Germany: Christian Democratic Union faces identity crisis

Search for leader underway after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigns amid pressure from fringes

German chancellor Angela Merkel and CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at Bundestag in Berlin on Tuesday. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

German chancellor Angela Merkel and CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at Bundestag in Berlin on Tuesday. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

Take Micheál Martin’s Sinn Féin dilemma, double it, and you have an idea of what’s facing Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Post-election, the Fianna Fáil leader has a circle to square: possible coalition talks with a party that won the most votes, but with a past that hasn’t gone away.

As of Monday the CDU is searching for a new leader rather than a coalition partner, but the search was triggered by a shifting political landscape and growing pressure from the political fringes.

In chancellor Angela Merkel’s 18 years as CDU leader she shifted the party to the political centre, her huge personal popularity papering over any political cracks. This strategy began to slip when internal critics that emerged in the euro crisis became impossible to ignore during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.

The arrival of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and its shift from bailout to migration critics, began to pull in conservative voters for whom Merkel’s centrist CDU had become a cold house.

Immigration policies

Alarm at this defection saw the creation of a conservative CDU cabal called the “Werte Union” (Value Union). A self-described “grassroots conservative movement” and a bulwark against Germany’s “dominant left-wing ideology”, the group wants restrictive immigration policies and Merkel’s immediate departure.

Though not an official CDU organisation, about 80 per cent of its 4,000 members are also party members. And though the CDU has 100 times more members, the tiny Werte Union has proved talented at attracting attention – driving senior party members into fits of rage.

That rage turned incandescent a week ago. The Werte Union applauded the election in the eastern state of Thuringia of a liberal politician as state premier – with a majority that included CDU support but also far-right votes from the AfD.

This taboo-shattering alliance, designed to block a second term for Thuringia’s outgoing state premier from the Left Party, eventually triggered the resignation on Monday of CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

At a press conference to explain her decision she zeroed in on the Werte Union’s views and values as “incompatible” with CDU party membership.

Earlier, at a closed-door CDU meeting, a livid senior party figure attacked the Werte Union as a “cancerous boil”. Werte Union leader Alexander Mitsche shrugs off such attacks as telling of CDU leaders’ cowardice. 

“We rule out coalitions and co-operations with the AfD,” he said, but demands the next CDU leader shift right to beat the AfD and win back its voters. “We need to develop a profile for what we stand for as CDU.”

CDU leaders view their party as a broad tent of diverse groups and prefer to suffocate such directional debates before they turn divisive. Thus a 2018 party conference resolution outlawed coalitions and “similar forms of co-operation” with the AfD and also the Left Party.

Since Thuringia this resolution has come back to haunt the party. While the Werte Union wants to keep the door open to the far-right, critics suggests the resolution draws a false equivalence between the AfD and the Left Party, successors to East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party.

Historic burden

Some 30 years after German unity, a new generation of Left leaders acknowledge the party’s historic burden for the Berlin Wall and the murder or imprisonment of those who tried to flee.

As with Sinn Féin’s position on IRA crimes, not everyone in Germany believes the Left Party. But even its moderate critics believe the CDU’s 2018 resolution is undifferentiated. It fails to recognise pragmatic Left Party leaders in eastern states, and ignores how the Left Party recognises the German democratic order that the AfD aims to dismantle.

“One thing you cannot accuse us of is not having done enough to come to terms with our history, something the CDU could take note of,” said Jan Korte, a senior Left Party MP.

A week on the CDU’s flirt with the AfD has paralysed politics in Thuringia and cost the party leader her job after just 14 months.

The search for its next leader will be dominated by competing demands – for old political stability and fresh political thinking – and could trigger a restless identity crisis in Germany’s post-Merkel CDU.

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