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Who Will Save the CDU?


Angela Merkel’s unideological style has led her party into a severe identity crisis. Armin Laschet is the CDU’s best hope for now.

© REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

It’s been two decades since the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, had its last major crisis. In December 1999, the shock of losing office in the previous year’s federal election was compounded by revelations about illegal donations during the long reign of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. This was the moment of Angela Merkel’s ascent to leadership. Twenty years later, as the Merkel era draws slowly to a close, we can begin to discern the new burdens she has bequeathed the CDU. The party is riven by factionalism, the leadership question unresolved, and its public support has fallen dramatically. Today it is not at all clear if Merkel’s successors will be able to overcome the crisis and renew the CDU’s role as the stable core of the German party system.

Merkel, the first female head of government in Germany’s history, planned to be the first German chancellor to stage-manage her own departure. But this difficult experiment in governance failed at the first hurdle. After just a year as party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her hand-picked successor, has now stepped down, exhausted. Short of authority within the party, Kramp-Karrenbauer was unable to reconcile its conflicts, offer new policy perspectives, or stem the rapid fall in the polls. As recently as the 2013 federal election, the CDU won 41.5 percent of the popular vote. Today, its poll ratings languish somewhere in the mid-20s. Recent state elections in Hamburg saw a mere 11 percent of voters opting for the CDU. For a party long used to dominating the German political scene, this is an alarming signal.

Few in the party would dispute that the CDU has moved distinctly leftward during Merkel’s two decades at the helm. On women, family, migration, defense, and energy, Merkel has abandoned long-held policy positions and dramatically reduced the influence of conservatives. On the right of the German political landscape, CDU influence has declined so sharply that a new right-wing party—the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD—has managed to enter state parliaments across the country, as well as the federal parliament, for the first time in the post-war era.

Merkel has succeeded in maintaining the party’s grip on power in Berlin since 2005, cementing her position as its leader. At the same time, however, Merkel’s unideological pragmatism has unleashed an identity crisis within the CDU, primarily afflicting her conservative critics. Merkel’s principal weakness does not lie in her political responses to new challenges, which have often gone against long-held party positions. Rather, the problem lies in her failure to aggressively address the tension between her policies and traditional ideas in the party and, more broadly, in society. Communication has never been her forte. Merkel may have successfully pushed through her policies, but she has rarely made the case for them. This has prompted, at least since the 2015 refugee crisis, intense resistance within the party, bubbling below the surface of her pragmatic governing style.   

Paradoxical Challenges

Merkel’s successor must now overcome these divisions. But the CDU’s strategic dilemma goes further than the loss of right-wing voters to the AfD. Further left, they are losing at least as many to the Green Party. So her successor, whoever it is, will face a paradoxical challenge, requiring a simultaneous answer to both problems. The next leader must appeal to voters on the right, while also shoring up support among erstwhile Merkel voters in the political center. Conservatives within the party must be kept within the tent, while preparations are made for the strong likelihood that only a coalition with the Greens will achieve a majority after the next federal elections.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, often known as AKK, failed to meet this paradoxical challenge. At the December 2018 party conference, she won a very narrow victory over Friedrich Merz, the representative of conservative forces in the party. Precisely because of her image as Merkel’s favored candidate, she sought to broaden her base among right-wing members. But while her signals failed to resonate with that wing, they managed to annoy her liberal followers. This hobbled her authority from the start.

Friedrich Merz and his supporters never really accepted defeat—neither at the hands of AKK in 2018, nor, much earlier, at the hands of Merkel. After losing a power struggle to Merkel in 2002, Merz left politics for a career in business. In the years since, he served as a projection screen for conservative forces within the CDU, helped by his polished rhetoric and slick public performances. His political persona and clear opposition to Merkel have made him the darling of the right wing, to whom he has appealed with promises to halve AfD support with an agenda of economic modernization and strong domestic security. Skeptics, however, regard him as yesterday’s man.

Rupture or Continuity?

Merz is the disruptive candidate: his victory would inevitably mean an open power struggle with Merkel and a clear break with the long era her leadership has defined. Although revered by supporters, Merz is deeply feared by liberals in the party, who ideally want to see a continuation of Merkelism, even in the absence of Merkel herself. By now, however, even critics of the chancellor dimly recognize that breaking with the politics of the last two decades is not a promising route to electoral success. Merkel retains too much popularity among voters, with substantial popular support for her legacy. This means Merz’s candidacy is ultimately unlikely to win over a majority of the party.

