The Post-Merkel CDU
Matthias Dilling (Ph.D. Oxford, 2017) is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics at Swansea University and an associate member of Oxford University’s Department of Politics in IR. He previously was a Lecturer at Oxford University and Oxford University’s Pembroke College and a visiting researcher at Yale University and the University of Vienna. His sole- and co-authored work on political parties and institutional development has been published or is forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly, Social Science History, German Politics and Society, and edited volumes.
Five “C”s why Germany’s Christian Democrats are in better shape than we might think
The transition away from Angela Merkel, first as party leader and, in September 2021, as chancellor, has raised many concerns about the future of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Dr. Matthias Dilling discusses five “C”s to outline why serious concerns over the future of the post-Merkel CDU are seriously overstated: the competition with other parties, competitive leadership elections within the CDU, campaign issues, the chancellor candidacy, and current challenges.
The transition away from Angela Merkel, beginning with her withdrawal as party leader in 2018 and culminating with the end of her chancellorship in September 2021, has raised many concerns about the future of Germany’s ruling party – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Many of these concerns are overstated. Structuring current debates around five “C”s, I conclude that the post-Merkel CDU is in better shape than we might think.
Competition with other parties
Concerns over the prospects of the CDU seem surprising when looking at the recent polls. Together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, the Christian Democrats remain at 37 percent – almost twice the size of their closest competitor, the Green Party, at 20 percent. The Social Democrats follow at 15 percent, with the other three parties currently expected to pass Germany’s five-percent threshold polling at 10 percent or below. This means that only three potential coalitions would currently win a majority. Only one of these potential coalitions, namely between Greens, Social Democrats, and the small Socialist Party, would not include the CDU. Thus, the electoral prospects of the CDU are not bleak at all – at least for this year’s election. The ongoing weakness of the Social Democrats, historically the CDU’s main rival, might doom the CDU to govern in the mid-long run, with all the potential ramifications in terms of internal disunity and complacency that come with one-party dominance. Here lies the main threat to the CDU and, indeed, German democracy. For this year’s election, however, its current strength in the polls is hardly a problem for the party.
Competitive leadership elections
With centrist Armin Laschet winning yet another tight race for the party leadership on Saturday, the second highly contested leadership race after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory in 2018, public discussions have portrayed the CDU as a deeply divided party. It is certainly true that the last two leadership elections have been unusually tight. Compared to the 90 percent or more the winner of CDU leadership races usually received, Laschet’s 52.5 percent are not an overwhelming endorsement. However, the tone after the election was much more reconciliatory than in 2018. Both defeated candidates, market liberal Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen, pledged to support Laschet. Of course, we would expect the party to close its ranks given the upcoming national and state elections. However, the CDU had leaders in the past whose results were far from reflecting unambiguous excitement within the party without the CDU subsequently disintegrating into unresolvable turmoil. Ludwig Erhard’s 84 percent in 1966, Rainer Barzel’s 66 percent in 1971, or Helmut Kohl’s 79.53 percent in 1989 are cases in point. While they still scored better than Laschet, we must not put too much weight on the vote share with which a party leader is elected. The CDU has always been an internally very heterogeneous party, and the vote share leaders received at party congresses often did not reflect the intense conflicts and horse-trading that preceded the vote. In fact, while historians have outlined in depth the deep divisions that plagued the CDU in the early 1950s and early 1960s, behind-closed-doors politics helped create the illusion of unity at party congresses. Here, I think, lies the more significant change we are currently seeing within the CDU: Not an increase in disunity but a shift toward more open competition. At a time of criticism against a lack of transparency in politics, this does not have to be a negative thing for the party.
Since the CDU’s victory in 2013, when it relied heavily on Angela Merkel’s popularity, the Christian Democrats have been criticized for lacking a clear policy profile. Several compromises in the past coalition negotiations reinforced this impression. However, last week’s party congress suggests that the party is trying to redress this by focusing on three themes: 1) We can digital. 2) We care about climate change (and the economy). 3) We are younger and more female than you think. These are new tones for a party that has traditionally not been associated with any of these messages. How convincing is this? Being the first major party in Germany to pull off a digital party congress at which it elected its entire leadership online was certainly impressive. Embracing environmental protection is easily reconcilable with a Christian democratic identity (“Protecting God’s creation!”) and in line with the party’s programmatic development since its U-turn on nuclear energy in 2011. The election of young women like Laura Hopmann, Anna Kreye, and Wiebke Winter to the party’s leadership board has been a notable signal that the party wants to continue the (very) gradual improvement of female representation it initiated in the 1980s. However, it still has a long way to go here. The fact that only three out of seventeen leaders of the CDU’s important state branches are female underlines the gender gap at the party’s top level.
Regardless of whether Laschet, Merz, or Röttgen would have won last week’s vote, polls indicate that neither of them has convinced a majority of the public that they would be fit for the chancellorship. Is the fact that Germans seem to prefer Markus Söder, leader of the much smaller CSU, as the CDU/CSU’s joint chancellor candidate evidence of the CDU’s current incapacity? If it is, this would not be the first time the CDU would receive such a verdict. In 1980 and 2002, CDU and CSU agreed to nominate the then CSU leader as joint chancellor candidate. While both elections were lost, three observations are hardly enough to predict a potential Söder defeat. Might the fact that both parties have not yet agreed on a candidate indicate an unusually high level of disagreement? In 2002, they only announced their candidate in mid-January. While they are staying behind this schedule this year, both parties are not terribly late in making their decision.
The true challenges the CDU faces are elsewhere. The party will need to strike three difficult balances. 1) It will have to mobilize its own core base while appealing to especially young, urban, and female swing voters. 2) It will have to treat the Greens as political rivals without putting them off as their most likely future coalition partner. 3) The CDU will have to present itself as a party capable of change after sixteen years of Merkel government without renouncing its own record. Laschet’s catchphrase of the “continuity of success” could thus become one of the CDU’s leading campaign slogans. Its strategy, last week’s congress suggests, is clear: “We must not leave the [political] center to the Greens.”
 Politbarometer Januar I 2021, available at: https://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Aktuelles/Politbarometer/ (accessed on 21 January 2021).