After Angela The Beginning of the Post-Merkel Era
Part 2: A Rendevouz with the Past
When Merz held a press conference last Wednesday to reintroduce himself to the country, it was like a rendezvous with the past. His hair is a bit thinner, his face a bit gaunter, but otherwise he looks just the same as he always has.
Merz said that the CDU needs "clarity about its core brand" and said that it cannot accept a situation in which divisive parties on both the right-wing and left-wing fringes have become established. As always, Merz was well-spoken and full of conviction.
Merz is the great hope for all those who would like to see the Merkel era come to an end as soon as possible. Furthermore, many see him as the one who can bring back those disgruntled CDU voters who have jumped ship in recent years for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany. And that hope might even be justified. When Merz speaks of a "national identity" and "traditional values," it doesn't sound forced. Furthermore, his pro-European stance protects him against accusations of being a parochial nationalist.
"The grassroots are drunk on Merz," says a local CDU representative from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, adding that he is seen as the messiah. "But that can change."
It is possible for someone who has been out of politics for the last 10 years to step in and take over the leadership of a big-tent party like the CDU? The view from afar can be helpful, says Merz. He's part of an international legal practice and he has a seat on several supervisory boards, including for the gigantic American asset management firm Blackrock. Recently, he stopped for a chat with former Economics Minister Philipp Rösler at a summer party held by the newspaper Bild. According to someone who listened in, the two talked about which of them had the bigger airplane. For some time now, Merz has been living in a parallel world that is far away from the needs of normal people.
It is also unclear if he can win over those CDU members who are in favor of the course of modernization pursued by Merkel. It isn't a small group, as Merz well knows. During his press conference last week, he was careful to speak of environmental protection and about the women and young people who needed to have an opportunity in the CDU. Whether people view such sentiments as credible coming from him will be decisive in the success or failure of his efforts to be elected to the party chairmanship.
The only one who looks to be in a position to stop his comeback is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she is frequently called. But given that she has only been CDU general secretary since February, the personnel shuffle may be coming too early for her. Her initial plan had called for slowly increasing her profile within the party, developing her network and taking steps to prepare for leadership by 2020. Now, though, she is in the position of having to make a jump for it.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer is hardly an outsider. After 37 years in the CDU, she regularly receives broad support in elections to various party bodies. She has experience in a variety of ministries, from education to labor to interior. And her supporters are fond of reminding people that it was her victory in the Saarland state election in 2017 that put the initial brakes on Martin Schulz's efforts to challenge Merkel for the Chancellery last year.
The CDU core likewise has great respect for her decision to give up her safe position as governor of Saarland to serve the party as general secretary. If Jens Spahn loses the election to succeed Merkel, he would return to being health minister while Merz would continue in the private economy. For Kramp-Karrenbauer, on the other hand, her entire political career is at stake. Should she fail, she has said she would also give up the general secretary position. This situation is likewise something that many CDU members will take into account when casting their ballots.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's greatest weakness is likely her proximity to Merkel. Merz's supporters refer to her as "Merkel II." She has, though, sought to carefully distance herself from the chancellor in recent months; in emails to the party base, she hasn't shied away from openly addressing problems with Merkel's current government. Still, her dry public appearances and her style of calmly considering her options remind many of Merkel.
AKK's supporters hope that the discussion of future party leadership will soon cease focusing exclusively on Merkel and instead seek to answer the question: What does the CDU of the future want to be? A conservative, Islamophobic, economically liberal power, as embodied by Spahn and Merz? Or the humanitarian, centrist party that unites rather than polarizes?
In the ensuing campaign, Kramp-Karrenbauer hopes to present herself as an intermediary between the two party wings. Furthermore, she can point to the fact that in the last several years, she has fought for the party on the front lines and won important elections while others simply stood on the sidelines and watched.
