Opposition Meltdown The Great Disintegration Act

With the government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder against the ropes, the opposition appears to be collapsing. Why can't party boss Angela Merkel keep her party together? Does she know her friends from her enemies?

The bell may be tolling for opposition leader Angela Merkel this autumn.

The bell may be tolling for opposition leader Angela Merkel this autumn.

This summer should have been a glorious one for Germany's opposition. After all, the government they oppose, led by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, seemed to be self-destructing. Tens of thousands across the country spent August marching against his deeply unpopular social reform plans. Support for his Social Democratic Party (SPD) collapsed to unprecedented lows in two of three state elections since June, topped off by a pathetic 9.8 percent showing in the eastern state of Saxony. And as recently as mid-July, only 23 percent of Germans said they wanted him as their leader.

The vultures on the other side of the aisle should have been circling. But as it turned out, they weren't hungry for the SPD this summer -- they were too busy cannibalizing each other.

Intra-party bickering, power struggles, and a drawn out fight with its Bavarian sister party has left the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) losing support in the polls just when it should be cashing in on the SPD's weakness. The conservatives now have only 38 percent support -- their lowest standing in over two years -- according to a Wednesday survey. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, are at 33 percent and rising. Worse yet, a party leadership that appeared united and powerful as recently as December of last year is crumbling, with support vanishing within the CDU for party boss Angela Merkel.

"I am extremely worried about the current appearance of our party," CDU member Karl-Udo Sehlbach said at a recent party rally in the eastern German city of Halle. "We need to speak with one voice again -- it can't be that every day we air a new load of dirty laundry in public."

Failing to cash in

Of course the problems of Germany's opposition aren't unique in Europe. The conservative Tories in England have also failed to cash in on a Tony Blair government charting an Iraq course diametrically opposed to public opinion. As in Germany, weak leadership has been blamed. According to an early October survey, only 11 percent of the population believe opposition leader Michael Howard is providing strong leadership and the party has the support of 34 percent of the voters, two percentage points behind Blair's Labour Party.

But for Germany, a weak opposition means the country is running out of political choices. Not happy with their current government's cutbacks of an elaborate cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system, Germans are still wary of turning to a fragmenting CDU party lacking both strong leadership and a clear alternative to Schroeder's program. The result has been a boost to alternative -- and sometimes radical -- parties. In the Saxony elections, the right-extremist NPD party won 9.2 percent of the vote securing it seats in the state parliament. In a September vote in the state of Brandenburg, likewise in former East Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor to the East German Communist Party, won 32.1 percent, more than any other party.

But so far the CDU's response has consisted of one embarrassment after another.

Oops # 1: Following the European Union's preliminary approval of Turkey as a possible new member, Merkel, who has vocally opposed Turkey's accession for months, called for a signature gathering campaign two weeks ago to protest Brussels' recommended that negotiations begin. Following massive resistance to the plan from conservatives throughout Europe, and charges of dilettantism from within her own party, Merkel was forced to back away from the idea.

Oops # 2: Last week, powerful and influential party figure Friedrich Merz resigned -- many say because Merkel kept him at arm's length and climbed over him on her way up the party leadership ladder. His move has set off suspicion, now swirling through the German press, that, with national elections less than two years away, a putsch may be in the works. A number of minister presidents in CDU-controlled states, likewise disgruntled by Merkel's leadership, seem to be angling after Merkel's job and hoping to replace her as the CDU candidate for chancellor. Edmund Stoiber, head of CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), has also been heavily pressuring Merkel. Much of the intrigue has made its way into the public eye.

Merkel and Stoiber: Why can't we all just get along?

Merkel and Stoiber: Why can't we all just get along?

"At a recent regional party conference," Merkel told DER SPIEGEL in its latest issue, "it was perfectly expressed: father and mother should only fight when the children are already asleep and not when they are awake ... We are all aware that we are only strong when we show we are unified in public."

While some have speculated that Merkel's trouble within her own party is caused by the fact she is a woman, much more likely, say CDU insiders, is a continuing feeling she is an outsider -- that she didn't grow up with the party. In short, her problem is that she is from former East Germany.

Much of the party leadership behind Merkel are men who grew up together in the CDU, a party that was banned in East Germany. They were members of the CDU's version of the Young Republicans together and, for years, had set their sites on becoming chancellor one day themselves. A number of them, including Merz, have even fallen victim to Merkel as she made her way to the top. "Merkel just doesn't get it. She has only been in West Germany for 15 years," said CDU member Uwe Solinger referring to the upcoming anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Merkel, for her part, is trying to keep a stiff upper lip about the party crisis. While admitting a somewhat prickly atmosphere, she insists there are no fundamental differences among German conservatives. "Everyone knows," she said, "that in an election campaign the CDU and the CSU have to march to the same drummer."

As the intrigue continues to climb leading up to the annual CDU party convention on Dec. 5, it is becoming increasingly unclear whether she will be the one playing the drums.


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