As Germany’s Christian Democrats enter the opposition, a reflection on the path that led them there.
It may not be official, but it is certain: the CDU and the CSU are bound for the opposition in the German Bundestag. Sixteen long years in power ended not with a bang, but a whimper, as Armin Laschet’s initial refusal to acknowledge defeat transitioned slowly into a glum acceptance, followed by his resignation as party leader. Tomorrow, on the 8th of December, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany is expected to be sworn in as Chancellor, leading a government of Social Democrats, Greens, and pro-business liberals.
At time of writing, the CDU and its Bavarian sibling the CSU remain in government, at least in a caretaker capacity, and various candidates are declaring their intention to run for the office of party leader. But before we can evaluate the candidates in the running, we must look back and examine why the CDU’s old rival, the SPD, is about to take the reins of power, mere months after an election which was the CDU’s to lose.
In the years leading up to the 2021 vote, the conventional wisdom was that after the ballots had been cast, the center-right CDU was going to form a coalition government with the progressive Greens, assumedly with the new CDU leader serving as Chancellor. Poll numbers largely remained steady between the 2017 election and the onset of COVID-19, with the CDU/CSU at the top, the Greens steadily gaining but remaining firmly underneath, and the other four parties muddling along.
The COVID-19 crisis gave the CDU and CSU their biggest boost in years: they gained 12 percentage points, shooting up from 27% to an expected 39% of the vote in early 2020, with a double-digit gap between them and the Greens, their nearest competitor. But in just over a year, that lead would be gone, and with it an uninterrupted 16 years of Christian Democrats leading Germany’s government. The surprise inheritor of both the CDU’s popularity and power was to be the SPD.
The SPD did not win the 2021 election so much as the CDU and the Greens lost it. Olaf Scholz was the first to secure his party’s official candidacy, back in August of 2020, and yet his party did not top the polls until August of 2021, a mere month before the election. This is not to knock Scholz, who took advantage of the situation in expert fashion and secured a genuinely impressive victory. Rather, this is to make abundantly clear that the CDU was not undone by a charismatic leader whose path to power was preordained. They have nobody to blame but themselves for their electoral defeat in the 2021 election. And now they must ask themselves “why?”
The ballad of Armin Laschet
The short answer is “Armin Laschet.” The longer answer is that Minister-President Armin Laschet, Chancellor candidate of the CDU, fumbled a chance to demonstrate that he was ready for the job, despite the near-perfect electoral circumstances he was bequeathed by his Christian-democratic predecessors. When the CDU and CSU gained those additional 12 percentage points in polls during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t a mere rally-around-the-flag effect. Elected officials, particularly from the Christian Democratic parties, had been quick to demonstrate that they were prepared to deal with the crisis.
The two figures at the head of this were Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder. As the pandemic gripped Germany, the pair appeared together in federal press conferences, laying out the current situation, describing the long-term containment strategy, and outlining the next steps in that strategy. In difficult times, they spoke to the country in simple but educated terms. Merkel, who herself has a background in the natural sciences, was able to explain how they aimed to keep transmission down, where the gaps were in current policy, what the government still needed to do, and what the long-term exit plan was down the road.
Markus Söder, sitting next to her, was able to tie the situation on the federal level to that on the state level, and emphasized that the federal government and the state governments were working hand-in-hand to combat the pandemic. One can say what they wish about Söder, (and many do,) but the straight-talking Franconian managed the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bavaria much more responsibly than many of the Free State’s northern neighbors. The CDU and the CSU subsequently soared in election polls, and Söder quickly became the country’s most popular politician.
Of course, whether CDU and CSU officials have actually been particularly competent throughout the ongoing crisis, or indeed throughout any recent crises, is not what matters. What matters is how they are perceived. Competence and stability are key in German politics, and they drive the country’s voting habits far more than explicitly ideological issues. The only time in post-war history that a single party won an absolute majority in the German Parliament was when the CDU ran in 1949 with the political slogan of “no experiments!” And that has been what the CDU has promised since. In matters fiscal, social, geopolitical, or even epidemiological, the CDU had a solid brand: they were responsible, and they remained in power for 51 of the past 72 years of democratic rule by relying on the appearance of competence. Given that legacy, Armin Laschet, the chosen candidate of the CDU and CSU in the 2021 election, performed disastrously.
