On Tuesday evening, Friedrich Merz, 64, strode down a broad, wooden staircase to the ground floor of a villa in Magdeburg. He was there for the annual reception of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) economic advisers in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, but the celebrity reception he enjoyed far outstripped the rather prosaic nature of the event. It was standing-room-only at the back of the hall, with people craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Merz. The first speaker said excitedly: "Villa Toepffer has never experienced anything like this before!”
Merz’s appearance came one day after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU leader and Merkel’s hand-picked successor, announced that she was stepping down in the wake of her party’s unabashed flirtation with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party during efforts to form a state government in Thuringia. Merz is one of the hopefuls to take over the reins of the center-right CDU - and once that successor is chosen, the tenure of CDU-member Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany could come to a rapid conclusion.
But even if Merz has made no secret of his ambitions – even going so far as to tweet out his intention last week to "get more involved on behalf of the country in the coming weeks and months” – he isn’t the only candidate hoping to replace "AKK,” as Kramp-Karrenbauer is often called. Armin Laschet, 58, is widely considered to be angling for the position as well.
On Monday evening, Laschet, who is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, was in the western German city of Aachen. At the CDU’s local headquarters in the city, he made a brief statement to a dozen journalists who were, in the wake of AKK’s announcement, suddenly interested in everything he had to say. But it wasn’t much. Wearing a dark suit and a green tie, Laschet merely said that "North Rhine-Westphalia will make a contribution” to the search for a new CDU leader. A couple of journalists followed him as he headed off after just a couple of minutes, but he disappeared into an adjoining room, unwilling to say more.
Yet another possible candidate is Health Minister Jens Spahn, 39. He was in a buoyant mood at 7:02 a.m. on Wednesday morning in the Health Ministry, bounding around the corner with a cheery "good morning!” on his lips. Even for busy government officials, the early hour was unusual, but Spahn had a full schedule that day and it was the only slot open for an interview with DER SPIEGEL. "The challenges facing our party have now become completely clear,” Spahn said. "After so many years of being shaped by Angela Merkel, the CDU must relearn how to walk on its own. We need to find a personnel line-up for the 2020s which no longer puts Angela Merkel at the center.”
When asked about his own ambitions, Spahn said: "I ran for the party leadership position in 2018 and I am still willing to take on responsibility in federal politics and in the party. The precise constellation will be the subject of discussion in the coming days.”
Worthiness for Higher Office
When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her intention to step down from her position as CDU leader and not run for the position of chancellor, it didn’t just mark the tragic failure of a woman who had never been adequately prepared for the rough-and-tumble world of federal politics. It also marked the failure of a precarious power-sharing arrangement, in which Merkel ceded the position of party chair to Kramp-Karrenbauer in July 2019, but remained chancellor of Germany. It essentially put Kramp-Karrenbauer in the position of having to prove her worthiness for higher office.
And, perhaps most importantly, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement immediately yanked the veil off of a number of vitriolic conflicts that have been festering within the party for years. Now, the party’s various wings are fighting more vehemently than ever.
The most immediate trigger was the election in the eastern state of Thuringia last October. In that vote, the Left Party ended up as the strongest with 31 percent, but when it came time for newly elected state parliamentarians to choose a governor nine days ago, the CDU decided to throw its support behind Thomas Kemmerich, the candidate from the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), a party which had only barely managed to clear the 5 percent hurdle. The real problem, though, was that the CDU was (almost certainly) fully aware that the far-right AfD would also support the FDP candidate. And calling the AfD merely "far right” in Thuringia borders on a whitewash: A German court last year determined that it was permissible – and accurate – to refer to the leader of the Thuringian AfD, Björn Höcke, as a fascist.
Kemmerich initially accepted the result, and became governor of the state, but was forced to resign just a few days later. His party, the FDP, has experienced an avalanche of criticism for accepting AfD support. But the shockwaves have proved especially violent in the CDU. The party’s centrist leadership has been left shaking its head at the behavior of it state chapter in Thuringia, but on the party’s right wing, a group known as the "Values Union” has defended the election of Kemmerich and is furious that he was forced to resign.
It has revealed the wide spectrum that exists within the CDU: On the one side are those who see the Green Party as a perfect political partner and support Merkel’s 2015 decision not to shut the country’s borders to refugees. And on the other are those who would likely have no problem switching to the AfD if it didn’t mean losing their party position or parliamentary mandate. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was unable to bring these two poles together.
