Merkel strategy holds firm against criticism within ruling party

Mon, Dec 3, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:When the great and good of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) arrive for their party conference in Hanover today, Stephan Werhahn will not be among them.

The grandson of Konrad Adenauer, the CDU’s first leader, joined up as a student but left last March in protest at what he calls its “political rape” under the current leader, chancellor Angela Merkel.

He takes issue with crisis-era measures from conditional euro zone bailouts to ECB sovereign bond-buying. Dr Merkel defends these measures as alternativlos – without alternative – to stabilise the euro zone. Mr Werhahn accuses her of hiding the true risks from German voters while “steamrolling” internal party critics.

“Anyone who presents any opposition is personally attacked; some become sick,” he told The Irish Times. “This is not the tradition of my grandfather.” Mr Werhahn comes from a conservative camp that sees the ESM bailout fund as one of many “monster structures” created by crisis-era EU institutional creep.

“After 20 or 25 summits we have a kind of Central Committee thinking: there’s no freedom, just bureaucratic socialism,” said the 59-year-old lawyer, who has defected to the Free Voters (FW). Already strong in Bavaria, the FW is planning its first nationwide election campaign in 2013.

“Europe will fail if the euro is forced upon these countries instead of letting them go and devalue their currency,” he said.

Though the proposals are designed to tap into growing uncertainty among German voters, particularly CDU supporters, political analysts say Mr Werhahn and the FW face an uphill challenge.

“Any displeasure over European politics inside the CDU is, at best, a small flame that is easily extinguished,” said Prof Werner Weidenfeld, political scientist at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University. “European politics is part of the CDU’s founding mythology, part of what defines the party, and one feels that to this day.”

He points to a similar attitude among German voters: their criticism of bailouts morphs into grudging support when individual measures are placed in a wider context of German solidarity with Europe.

Political striptease

Berlin political analyst Gero Neugebauer agrees. Dr Merkel remains unchallenged on European affairs, he suggests, because of her mastery of political striptease, revealing only a bit at a time.

“This is the woman who said there’d be no haircut as long as she lived,” said Prof Neugebauer of Berlin’s Free University. “But if you begin to imply that one’s prosperity depends on , that it’s cheaper to save Greece than throw it out, that’s an effective strategy.”

Right on cue, Dr Merkel warned CDU delegates heading to Hanover yesterday that leaving the current path on Athens would “cost much more money . . . and damage our economy”.

She promised to do “what is best for Germany and Europe” and promised to tell voters “again and again what the situation is” while refusing to be pinned down on possible losses on public loans to Greece.

“If Greece can manage its revenues without new debt, then we have to look at the situation and re-evaluate,” she told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

“But that’s not the case before 2014/15, if everything goes according to plan.”

After seven years in office, Dr Merkel enjoys a record two-thirds public support and is far more popular than her party. Her conservative critics, meanwhile, have yet to present a credible challenger to the leader and her policies. If the euro zone crisis stays calm in 2013 she can claim political credit, suggests Prof Neugebauer; if it worsens, voters are unlikely to risk a FW experiment.

But he concedes that a German economic chill next year – rising unemployment or a drastic collapse in exports – might dent the chancellor’s political credibility.