Germany's Center Right Opts to Stay the Course

It was a moment that was invariably described as the end of an era. After eighteen years as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel was stepping aside. At her party’s convention in Hamburg, she addressed the party faithful for the last time as their leader. “I have always wanted to do my government and my party jobs with dignity, and one day to leave them with dignity,” Merkel said. “Now it’s time to open a new chapter.” Describing her role as a “great pleasure for me, a great honor,” Merkel was about to hand the reins of the party over to a successor chosen by a delegate vote.

Three candidates emerged as contenders. The first—and least successful—was Jens Spahn, a name that may reemerge later. Spahn is the current health minister in Merkel’s cabinet. Spahn, who is openly gay and a Catholic, was strongly critical of the decision to admit refugees to Germany in 2015. He has long advocated for a more liberal and free market German economy. Though he finished last among the three candidates, few expect the 38-year old to disappear.

A more competitive contender was Friedrich Merz, a former CDU official who left politics in the 2000s after a falling out with Merkel. Merz went into the private sector, where he had a successful career with the financial firm Black Rock. Firmly conservative, he appealed to voters who believed that Merkel’s center-right and moderate approach had alienated conservative voters. He promised to regain support lost to the AfD—an upstart anti-EU and anti-immigration party—and other parties and return the CDU to 40% support (which, in a country with seven parties in the parliament, is an excellent result). Merz’s outspoken conservatism won him a great deal of support.

In the end though, the party opted for neither of the above candidates, instead backing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Though Merkel did not endorse any of the candidates, Kramp-Karrenbauer was widely seen as a mini-Merkel, though AKK (as the former Saar Minister-President is commonly known) has not embraced this label,

AKK is a religious Catholic and a social conservative. She has publicly opposed gay marriage. Additionally, she is less devoted to the free-market than her rivals and has opted for a more moderate economic policy (i.e. she criticized a tax cut that reduced taxes on top income earners). Germany has adapted an economic approach commonly called Rhine Capitalism or the Social Market Economy. Dating back to CDU politician Ludwig Erhard, it calls for a mostly free market system but with a substantial welfare state and labor union rights. This approach has been favored by a number of right-of-center leaders throughout the post war history of Germany.

Kramp-Karrenbauer has noted some issues on which she disagrees with Merkel. She has already indicated that she will pursue a tougher stance on immigration than Merkel has. Taking such a stance may help unite the CDU after a spirited campaign in which her two rivals were well to her right. Additionally, she is an outspoken critic of the Nord Stream gas pipeline project, a Russian energy development that Germany has participated in. AKK has voiced concerns (which others on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed) that the project in its current form gives Russia excessive influence over Europe.

Though there are disagreements, Angela Merkel is likely to be able to plan her own exit. Whereas it was conceivable, perhaps even likely, that a Merz or Spahn victory would lead to Merkel leaving before the next election in 2021, AKK is likely to allow her mentor to stay in office until her planned exit at the end of her term.

In recent years, there has been an intensely anti-establishment mood across Europe. The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in 2016. France’s presidential election saw neither of the two established parties qualify for the second round. Meanwhile in Italy, a coalition of two populist parties took power following an election earlier this year. Why has Germany’s largest party opted against change?

The truth is that Germany has done well under Merkel’s leadership, particularly economically and fiscally. Germany recently had one of the largest budget surpluses since the country’s unification. Unemployment is low. Germany has experienced an economic upswing that is, as one economist told Reuters, “not only alive, it’s also kicking.”

While Merkel’s highly controversial plan for dealing with the refugee crisis—which let massive amounts of refugees into the country in 2015—has provoked a backlash, the CDU has retreated from its earlier stance on immigration and has shown willingness to take a harder line. While this remains a controversial issue—and one for which Merkel continues to be criticized—it appears that CDU members do not see it as a sufficient reason to support a radical departure from Merkel’s policies.

Konrad Adenauer, the former Cologne mayor and strong anti-Nazi who built not only the Christian Democratic Union but a stable, democratic Germany after WWII, had a slogan : “No Experiments!” After years of tyranny, radicalism, genocide, and war—and facing a new Soviet threat and a rival Communist East Germany next door—Adenauer envisioned the CDU as a moderately conservative party that would not undertake radical change. The CDU’s supporters continue to admire Adenauer (his name is on their headquarters). It appears they have continued his attitude.

Germany is now widely considered the indispensable country in the European Union, and its chancellor is widely considered to be one of the most powerful individuals in the world. One of the leading candidates for the next European Commissioner is Manfred Weber, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union which is an ally of the CDU. While the CDU’s new leader is distancing herself from some of Merkel’s more unpopular policies, do not expect many experiments from the party in the near future. After four consecutive election victories, the CDU’s backers have decided to continue on their path.