Those who see Kramp-Karrenbauer as the most malleable of the trio running for the CDU chairmanship, however, are mistaken. Her supporters know how to run a campaign and know that it is worth telling journalists that Merz possesses an airplane in addition to a pilot's license. Should he become CDU head, asked one member of the AKK camp innocently, would Merz fly to campaign events in eastern Germany in his private jet? Would he climb directly out of the cockpit onto the market squares of Zwickau and Gera to talk to people whose jobs were cut by one of those financial institutes that works closely with Blackrock? And did you know, her team is careful to ask, that Merz was once in favor of weakening job security regulations and introducing the 42-hour work week?
No Clear Favorite
This is, in short, the first time that the CDU has seen a race in which there is no clear favorite, one in which the old method of backroom string-pulling isn't likely to work. Aside from the CDU women's group, no association within the CDU is likely to endorse a candidate, and the largest state chapter, the one from North Rhine-Westphalia, can't choose sides either since both Merz and Spahn come from the state. Plus, they are both economically liberal, both prefer a strong state, both are seen as Merkel detractors and both are socially conservative. Even the openly gay Spahn recently opted to marry his partner, a move viewed by many as a very traditional.
When the votes are cast on Dec. 7 in Hamburg, there will be a run-off if none of the three candidates emerge with more than 50 percent of the votes in the first ballot. It seems likely that such a run-off would pit Merz against Kramp-Karrenbauer. For Spahn, Merz's candidacy is a significant nuisance. He even admitted to confidantes that Merz's comeback came as a surprise. Currently, he is seen as the candidate with the weakest chances. Even Merz doesn't see him as much of a threat. The fact that Spahn, in an op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which he outlined his candidacy, identified refugee policy as the most important issue was seen by many as a desperate attempt to sharpen his profile.
Migration policy, Spahn wrote, is "the white elephant in the room" and the party can no longer be silent about it. A few lines later, though, he wrote that the debate should finally produce results. His opponents have been savoring the contradiction. "Which is it?" they wonder. Spahn, they say, is only interested in power and develops his positions not out of conviction, but out of a desire to differentiate himself from his opponents. They point to his recent video, a 69-second clip of him stepping into elevators and crossing the street.
Are Snap Elections Ahead?
The result of the election won't just carry significant consequences for Angela Merkel. The fate of the current governing coalition could also hang in the balance and snap elections are one possible outcome.
If there is any chance left that Merkel remains in office for the remainder of her term, then it could only happen under the party leadership of Kramp-Karrenbauer. The two women trust and respect each other. But even that constellation would be problematic. Kramp-Karrenbauer would have to sharply distance the CDU from the government so that she wouldn't fall victim to the widespread dissatisfaction with the current coalition.
If Merz or Spahn were to win, Merkel's tenure would likely soon be over. It is hard to imagine a constellation of Spahn being both CDU chair and a member of Merkel's cabinet. The two lack even the minimum amount of mutual trust that would be necessary for such a situation to work.
The end would likely come even more quickly if Merz were to emerge victorious. He loathes both Merkel and her confidantes with a fervor that is rare even in politics. When asked last Wednesday about his departure from politics a decade ago, Merz said that when two people "don't fit together in their convictions or their styles, then they must separate." He could just as well, however, have been talking about the near future. And Merkel agrees. Should Merz win in early December, confidantes say, she wouldn't stick around for long.
When then? Swapping out a chancellor is no small thing. There is little chance that the Social Democrats, as junior coalition partner, would support Merz. He himself assumes that the SPD would move further to the left and begin looking for an excuse to end the coalition with the conservatives.
An encounter with Merz these days -- with his energy and euphoria resulting from the successful kick-off to his campaign -- makes it clear that he has lofty goals. He didn't reenter politics to play third fiddle to the chancellor and parliamentary floor leader. He enthusiastically points to surveys that show him far ahead of his competitors for the party leadership position. In addition, his popularity ratings aren't just high among CDU supporters, but also in the population at large.
Merz doesn't just want to become CDU party head. He wants power.
- Part 1: The Beginning of the Post-Merkel Era
- Part 2: A Rendevouz with the Past