Will the CDU be able to find someone to succeed where Kramp-Karrenbauer failed? Should the CDU wish to remain a big-tent party, that is the existential question it faces. The party must now rapidly find answers to the difficult questions it has ignored during its last decade-and-a-half in government: What does the party want to stand for? What answers does it have for the environmental, economic and technological upheavals facing Germany in the coming years? Will it remain true to the centrist course charted by Merkel or will it succumb to the pressure from the AfD and steer to the right, potentially even veering to the far right, as other conservative parties in Europe have done?
In short, the search for a new party chairperson and – at least according to the largely accepted consensus within the party – a new chancellor is more than just a question of personnel. It is decision over the future direction the CDU wants to take.
A Modern Form of Conservatism
The three likely candidates represent three different approaches. Friedrich Merz, once an up-and-coming CDU powerhouse who later turned his back on the party in a pique after Merkel took over, stands for economic liberalism and social conservatism. He is the embodiment of the pre-Merkel CDU and would lead the party to the right.
Armin Laschet represents a continuation of the Merkel course, which saw the CDU move to the center and even beyond in the last 15 years. There has been much recent speculation about a possible federal coalition government matching the CDU with the Greens, and Laschet is considered a possible bridge to such an alliance. But he is also politically flexible if he needs to be. In North Rhine-Westphalia, he currently leads a governing coalition with the FDP.
Then there is Jens Spahn, a candidate from the younger generation who could come to represent a modern form of conservatism. But he’s not quite ready for the next step. He is waiting in the wings behind Merz and Laschet and knows he isn’t the favorite, but that time is ultimately on his side.
The other player is Markus Söder, the 53-year-old governor of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. His image has recently undergone a rapid transformation. For years, he was merely seen as an overly ambitious schemer, but suddenly he looks more like a staid and steady leader. He has consistently denied rumors that he is interested in taking over from Merkel in Berlin, repeatedly insisting that his place is in Bavaria. But it is clear that he will have plenty to say on who might move into the Chancellery in Berlin.
Back in Magdeburg on Tuesday evening, Merz didn’t spend a whole lot of time discussing the economic situation in Saxony-Anhalt. He instead focused his attention on the world: on the U.S., on China’s New Silk Road and on what it all means for Germany. He breezily recited statistics and anecdotes, effortlessly coming up with historical comparisons. The many men in the audience listened intently. There were hardly any women.
Merz’s primary message was a promise. He "sincerely believes,” he said, that it is possible "to win back a significant share of AfD voters to the political center, and particularly for the Union” – the term "Union” being a shorthand reference to the CDU-CSU alliance. Later, an audience member asked Merz what share of the vote the Union might be able to win. Merz answered: "35 percent plus x is possible.”
But only, he believes, if the CDU chooses to follow him. And if it makes a clean break with the Merkel era.
Merz brought his speech to a close with comments that could be interpreted as a threat. He said he wanted to contribute to the situation, and that he wanted to "do so in a way that does not endanger the unity and harmony of the Union, particularly of the CDU.” But, he added: "If it becomes necessary, we can also address these questions in a contentious debate.” It wouldn’t be a big deal, he said, "if we had to hold another party congress to make a decision.”
As those comments make clear, Merz has no shortage of self-confidence. That hubris led him in 2018 – after he had lost the battle for CDU party leadership to Kramp-Karrenbauer – to more-or-less openly demand a seat at the cabinet table. Yet prior to that, he had consistently rejected the idea of even running for a position on the party’s governing board.
Merz's Achilles Heel
Back then, even supporters of Merz turned away from him, and it looked as though his attempted return to politics, after years of staying well away from Berlin as he pursued his successful legal career, had failed for good. But now, with the woman who sidelined him having stumbled, his dream of ending up at the top could actually come true.
Even though Merz began his career in politics, he has been away for so long that he can posture as an outsider, as one who is courageously prepared to take on the "establishment,” in contrast to the career party politicians – despite the fact that his brand of politics and his vision for the country was formed way back in the era of Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998. He is the oldest of the trio of aspirants, but also the most aggressive – which is well-received by all those who yearn for more authority and for a more masculine style of leadership.
But Merz has a clear Achilles heel: All of those voters who used to support the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) or the Greens but were lured over to the CDU by Merkel are extremely unlikely to find Merz palatable. For them, Merz is a kind of Lord Voldemort from the bygone neo-liberal era. His decision to step down from the supervisory board of asset management company Blackrock isn’t likely to change that.
