment since 2004, when he made a failed bid to oust Merkel from the leadership. Reacting to his failure to make his move last weekend, German press either termed him a “loser” or insisted that he was a loyal party man. But was he really? Everyone knew that an open coup was not in order in a conservative party, and too much was at stake given the fragile state of the country’s grand coalition. Yet the CDU seems unable to go on like this. AKK consistently polls poorly, with around 12–17 percent support among Germans — and no one seriously sees her becoming chancellor.
This does not mean that Merz is about to replace her, or that his own strategy is really so wise. So far, he has been unable to use the evolving power vacuum to gain more support than he enjoyed upon AKK’s election last year. His challenge has stalled, notwithstanding his base among the party youth, his backers in the CDU’s “business wing,” and an unofficial but rising group in the party called the “value union” (Werte-Union), on the hard-conservative right.
It is this group that has most posed a threat to AKK following the election defeats in the East, pressuring her to hold coalition talks with the far-right AfD. As of yet, it is unclear whether the CDU in Thuringia will actually hold coalition talks with this party after the October 27 election, though party officials including AKK have denied this could ever happen. These tensions within the CDU culminated in a heated debate on whether or not the AfD could be called “civil” (bürgerlich) — an epithet that is both a key trademark for German conservatives and a marker of democratic legitimacy.
Instead of diving into this debate at the heart of conservatism, Merz decided to show off his own hard-right credentials. With the Greens now close to the CDU in the polls, Merz has attacked Greta Thunberg and the climate movement several times in recent weeks. The term “climate crisis,” he said during a speech at the youth organization’s convention, is a mere invention by climate groups lobbying for their cause. This was, in fact, rather odd coming from a man who is also the multimillionaire chairman of the supervisory board of BlackRock Germany, today using its control over the German government to prevent a financial transactions tax (FTT).
Apart from Merz, widely seen as a stiff and harsh figure, another pretender for the leadership also emerged at the convention, warming the hearts and minds of the delegates. This man was Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) — the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. It was normal enough that the CSU leader also got to give a speech — but the applause he got was rather a surprise. In contrast to Merz, Söder used the summer break to posture as a climate hero, calling the climate crisis the “challenge of the century.” Strategically, his position is oriented toward a coalition with the Greens — the other possible future government partner for the CDU.
But the path toward a so-called black-green coalition is not so simple for a market-liberal, strongly conservative formation like the CDU, today heading to the right. This would provide for a rather more state-centered, milder conservative and a green-tech capitalist approach to upcoming crises, as German recession looms. Yet Söder may be the one authority figure able to fill the vacuum that Merkel will leave in two years’ time — a role AKK will very unlikely be able to fulfill. Even her past position as defense minister has not helped her convey a sense of authority. Markus Söder has worked his way up lately and did everything to settle the dispute over immigration that poisoned relations between the CDU and its Bavarian ally after 2015.
The question of whether Merz can rally his own troops will do much to shape the CDU’s future. In times of recession, the BlackRock man will offer a strong neoliberal stance at the cost of working Germans. Söder seems as confident as ever but will be no lesser evil: winning the ultra-conservative state of Bavaria and taking the CSU from his predecessor and ultra-conservative leading figure, Horst Seehofer, suggests that he is able to win even hard-fought positions. There is no guarantee that he is not just playing the green card to give himself another option, while also riding the wave of concern for the climate, in rhetorical terms at least. He might very well switch to more conservative and populist politics again when needed in an economic crisis.
Indeed, pressure on the CDU is very high at the moment. While both employers and unions call for an end of the “black zero” policy (the party’s commitment to zero debt) and investments in technology, infrastructure, and education, the CDU remains motionless. In a recent tweet the party even defended its black zero “fetish” with an image alluding to kinky sex — probably the lowest point yet reached by the CDU’s already dismal social media outreach. It shows how hard it has become for the party to defend the hegemonic position on economics that it has had for seventeen long years. With recession around the corner, it seems the pressure on AKK and her party is about to prove too hot to handle.