CDU struggles to shake whiff of graft ahead of German election

‘Party of law and order’ has had issues with graft, bribe-friendly MPs and lack of transparency

An election campaign banner featuring former German chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, current chancellor Angela Merkel and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet hangs on the CDU headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

An election campaign banner featuring former German chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, current chancellor Angela Merkel and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet hangs on the CDU headquarters in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

 

No one does sleaze quite like Britain’s Tories but Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) tries its very best.

When chancellor Angela Merkel’s fourth term ends after Sunday’s election, she will depart the international stage with an incorruptible reputation.

Not so her CDU. Seeking a record fifth term in office, it presents itself as Germany’s law and order party despite a consistent pattern: in bed with big business, bribe-friendly MPs – and energetic efforts to block transparency.

Take Philip Amthor, a 28-year-old CDU wunderkind and the outgoing Bundestag’s youngest MP, who delights in the attention attracted by his carefully-cultivated Tory Boy appearance.

In 2018, Amthor wrote a letter – on Bundestag headed paper – to the CDU-controlled economics ministry, urging the minister to meet with the US start-up Augustus Intelligence.

The firm’s owner subsequently thanked him for the “fab” letter and, six months later, gave him nearly 3,000 share options in the artificial intelligence software firm.

Exposed by Der Spiegel, Amthor made a thin-lipped apology and the affair died down quickly as, technically, he had broken no Bundestag rules. On Sunday, Amthor is hoping for a strong result to inherit from Merkel the mantle of CDU leader in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Asked on the campaign trail about August Intelligence, he said: “It’s never a good idea in politics to only look in the rear-view mirror.”

Pandemic profiteering

In the fight against political corruption, the CDU/CSU agreed this year to a lobby register for Bundestag members and the federal government – not because of a Damascene conversion to democratic transparency, but because of pandemic profiteering.

Some 13 CDU/CSU MPs past and present are accused of collecting at least €11 million in fees for political introductions that led to sales of about €50 million worth of personal protective equipment to German authorities. The affair is complex and ongoing but, as the Lobbywatch organisation puts it: “CDU/CSU MPs used their position and influence to make personal financial gains in one of the worst crises of the postwar era.”

Several of the MPs resigned but still face criminal charges, as do CDU/CSU politicians accused of accepting payments from Azerbaijan in exchange for lobby work in Berlin and at the Council of Europe.

In March one of the original four accused, CDU politician Karin Strenz, fell ill on a flight back from Cuba which was diverted to Ireland, where she died. With investigations ongoing into the other three, the CDU/CSU parliamentary party – already under pressure over the protective equipment affair – demanded all its MPs sign a (legally non-binding) “honour” declaration they had not been involved in pandemic profiteering.

The public uproar persisted, forcing the CDU/CSU to give up its long-held opposition to a lobby register, as demanded by the Bundestag opposition and its junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Though filled with compromises and loopholes, this new register requires all MPs, ministers and senior department heads to declare all contacts with lobbyists in the course of their work.

High-level lobbying

Already the register has thrown light on the high-level lobbying by Wirecard, the notorious financial services company that collapsed last year with an imaginary €1.9 billion on its balance sheet.

Among those who lobbied the chancellery and finance ministry on Wirecard’s behalf were a slew of centre-right political figures: two former CDU state premiers, an ex-CDU state secretary and a former CSU cabinet minister in Berlin.

In the closing days of campaigning the CDU/CSU has redirected some of the unflattering Wirecard attention on to outgoing finance minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD chancellor hopeful.

But efforts to stir up voter outrage at Scholz have been undermined by footage of how the CDU/CSU – behind in the polls – motivated election campaigners recently at its party headquarters. With a clip of Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street that, critics say, comes straight from the CDU/CSU playbook.

“Let me tell you something. There is no nobility in poverty,” Di Caprio tells his enraptured audience. “I choose rich every f***in’ time. Cause, at least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo wearing a $2,000 suit . . . and $40,000 gold f***in’ watch!”

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