Should Merz become CDU leader, his time at Blackrock will definitely become a contentious issue. For many, the company embodies all that is wrong with capitalism. But Merz has additional weaknesses, such as his occasional lack of self-control. Not to mention the deep wound that continues to drive him after all these years, despite his vehement denials.
In 2002, Angela Merkel defeated him in the battle to become the CDU/CSU floor leader in federal parliament, a defeat that continues to gnaw at him. Party allies say that at some point in every political discussion, Merz will begin talking about Merkel, about her mistakes and about the blame she bears for the party’s supposed downfall. It almost rises to the level of an obsession, and raises the question: Can someone who has so much personal emotion about his political career lead a party, much less a country? It’s not as if there is a shortage of narcissists on the world stage.
Merz thinks pretty much every move Merkel made was wrong: her sudden turn away from nuclear energy and toward renewables; her decision to keep Germany’s borders open during the refugee crisis; her presidential style of governing. Merkel, he believes, has left the CDU without a clear profile – and he now believes he has an opportunity to fix things.
On Tuesday, in Düsseldorf, the state capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet addressed the CDU group in state parliament. And his words were striking. It is now time, he said, to address the most important questions. The party’s very existence is at stake, he said, as is its future as a big-tent party and as a party capable of controlling the Chancellery. It is time, Laschet said, for all of the most vital questions to be calmly discussed.
Careful and Hesitant
Laschet is much more open in internal meetings than he is in public. On Tuesday in Düsseldorf, he even mentioned the names of his potential rivals, Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz. But he didn’t say who he thought might emerge victorious. It seems, however, as though he would very much like to be the one.
Laschet has long been wondering if he has what it takes to take on more responsibility – whether he has the stuff of a German chancellor. Should these questions ever become concrete as opposed to hypothetical, Laschet recently said, he wants to be prepared. He said he intended to deeply consider his future and be honest with himself.
Laschet is a careful, hesitant person, but his introspection evidently led him to believe he would make a good chancellor, with those close to him saying he is ready to take on higher responsibilities. In contrast to 2018, when he ultimately declined, following some hesitation, to run for the position of party chair, he now sees Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation as an opportunity.
But what does Laschet stand for? It has been said over and over again that he would be the ideal candidate for a CDU-Green Party coalition. But why? Perhaps because he is thought to have been part of a loose group of young CDU and Green parliamentarians who discussed a possible alliance between the two parties. Or because he worked toward improving integration policy, a focus that earned him the nickname "Turkish Armin” among his more conservative opponents within the CDU.
When the situation calls for it, though, Laschet can be quite conservative himself. In the North Rhine-Westphalian campaign, he pulled the conservative domestic policy expert Wolfgang Bosbach into his team and named Friedrich Merz as his government’s chief Brexit adviser. He has also occasionally tried his hand at the right-wing dog whistle. In a recent interview with DER SPIEGEL, he criticized the higher-than-average salaries earned by journalists working for public broadcasting stations – a position that brought him praise from the right-wing AfD.
Laschet has also assembled a team that could carry him far, particularly his most important aide, who makes up for all of Laschet’s shortcomings, including discipline and ambition. That aide is Nathanael Liminski, Laschet’s chief of staff in the North Rhine-Westphalia capital.
Liminski, who is often referred to by his nickname "Momo,” is 34 and comes from an ultra-conservative, strictly religious family. He has nine siblings. In his early 20s, Liminski was a guest on one of Germany’s most watched talk shows, where he talked about why he was refraining from having sex before marriage. He is now married and has three children.
Whereas Laschet often comes across as chaotic and indecisive, Liminski ensures that everything is carefully planned and organized. People who know both of them say that the young chief of staff is much more ambitious than Laschet himself and continually drives his boss forward. Liminski, it is said, would love to become chief of staff in the Chancellery.
One of the two favorites in the race for the CDU leadership, thus, is determined to take the reins. The other is more determined than one might have thought, driven forward by an ambitious aide.
Merz has nothing to lose. He holds no political office that can be taken away from him. He already has a successful career behind him and the hobby pilot won’t even have to do away with his two airplanes if he doesn’t get elected to the CDU chairmanship position. He is in a win-win position.
Laschet, by contrast, has a lot to lose – whether he decides to run or not. As governor of Germany’s most populous state, there is an almost automatic expectation that he will play a role on the federal stage. If he declines to throw his hat into the ring for CDU chair, as he did in 2018, his political fortunes will automatically dim. But if he runs for the position and loses, he will be politically weakened.
