Photo by Lukas Barth-Tuttas

The strange death of the CDU

The decline of Angela Merkel’s party may return Germany to a Weimar-style splintered parliament

Artillery Row

As Angela Merkel prepares to retire, the BBC and the rest of the English language media routinely assure us of how overwhelmingly popular “Mutti” is among Germans. 80 per cent endorse her leadership according to polls. Yet her Christian Democrat party is languishing at around 20 per cent in the polls. The CDU’s desperate position a week before the federal election might be taken to show that without Frau Dr. Merkel’s coat-tails, the party is lost. But the grim prognostications for the CDU are not simply due to the absence of the long-serving Chancellor from the Number One spot on their list.

Angela Merkel’s record as a vote-getter in real elections as opposed to opinion polls has been dismal. The CDU has provided the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for fifty-seven of its seventy-two years, with Merkel serving sixteen of them. Over roughly the same period, the Tories have provided the prime minister here for only 45 years.

Yet, when election results over the life of the Federal Republic are considered, what is striking is that Merkel’s tenure at the top of the Berlin greasy poll has been despite, not because, of her vote-getting ability. Until now, the Christian Democrats’ poorest result was held by Konrad Adenauer’s infant CDU which took only 31 per cent in 1949 but soon absorbed the bulk of the centre-right vote to score routinely well over 40 per cent and even 50 per cent in 1957 and 48 per cent in 1983. Until Merkel’s CDU dropped to 35 per cent in 2005, the worst CDU scores were around 40 per cent, enough to win British first past-the-post on many occasions since 1945. By 2017, Merkel’s CDU was down to 33 per cent. Now it looks set for a humiliating 20 per cent or so.

Germans telling pollsters before an election how much they admire Angela Merkel is the equivalent of ABC+s here telling YouGov how desperate they are to pay more for the NHS or social care until actually asked to do so. In other words, the first woman chancellor of Germany is the totem of received correct opinion: a large majority knows they should endorse her in public but only a third have voted for her in the privacy of the polling booth.

Merkel has been the politicians’ politician

What Angela Merkel has been is the consummate backroom political dealmaker. From her shafting of her male CDU rivals, including her patron, Helmut Kohl, to get to the top of the party, to her cobbling together coalition after coalition since 2005, Merkel has proved herself Berlin’s best behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer. She has known how to play the weak hand actually dealt her by the voters better than her rivals. Similarly at EU summits, Merkel has corralled the other leaders into a consensus at late-night conflabs never put to a real electorate.

Merkel has been the politicians’ politician, but her sixteen years at the head of the government have eroded the foundations of the CDU as one of the two mass “people’s parties” underpinning Germany’s democratic stability since reunification, or even since the founding of the Federal Republic in West Germany in 1949.

It is worth remembering that even if the Social Democrats look set to finish first on 27 September, their share of the vote is likely to hover around a derisory quarter of the poll. The two great German parties forming the outgoing grand coalition are likely to scrape together less than fifty per cent of the vote. Contrast that with either the Tory-Labour share in the first post-Thatcher poll in 1992, or even in 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn bombed: the two big British parties scored over 75 per cent together.

Under the self-consciously un-charismatic Olaf Schulz, the SPD looks set to enjoy a dead cat bounce at the expense of the CDU. Merkel’s preferred successor, Armin Laschet, has not enjoyed John Major’s post-Thatcher bounce. If anything the jolly Westphalian, happiest when opening the Carnival season in a fool’s cap and bells, recalls that Welsh boyo, Neil Kinnock. He’s the sort of bloke everyone knows which is not necessarily to his advantage.

Caught out sniggering over a private joke during a solemn moment to mark the scores of flood deaths over the summer, Laschet seems haplessly accident prone. In one three-way TV debate between himself, Scholz and the Greens’ leader, Laschet came fourth behind “none of the above” in a poll of viewers! But the CDU’s haemorrhaging  of support is more than one man’s folly. The failure of the “barons” of the party to oust him as their lead candidate indicates that no-one wanted to be the last captain on the bridge of this sinking ship. As the CDU leader who managed only 40 per cent twenty years ago remarked, there’s no tribal following for a scapegoat.

