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Katja Hoyer

Germany after Merkel

As the CDU relinquishes power, German conservatives must find a way to bounce back.

When Angela Merkel announced in 2018 that she would not run for the German chancellorship again, there should have been a collective sigh of relief among the rank and file of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In the course of her 16-year tenure, Merkel had systematically ensured that all of her political rivals were either sidelined or shackled to her brand of centrist politics. Dissenting voices in her party were silenced while yes-men and -women were promoted, such as the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Yet ironically, the end of Merkel’s long stranglehold over German conservatism caused uncertainty rather than hope as the question of her succession proved a difficult one in the election year of 2021. Even her chosen heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was once touted as the most likely candidate to continue Merkelist politics, struggled to build a profile in the chancellor’s shadow despite serving as CDU leader and defence minister in her cabinet. She voluntarily relinquished her mandate for the German parliament last year, withdrawing from federal politics.

Bavarian exceptionalism has also posed another unique challenge to German conservatism, but never has this been as much of a stumbling block to electoral success as it was last year. The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), runs exclusively in Bavaria and then pools its votes with the CDU at federal level where they form one “Union” faction in the Bundestag, the German parliament.

There has always been significant wrangling over the common direction the two conservative parties necessarily have to take in Berlin - ideas regarding personnel and political course aren’t always perfectly aligned as the CSU tends to be the more right-leaning party of the two. Still, the biggest challenge to CDU dominance in this partnership is the question of the chancellorship. Should the CSU ever see one of their own into the central political office of the land, this would mark a significant power-shift southward, and the CDU has always viewed the idea with suspicion. There have only ever been two CSU candidates - Franz Josef Strauß in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both were extremely polarising characters competing against the affable Social Democrats Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder, respectively. Both lost their elections, and cynical voices have suggested that they were set up to fail, giving the CDU time to regroup.

2022 will be a rocky year for Germany as the country struggles to find ways out of the stagnation of the last 16 years.

In 2021, however, the CSU wanted to field an extremely popular candidate in the Bavarian Minister-President, Markus Söder. He achieved dream polling results of around 40% at the beginning of 2021 - seven points higher than Merkel’s last result in 2017. But given the longevity of German chancellors in office, a clear CSU victory smacked of a permanent power-shift within the conservative Union. The CDU decided it would rather risk defeat in the election than a long-term loss of power in its own camp. They nominated the deeply unpopular Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, and as a result, lost the election.

Like the Republicans in the US, German conservatives should view their electoral defeat as a chance to regroup and rethink. Infighting has combined with their political dominance of post-war politics in (West) Germany to blur their profile. A certain complacency has crept into conservatism as election victories were taken for granted and the urgency to tackle Germany’s slow economic decline faded. The CDU/CSU were punished for this with the worst election result in their history by some margin and handed over power to a left-wing coalition with a radical political manifesto.

The man who has taken over from Merkel, Olaf Scholz, won the election on a continuity ticket, despite representing the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He had worked as Germany’s vice chancellor and finance minister by Merkel’s side, missing no opportunity to appear shoulder to shoulder with her in public. He even adopted the famous Merkel rhombus, the ex-chancellor’s trademark hand position.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

But voters who expected a continuation of centrist Merkelism under Scholz were shocked to see the programme he hammered out with the junior coalition partners of the Greens and the Free Liberals. Under the slogan “Dare More Progress”, an adaptation of the first post-war SPD chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Dare More Democracy”, the coalition wants to drive a “paradigm shift” in German politics. And this is not an empty phrase. The roadmap for the next four years squarely points left.

Domestically, the catch-all phrase of “modernisation” encompasses welcome and much-needed investment into digital infrastructure, public transport and technology. This should bring about more efficient governance through the digitalisation of Germany’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy as well as the long-overdue availability of fibre-optic connections across the country. Money will also be made available to explore new technologies in space, air-travel and artificial intelligence - all areas where the once-famed German engineering was beginning to fall behind.

But “modernisation” to a left-leaning government also means far-reaching changes to society. The coalition’s domestic policies are very likely going to create social tension as many are deeply unpopular with the majority of the German public, such as lowering the voting age to 16, legalising cannabis and increased migration with easier access to German citizenship. Pushing such policies against public opposition will fan the winds of extremists and conspiracy theorists who thrive on the idea that mainstream politics has abandoned ordinary people.

Like the Republicans in the US, German conservatives should view their electoral defeat as a chance to regroup and rethink.

Also worrying for Europe and the world is the open question regarding Germany’s commitment to collective security. Yes, the Greens have been admirably robust in their rhetoric regarding Chinese aggression against Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the co-leader of the Greens, Robert Habeck, is particularly passionate about hemming in Russian aggression in Ukraine. But instinctively, all the key players of this new government are pacifists who have built their careers on disarmament-orientated foreign policy and, in Scholz’s case, even with direct attacks on NATO. In his radical days as deputy leader of the Young Socialists, Scholz even spoke of “aggressive-imperialist NATO strategies”. While he now affirms that NATO is an important instrument of German foreign policy, the UN seems to be envisioned as the main tool for conflict resolution in the world.

In the long run, the coalition aims for a “nuclear-free Germany” despite the fact that lip-service is paid to obligations regarding shared security under the NATO umbrella. Currently, the US has an estimated 20 B61 bombs stationed at the Büchel Air Base in the south west of Germany. But they would require authorisation from Germany in the event that they had to be used. They would also need to be carried by the Luftwaffe’s ageing fleet of Tornado jets, which are in urgent need of updating. How a Green coalition partner will manage to pledge the millions of Euros necessary for such an undertaking against the vociferous opposition from its grassroots members remains to be seen. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was worried enough to visit Berlin personally at the end of 2021 to impress on the new government how important collective security is to Europe and the world. He made it clear that the fourth-largest economy on earth must play its part or risk losing its place at the table.

Given the staggering problems ahead, and the likely disaffection that the radical changes proposed by Scholz’s coalition might cause, conservatism in Germany has a unique chance to do some soul-searching. It needs to refresh its personnel after 16 years of stagnation and find a raison d’etre that addresses the needs of Germany and its people without ideological blinkers.

If it can find a way to reset and sharpen its edge, it stands a great chance of providing effective opposition for the next four years and take over the helm again in 2025. If infighting and uncertainty prevail, conservatives will lose their place on the political spectrum to more radical forces. 2022 will be a rocky year for Germany as the country struggles to find ways out of the stagnation of the last 16 years.

Photo: Friedrich Star / Alamy Stock Photo

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and journalist. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London.