What To Do About Merkel
Talks between Laschet, Merz and Spahn have begun, and no solution has yet emerged, but pressure is rising to reach an agreement without open conflict. Most CDU leaders would like to avoid a situation like the one in 2018, when Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz and Spahn spent weeks traveling through the country campaigning for support. Ultimately, a party congress chose Kramp-Karrenbauer by a razor-thin margin – leaving behind a division in the party that has yet to heal.
As such, the process is to be run differently this time around, more like it used to – with the candidates hammering out who gets the job together with party leadership. Some might criticize such an approach as back-room collusion, but those who support it say it is better than spending months tearing each other apart in public.
Things will be made more complicated by the fact that the CSU also has a say. The new chair of the CDU, after all, is also supposed to become the chancellor candidate for the Union as a whole. But some in the CSU aren’t completely happy with that arrangement. They would like to see the CDU first choose a new leader before potential conservative chancellor candidates are discussed.
Many, though, seem to have forgotten that the position of chancellor is not actually available at the moment. Angela Merkel is still there – and will continue to be there even after the CDU manages to find a new leader. And that makes the situation even more sensitive.
It seems unlikely, after all, that Merkel is prepared to immediately vacate the Chancellery. Which means that the structure that just failed – that of having a chancellor from the CDU who is not head of the party – will be reinstated. Fully one-and-a-half years remain until the next general election. If Merz was chosen to lead the CDU, it would be a surprise if the two of them could stay on good terms even for a week and a half.
Merkel said in 2018 that she wants a "dignified” departure from office and doesn’t want to be driven out. And even if she were to vacate her seat in the Chancellery, the current government is a coalition with the SPD, and the Social Democrats have said they would not vote for a new chancellor in German parliament absent new elections. And in the current situation, it is anything but clear that the conservatives would emerge from new elections as the strongest political camp.
Merkel has other levers as well. Among CDU leaders, it is considered a virtual certainty that Söder, the head of the CSU, will continue to insist on a significant cabinet reshuffle, a demand he first made earlier this year. Many expect he will make his party’s support for a CDU chancellor candidate dependent on such a reshuffle.
But that puts Merkel right back into the center of the debate. After all, as people close to her are fond of pointing out, it remains the chancellor’s job to appoint cabinet ministers. And surveys show that Merkel remains quite popular, giving her more power over the coming debate than might immediately be apparent.
The Importance of Party Unity
If all that weren’t complicated enough, pressure is mounting for the whole process to go as quickly as possible. Many hoped hoped that the CDU could wait until its planned party congress in December to settle on a candidate for the Chancellery. But nobody believes that timeline is realistic anymore – especially since it would damn the party to almost an entire year of navel gazing. On Wednesday, Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that she intends to start discussions with possible successors as early as next week. There are also vague plans forming for a party congress in early summer.
Everyone, though, is aware of the risk: The earlier the CDU chooses a new leader and chancellor candidate, the more time political opponents will have to attack him. Those in favor of accelerated proceedings argue that time is nevertheless of the essence because new elections could come quicker than expected and, they say, party unity is more important than all other considerations.
Though it is currently unclear what party unity they might be referring to.
At noon on Monday, Mark Hauptmann was sitting in his office at the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in a rotten mood. Hauptmann is head of the faction of young CDU/CSU lawmakers in federal parliament, and he was incensed at the way CDU leaders were treating the party’s collaboration with the AfD in Thuringia as an outrageous political sin. He holds a completely different view.
Hauptmann believes that Kemmerich, the FDP lawmaker who was elected by Thuringia’s state parliament as governor with votes from the AfD, should have remained in office and thinks new elections in the state are a bad idea. He tweeted that he "is just shaking my head” at how Merkel handled the situation. And now, the CDU party leadership, from its weakened position, was going after the arch-conservative CDU wing known as the Values Union. "Those demanding the Values Union be shut out are committing two huge strategic errors,” complains Hauptmann, himself a native of Thuringia. First of all, he says, doing so could trigger the establishment of a new conservative party to the right of the CDU. Second, he adds, "from both a practical and political point of view, it isn’t possible” to ignore the voices of that many CDU members all at once.