Last Friday, Markus Soeder, the leader of the Bavarian sister party of Laschet’s CDU, had lunch with the Chancellor-candidate  and tweeted out the hardly optimistic remark afterwards, “In the last days of the election campaign, we will do everything to stop a left-wing earthquake”!

Why does the CDU fail to score an electoral bonus?

Proportional representation is often blamed in the Anglosphere for the splintering of the electorate in countries like Germany, but for decades its voting system produced a kind of two-and-a-half party system. The liberal Free Democrats oscillated between the CDU and the SPD to provide the majority. Yet now Germany seems to be returning to a Weimar-style splintered parliament with at least six parties.

If the SPD has lost votes to the Left the heir to the East German Communists now expanded into economically depressed states like Bremen or Saarland the CDU has been triangulated between the more free market Free Democrats and the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD). Merkel’s centrism has left space for both a Thatcherite-style pro-market FDP (very different from our own LibDems) while at the same time she failed to imitate Thatcher’s refusal to let a viable hard right party erode the Tory vote.  Merkel’s over-optimistic “We can do it” response to opening the floodgates to mass immigration in 2015 has spawned the AfD’s obdurate resentful constituency shaving at least 8 per cent of the CDU’s vote.

The headline statistics for the German economy under Merkel look very good compared with the other big European states, so why does the CDU fail to score an electoral bonus? The harsh reality is that big corporations even their shareholders are only a small proportion of voters. By offshoring production (to China for 40 per cent of Volkswagens, for instance, or to the BMW plant in Oxford), German companies’ bottom lines look very good, but the negligible returns on savings due to membership of the euro, compounded by bailouts after 2009 and since Covid, have left many Germans feeling poorer. The fact that they’re richer than the neighbours doesn’t mean much.

Big profits for Germany’s dominant big corporations have not been mirrored in equally big wage rises or the preservation of high-paying skilled industrial jobs. That has cut into the CDU’s working class base which had shrunk so much support for the other big “people’s party”, the Social Democrats, since 2005. The gig economy has arrived in Germany too, even though broadband speeds there lag.

Lack of investment in new technologies and high-speed internet typifies Merkel’s approach to the economy. Germany continues to do well what it has always done well but does not innovate. Even the forests of wind turbines blighting so much of Germany’s romantic landscapes can’t disguise the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, whether gas from Russia or lignite from Westphalia. Merkel’s impulsive abandonment of nuclear power after Fukashima in 2011 has pushed up Germany’s dependence on “dirty” fuels and kept electricity prices high.

Angela Merkel’s long years of political dominance look set to sputter out

Oddly enough the Greens have failed to make the breakthrough that so many expected given the party’s mix of eco-concerns, which should have chimed with German Angst about global warming and the evidence of the recent floods. That deluge did not really boost the Greens but they certainly swamped Laschet even as his warnings that the Greens’ economic policies threatened jobs in Germany’s energy-guzzling industries, seemed to find an echo in voter sentiment but not in willingness to vote for him.

The Greens’ more hard line foreign policy agenda towards Russia and China has won them plaudits in NATO but may stall their electoral support in the late teens. Maybe Germans’ post-1945 trauma about foreign engagements runs counter to this new Green assertiveness which contrasts with their original 1983 breakthrough pacifist manifesto.

Angela Merkel’s long years of political dominance look set to sputter out in a long autumn of horse-trading among politicians of varying degrees of unpopularity as they haggle over a new coalition. There will be no German equivalent of the sharp turn from Tories to New Labour as in 1997 here, or from Remainer coalition to Brexiteers in 2019. Yet Merkel’s retirement means there can be no disguising the strange, slow death of the CDU under her stewardship. As Germans muse over the possible variety of traffic-light style coalitions to come Red-Green or Red-Orange-Green stop-go seems likely to be Angela Merkel’s legacy.

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