The German elections on September 26 delivered a resounding slap of reality to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The party that governed 52 of the 72 years of the Federal Republic, which had won four consecutive federal elections with the Chancellor and looked condescendingly at the Social Democrats and their poor results, collapsed at the polls to its worst historical record. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which are running together in the elections, obtained an unusual 24.1% of the vote. The electoral debacle has thrown the Conservatives into chaos. The CDU is now preparing to lead the opposition, but it has a lot to put together inside. Aimless, disunited, and lacking a leader at the helm, Merkel’s party wonders how she will get out of the hole.
The Chancellor herself is largely to blame for the dilapidated state of her training, which remains in shock because he did not conceive that his electoral floor could fall below 30%. It took several days for its leader, Armin Laschet, to become aware of the smack, who was begging to congratulate the Social Democratic candidate, Olaf Scholz, on his victory. Instead of doing it in public, he sent her a letter by post. “Merkel has not prepared her succession, and that has been a terrible mistake that casts a very dark shadow on her legacy,” says Uwe Jun, professor of Political Science at the University of Trier and author of several monographs on federal policy. The chancellor did not give any of her colleagues in the party the opportunity to build a solid candidate profile. “In the last four years he has ignored his party, as if it no longer interested him. Although he has always had an ambivalent relationship with his own line-up, ”Jun adds.
Merkel did come to sponsor two powerful figures of the CDU. The first, Ursula von der Leyen, became president of the European Commission. The second, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, promoted to the party presidency by the chancellor at the end of 2018, fell victim to a part of her own formation only 14 months later. She was unable to prevail in the Thuringia regional election scandal and gave an image of weakness that ended her chances of succeeding Chancellor. Since then, Merkel has remained aloof from internal power struggles and has not supported any of the men – they are the overwhelming majority at the top and amid the harvest of new promises – who aspire to lead the German conservatives.
The collapse of the CDU has several causes. Since 2017, the party has obtained rather poor results in several regional elections, recalls Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin specializing in electoral machinery, who have been undermining its image as a “popular party” (People’s Party). Poor management of internal leadership since Merkel’s retirement as party chair, the conflict in Thuringia and, more recently, several corruption scandals and the erratic direction of the pandemic by CDU Health Minister Jens Spahn have has been filling the glass of patience of conservative voters, in the opinion of Neugebauer: “The party has gradually created an image of an organization incapable of acting, something that could be verified during the campaign. The CDU was unable to mobilize its followers ”. But if there is something that all analysts agree as the trigger for the CDU slam, it is a key decision before an election: the candidate.
Armin Laschet, president of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, has never connected with voters. His assessment in the polls was poor throughout the campaign. He started off on the wrong foot. Elected president of the CDU in January, when he won against hawk Friedrich Merz, began his leadership questioned by his own formation. Merz, Merkel’s eternal rival who proposed a turn to the right, was much more popular than he was among the rank and file, but the leadership preferred centrism and the continuity of the chancellor’s legacy represented by Laschet. In March the CDU suffered a severe setback in two regional elections, in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which also hit it hard. Other successful elections in Saxony-Anhalt in June gave him a break. Very brief. In July, when western Germany experienced its worst flooding in half a century, Laschet was recorded in the background laughing out loud as the president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, offered his condolences for the victims. That image cost him the campaign, say not a few analysts.
“Naming him a candidate was a bad decision,” says Jun. Laschet, a resistant politician who during his career has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, managed to get the Union, as the tandem formed by the CDU and the CSU is known, support him against the charismatic Markus Söder, leader of the Bavarian formation. Once again, the preference of the rank and file and of the citizens – Söder slipped among the highest rated candidates without being so – was opting for his rival. But Laschet prevailed. For the sake of Christian Democrats, it shouldn’t have been. “Voters don’t like parties that don’t act together. That gave a tremendous advantage to the Social Democrats, who for the first time in this century had a more popular candidate than the Conservative. They did not want Laschet or his own, and that is perceived by the voters, “says Jun.
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The first task of the defeated CDU will be to reconcile the party. It will also have to close the gap that separates the 400,000 affiliates who form the bases and the leadership after it made too many decisions without listening to the militancy. Finally, Christian Democrats have yet to define what values they represent. Among some of the grassroots there is the idea that Merkel turned the formation into “a catch-all party, in the bad sense,” says Jun. They believe that in the search for the center vote, the one that decides the elections, the ideology was diluted conservative. Others make him ugly that by listing to the center, he gave wings to the extreme right of Alternative for Germany (AfD). It remains to be seen whether the post-Merkel CDU veers to Merkel’s right again.
In a Germany that has seen the traditional party system break down – with Christian Democrats and Social Democrats as the majority formations that dragged between 30 and 40% of the votes and now around 25% – the conservatives have understood that the old formulas are not going to get you out of the hole. While Olaf Scholz, the leader of the SPD (25.7% of the votes), negotiates a government coalition with the greens (14.8%) and the liberals of the FDP (11.5%), the party that still leads Armin Laschet prepares for a total renovation. That was announced by the party leadership at the congress of his organization (Junge Union), held a few days ago in Münster and in which Laschet assumed his guilt without hot cloths. “The responsibility for the electoral campaign and for this result is mine, and no one else’s,” he said.
Laschet’s departure is a fact, but it will not take place until the beginning of next year, when the next federal congress is convened. The rank and file of the party demand more direct participation compared to the current voting system, in which 1,001 delegates elect the president of the formation. What has already begun is the struggle to climb to the top of the party. The congress of the youths served so that some possible candidates began to be seen. No one rules out Friedrich Merz for the race, despite the fact that at 65 he hardly embodies a generational renewal. Norbert Röttgen, 56-year-old former foreign minister, is also in the pools. Among the young promises, the 41-year-old Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, stands out. The Secretary General, Paul Ziemiak, 36; Junge Union president Tilman Kuban, 34, and Saarland president Tobias Hans, 43, are other young heavyweights in the party. Among the names that sound to lead it, no woman is heard.