Losing Their Patience
Two weeks earlier, Karin Prien was drinking tea in a Berlin café – and her mood was just as bad, but for a completely different reason. Prien is the education minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein and is among the most liberal members of the CDU. She is demanding that the party rethink its approach to the Left Party, shunned by most CDU members for its partial roots in the East German communist party. She believes that equating the far left with the far right – likening the Left Party to the AfD – to be the "root of all evil.”
Such are the extremes within the CDU. There are those on the right who have no problem with joining a fascist like Björn Höcke in electing a state governor and those on the left hoping for the CDU to rethink its relationship with the extreme left. The question as to how the CDU should position itself in the rapidly changing German political party landscape is threatening to tear the party apart.
The CDU is largely suffering from the same problems that have beset the SPD in recent years. Traditional voter milieus are eroding; their core supporters are dying off; coalitions are becoming more difficult to assemble and long-held convictions no longer apply.
Phases of transition, of the kind Germany is now facing as the Merkel era comes to an end, also tend to be phases of uncertainty in which power vacuums can quickly form. Suddenly, there is no authoritative figure pointing the way.
And in Merkel’s case, there is even more to it than that. In her more than 14 years as Germany’s chancellor, Merkel rejuvenated her party, led it to the center and attracted new groups of voters. For as long as Merkel’s recipe brought the CDU success at the federal and state levels, conservatives in the party kept quiet. But the refugee crisis brought that period of peace to an end, and the conservatives have been rebelling against Merkel’s course ever since. The battle centered on the Values Union is just one example of the challenges now facing the party.
Even level-headed Christian Democrats are losing their patience these days -- people like Ralph Brinkhaus, a conservative floor leader in German parliament. On Wednesday, Brinkhaus took part in a confidential meeting of around two dozen members of the CDU and Green parties. They met up in an Italian restaurant in the heart of Berlin.
The group has been meeting on-and-off for some time. The atmosphere is usually friendly and relaxed. But not on Wednesday. Several Greens spoke of their concerns about the developments in Thuringia and warned the CDU members present to more clearly distance the party from right-wing extremism. After about an hour of discussion, participants say, Brinkhaus exploded, saying he had been looking forward to a pleasant evening but had to sit through this lecture instead. "You’re up there on your moral high horse the whole time. I can’t have it!” participants quote him as saying. He said that he and the CDU leadership had distanced themselves – what else could they do?
The vignette shows just how annoying it has become for CDU leaders to be constantly shoved into the same political drawer as the Values Union. But what is the Values Union, exactly?
The group has just 3,719 engaged members, less that 1 percent of the party’s entire membership. But they create an outsized ruckus. Established in 2017, the group was eager to establish an antipode to party leadership, which Values Union adherents felt had slid too far to the left. For quite some time, many from the CDU’s conservative wing – who shied away from explicitly identifying with the Values Union – were more than supportive when Values Union leader Alexander Mitsch would go on the attack against Merkel and her policies. Finally, many felt, someone wasn’t shying away from criticizing the chancellor.
Since the Thuringia debacle, however, members of the Values Union have become pariahs for their willingness to weaken the anti-AfD firewall. Recently, even the rather conservative head of the Young Union, Tilman Kuban, suggested that Mitsch should leave the party. His comment came in reaction to a media report that Mitsch had donated 120 euros to the AfD some time ago and had considered joining the party.
Dialogue Instead of Marginalization?
Mitsch is not the only person in the Values Union with connections to the far right. There is, for example, Sebastian Reischmann, the state leader of the Values Union in Hesse and someone who knows David Bendels well. His "Organization for the Maintenance of the Rule of Law and Mainstream Conservative Freedoms e.V.” created expensive advertising campaigns for the AfD for years. According to information available to DER SPIEGEL, Reischmann took part in a boat tour with Bendels’ group in 2016. He also travelled together with Bendels and a current AfD politician to Berlin in January of 2017 for a new year’s event thrown by Junge Freiheit, a far-right weekly.
In response to a request for comment, Reischmann says he knows Bendels and the AfD politician from their time in the Young Union, the CDU’s youth wing, and other party groups. "To this day I am friends on a personal level with Mr. Bendels,” he writes. He claims that he has had "no contact” with the AfD lawmaker since shortly after the latter’s "departure from the CDU,” and that he is "neither financially nor politically connected” to the group affiliated with the AfD. He adds that democracy requires dialogue, not marginalization.