Enter a surprising second candidate for party leadership. Like Merz, Norbert Röttgen had seemed a figure from the past, a man with his political future squarely behind him. Röttgen had once been viewed as Merkel’s crown prince, but a dramatic loss in the 2013 North Rhine-Westphalia state elections made Merkel oust him from the succession. But unlike the conservative Merz, Röttgen offers a liberal alternative to the chancellor, presenting conviction politics with rhetorical and intellectual brilliance. Were he to win the leadership, the overall direction of German politics would not change, but he would seek to end the prevailing stasis in key policy areas, including climate change, European policy, and migration. His politics is marked by active political discourse: his main difference with Merkel is her reactive style of politics, where policies are not supported with convincing arguments.

Röttgen would be the perfect chancellor for a CDU-Green coalition at the federal level, and for this reason, he would be a serious opponent against the Greens. But this position also drives the strong opposition he faces from the party’s right wing. So like Merz, albeit for diametrically opposed reasons, he would find it difficult to reconcile the CDU’s bitter divisions. Moreover, Röttgen does not enjoy universal popularity on the party’s left wing, where he is widely regarded as distant and unapproachable. All in all, this suggests Röttgen’s leadership would be unlikely to bring about the intellectual renewal the party needs.

The Winner: Laschet

For this reason, Merkel’s ultimate successor will probably be Armin Laschet, currently state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia. Leading the CDU in the country’s most populous state may seem to preordain him for federal leadership, but Laschet’s political temperament means he falls short of being a shoo-in. He tends to be risk-averse, always looking to cover his back. His political career has already seen several bitter defeats. Like Kramp-Karrenbauer, his predecessor as heir apparent, he is regarded as a Merkel loyalist, but his leadership would likely see a number of changes in emphasis.

Laschet’s failure to present renewal with any real authority meant his chances against the more impactful Merz and Röttgen had seemed remote. But Laschet has recently managed to pull off an important coup, convincing Health Minister Jens Spahn to  endorse his leadership bid and abandon his own candidacy This was highly significant in the succession battle, since Spahn can help win over CDU conservatives who see Merz as either too brutal or too outmoded. During the refugee crisis, Spahn had made his name as one of Merkel’s strongest critics: for a time, he was one of her most open opponents, regularly taking public positions critical of Islam.

However, since losing the leadership race in 2018, Spahn has largely abandoned his right-wing attacks on Merkel, instead concentrating on his ministerial responsibilities. In other words, having adequately demonstrated his credentials as a conservative alternative, he has now sought broader acceptance within the party. With little chance of winning in a field containing Laschet, Merz, and Röttgen, an alliance with Laschet is highly useful. If Laschet wins, his new ally will have established an excellent position in the party. At 39, Spahn is already the most power-conscious CDU politician of his generation. He can afford to wait a little longer.

For Laschet, Spahn should help to bring in key voices from the moderate conservative camp, which he needs if he is to win the leadership. But winning is one thing, actually ushering in a new era for the CDU is quite another. Ruling North Rhine-Westphalia may mark the upper limit of Laschet’s political capacities: although he is now favorite to succeed Merkel, he may not be up to the task of filling her shoes. Like Kramp-Karrenbauer before him, Laschet enjoys limited authority with conservatives in the party, while his influence among liberals is too weak to assuage CDU worries ahead of a tough fight with the Greens for the political center.

Danger for the System

Many indications thus suggest that the latest succession battle could result in another temporary solution. But this is something the party can ill afford. Jens Spahn may well be correct in suggesting the CDU faces the greatest crisis of its history. But unlike in earlier periods of weakness, the weakness of the CDU now also threatens to undermine the stability of the political system as a whole. In previous decades, when the CDU exhausted its political capital after long periods in power, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) stood ready to take control. But today’s SPD can no longer play the role of a second large catch-all party. It remains to be seen whether the Greens can take its place as an anchor of systemic stability. In this way, the CDU crisis extends directly into the political heart of Germany as currently constituted. Not since Konrad Adenauer has a CDU leader had to bear such momentous responsibility.