Or Christian Sitter, the state leader of the Values Union in Thuringia: He had early connections to the far-right scene. Between 2010 to 2015, he was a supporting member of the group that finances the New Right magazine Blaue Narzisse (Blue daffodil). In response to a request for comment, Sitter said via the spokesperson for the Values Union that he left the group immediately when he read in 2015 that the "head of the group was involved in Pegida Dresden,” a reference to the Islamophobic protest movement. The spokesperson, however, did not respond to the question as to whether the connections between Reischmann and Sitter contradict the fundamental principles of the Values Union.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 8/2020 (February 15, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Such connections make it seem as though CDU’s right-wing bulwark is crumbling, despite the fact that the party was, for decades, able to bring all manner of conservatives under a single roof. Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor, shaped the CDU into a catchall for mainstream conservatism stretching from the center to the far right. On Sundays, the C in CDU was emphasized, but during the week, the party made flexible, pragmatic policy decisions, offering something to all those who didn’t want to support the SPD and who wasn’t a communist.
In its early years, Adenauer’s party merged with smaller, competing conservative parties. Only the FDP survived. The right-wing margins were also included: In some regions, members of the Socialist Reich Party (SRP), a neo-Nazi party that was banned in 1952, were integrated into the CDU.
Adenauer’s goal was to prevent the rise of a competing nationalist party, and that remained a core concern for decades. Former CSU leader Franz Joseph Strauß and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl both adhered to the conviction that "no democratically legitimized party” was to exist to the right of the CDU. And that conviction held up for a long time.
Did Merkel neglect that conservative element and thus set off the decline of the CDU? Members of the Values Union see it that way. But the CDU’s tradition is very different: Under Adenauer and Kohl’s leadership, the CDU was not a programmatically conservative party. Only the party’s marketing was conservative; it was otherwise flexible to the point of self-abnegation.
Whereas the SPD was always interested in big projects, the Union always oriented itself towards people’s everyday lives. Franz Walter, a political scientist in the central German city of Göttingen, describes it as the "Christian Democratic magic formula.” He says, "The republic has changed since the late 1950s, but people have barely noticed. That is the CDU’s doing, but a majority of German citizens love that about the party.”
"We Don't Have That Much Time"
Wednesday at the Bundestag in Berlin was a perfect evening for Jens Spahn. The faction of young members of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, which consists of parliamentarians under the ages of 35, was presenting its book: "Politics for Tomorrow: The Young Generation Claims its Political Rights.” There were pretzel sticks and soft drinks. About 80 people were in attendance.
There were several issues to discuss on the evening’s agenda, including the challenges associated with being both young and conservative - a perfect line-up for Spahn in his effort to attract attention in the race for the position of party head. Conservative and modern? Spahn hopes to show that the two are not incompatible.
A few hours before the event, he had announced that he was "prepared to take on responsibility.” Since then, it has become clearer than ever that Spahn isn’t planning on fading into the background.
Mark Hauptmann welcomed the health minister as our "evergreen,” – the same Hauptmann who offered such a vehement defense of the Values Union. He said that the title of the keynote – "Young, Political and Conservative” – couldn’t be more fitting for Spahn: "You’ve still got time.” Laughter rippled through the audience. Spahn fought off a smile, then began to speak.
Ahead of the 2018 party conference in Hamburg when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was chosen to lead the party, he recalled, many people had told him that he should withdraw from the race and that there was still plenty of time to do so. He heard the same thing at every regional conference, he said, adding that he found the warning to be rather annoying. "Sometimes,” he intoned, "we actually don’t have that much time.”
Then the minister broached one of his favorite current topics: the population’s loss of trust, the difference politicians need to be making in people’s everyday lives. On this issue, he is a serious pragmatist. But in the next moment, he argues that Germany will only still exist in 10 years "if a few people still exist who see themselves as German.” Another flash of provocation.
Spahn is a kind of personification of the CDU’s magic formula. He is, on one hand, conservative, always emerging victorious in his district in the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, most recently in 2017 with 50 percent of the vote. Spahn is also -- what else -- Catholic.
On the other hand, he is married to a man and seen as representing the modern, metropolitan side of the party. Jens Spahn is flexible, depending on the audience.
During an interview in his office, he points out that, although he has several books about Helmut Kohl on his bookshelves, "I have Obama there too.”
For some time now, Spahn has wanted to get out of the young, conservative hardliner corner of the party, the ones who spoke out in favor of a ban on full-face veils, railed against "muscle machos” with immigrant backgrounds and called for the birth-control pill to remain prescription-only, because these kinds of pills aren’t "M&Ms.” Such comments were great at triggering outrage, and getting Spahn into the media. But he backed away from shock value a while ago.
Now he is trying to make a name for himself with his policies instead. Could Spahn ultimately be the compromise candidate if Laschet and Merz can’t reach an agreement?
On the upside, he would represent a generational change. On the downside, there are his poll numbers. He could struggle, especially among women. Many were angry when Spahn announced a study on the psychological consequences of abortion. There are concerns within the party that Spahn could lose to Robert Habeck if the latter was to run as a candidate for chancellor on the behalf of the Greens.
Everything There Is to Say
And then there’s the question of whether compromise is the key to the Union’s health. Or if, in an era which prioritizes unique selling points, it needs to settle on a direction. Should it shift to the right, as Merz proposes, in order to steal voters from the AfD? And if so, how far?
At the state parliament in Munich on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the session of the CSU state parliamentary group had just ended, and the state’s governor was walking down the halls of the Maximilianeum, the building housing Bavarian parliament. But Markus Söder wasn’t interested in commenting on the state of his sister party. He didn’t want it to look like he was interfering. And anyways, people close to Söder have argued, he has already said everything there is to say.
As if on cue, an interview with Söder had appeared that morning in the center-right daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It included a few rather interesting comments.
He does not believe, Söder told the paper, "that the CDU can succeed with a campaign platform from the past.” He said he doesn’t believe that a "return to nuclear power, return to mandatory military service, return to the old Union” will work. And: "A total break with the Merkel era would have fatal consequences for the Union overall.”
One could reach such comments as a clear rejection of Friedrich Merz and his retro approach. The CSU’s leadership has moved away from believing it can win back voters from the AfD by simply moving far enough to the right. It is a lesson they learned the hard way in the last Bavarian state election in 2018. Now, Söder is giving his policies a green tinge, a strategy that has secured a surprisingly wide range of support in Bavaria – perhaps suggesting that he could actually be an ideal chancellor candidate for the Union. That, though, he has repeatedly insisted, is not his goal.
Söder wouldn’t be Söder if he didn’t quickly also cut the three aspirants from his sister party down to size. In the interview, he said that, although Laschet, Merz and Spahn are "suited for leadership duties,” the "polls also show that there is no broad majority of support for them among the Germans.”
In other words: The CDU has no suitable candidate, which means that either Merkel would need to run once more. Or Söder would have to give it a go.
As a result, the state of the CDU is more muddled than at any time since the 1999 donation scandal that propelled Merkel up the party leadership ladder. The party no longer knows what it wants to be – and the discussions in the coming days and weeks will center so much on leadership questions that there will hardly be any time left to discuss its policies.
If it chooses Merz, the party would be represented by very personification of the aughts -- in 2021.
If it goes with Laschet, it would be pinning its hopes on a figure of peace and comfort at a time when the world is remaking itself.
And if it settles on Spahn, the CDU would be attempting to replicate the model embodied by Sebastian Kurz, the young Austrian chancellor. But Jens Spahn is no Sebastian Kurz. He is Jens Spahn.
All three must fear ending up behind the Greens. And a coalition in which the Greens are the larger partner and the CDU-CSU is the smaller one would not only be the greatest humiliation, but also the end of the party as we have known it. The destructive forces would simply be too strong.
It’s a conundrum that would leave many any aspirant weak in the knees. And although Friedrich Merz isn’t showing any sign of concern, his network within the party is no longer that what it once was. Merz could once have depended on support from a powerful group within the party – the fabled Andes Pact, the group of men who prevented Angela Merkel from becoming the candidate for chancellor in 2002. But the pact is crumbling.
In the fall of 2018, pact members failed to put out a statement of support for electing Friedrich Merz as head of the CDU. Too many of the pact-members -- including former German President Christian Wulff, European lawmaker Elmar Brok and Constitutional Judge Peter Müller -- didn’t see Merz as the best choice.
And this time around, there won’t be a statement of support for Merz either: About two years ago, Armin Laschet was included in the Andes Pact. When it comes to the pact, the two men are now equals.
By Melanie Amann, Maik Baumgärtner, Lukas Eberle, Markus Feldenkirchen, Sebastian Fischer, Jan Friedmann, Florian Gathmann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christoph Hickmann, Roman Höfner, Martin Knobbe, Veit Medick and Ann-Katrin Müller