While Söder was appearing in regular press conferences with the Chancellor, Laschet, (himself the Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia,) had little coherency or long-term vision in his public statements, at one time even carelessly blaming Romanians and Bulgarians (fellow EU citizens) for an increase in infections in his own state. When he bested Friedrich Merz, Norbert Röttgen, and ultimately Markus Söder to become the Chancellor candidate for the CDU and CSU, Laschet did his best to model himself after Angela Merkel: moderate, centrist, and cautious. But he had none of Merkel’s competence. Throughout the election campaign, Laschet made gaffe after gaffe. He waffled on human rights in China. His first concern about the return of the Taliban was the potential of another refugee crisis. He voted with his bubbled-in ballot facing outwards. Most embarrassingly, he was photographed laughing in the rubble following a series of devastating floods in his own state, shortly after lecturing a local that climate policy wouldn’t change because of one event.
None of this was surprising, to be clear. Laschet’s inability to win was known before his appointment and well before the election. Poll after poll of Christian Democrat voters and the general population alike showed that the Union parties were guaranteed a stronger start in the race for Chancellor if they went for Söder as opposed to Laschet. Even pitted directly against Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for Chancellor, and Olaf Scholz at the height of the latter’s popularity, Söder won out with incredible margins. However, when asked who they would prefer between Scholz, Baerbock, and Laschet, voters opted for Scholz.
As I will repeat later in this article, the CDU and CSU lost votes to the left. But it wasn’t inevitable. Voters wanted a moderate candidate who could be trusted in high-pressure situations. Laschet actively fumbled crises throughout the election season, particularly the pandemic. Annalena Baerbock’s series of gaffes, including accusations of CV-inflation, (which likely helped her relatability among the 18-29 demographic) plagiarism, and saying the N-word on national radio, made her look unready for the Chancellery at least and sloppy and insensitive at worst. Scholz, even without a crisis-solving track record, said all the right things, slipped out of the only scandals that could have hurt him, and gave the reassuring appearance of being an experienced politician ready to step into Angela Merkel’s shoes.
As pointed out by POLITICO’s Matthew Karnitschnig (ever cynical on topics Teutonic) and Hans von der Buchard, Scholz went so far as to openly channel Merkel in the final weeks of the campaign, positioning himself as a ready successor to the outgoing Chancellor, declaring in ad campaigns that he “Kanzlerin kann” (can be Chancellor, cleverly using the feminine version of the noun currently used to describe his forerunner,) and even making the classic Merkel-diamond pose on the cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine. (Link to article here) Scholz successfully positioned himself as a well-known politician who could be trusted with managing the country in turbulent times; someone who, rather than breaking with 16 years of Angela Merkel’s leadership, wanted to embrace her legacy, emphasizing modernization rather than revolutionary change. Ironically, Scholz modeled himself after Merkel better than the man who supposedly staked his whole campaign on being just like her.
Welcome to the opposition
This brings us to the present day, less than 24 hours before the CDU becomes the main party of the opposition. What can the CDU do to revitalize itself before the next election?
It can begin by changing tack. Over the past month or so, the CDU’s members of the Bundestag have taken to a strategy that can best be described as whining, claiming that the incoming government is destroying the country and botching the response to COVID-19 before it even takes power. This phenomenon has even made its way up to the party leadership of the CSU. Markus Söder, for some reason, has declared that the health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will somehow be made worse by the new government’s plan to legalize the consumption and distribution of cannabis. Time will tell if making similar accusations is a winning tactic, but this author is skeptical.
The new CDU leader should at least try to keep party members in check. It is the role of the opposition to critique the government’s performance. But nothing will further ruin the image of a responsible, competent CDU faster than four years of screaming that the sky is falling over moderate center-left policy. Constructive criticism might sound cliché. But it is the CDU’s best chance at winning back the voters it lost, and that is because it will be difficult for the CDU and CSU to label Scholz and his “traffic-light” government as reckless leftists. Looking at the coalition agreement between the three parties about to enter government, Germany is looking at four years of restrained progressivism, particularly with the free-market loving debt hawk Christian Lindner holding the government’s purse strings. The coalition agreement is promising, but not radical in the least.
Who (and what) comes next?
The CDU needs leadership that takes the reasons behind their defeat in 2021 into account. Said differently, the CDU needs to put someone in charge who isn’t Friedrich Merz. Merz, a conservative hardliner on his third run for leadership of the party, has insisted for years that the party has declined due to its shift to the center under Angela Merkel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps if the AfD, the only party rightwards of the CDU, had strengthened since 2017, or had even maintained its existing vote share, he would have a point. But the far-right outfit lost nearly a dozen seats in 2021, slipping from third to fifth place and becoming the second-smallest party in the Bundestag, just ahead of the socialist Die Linke.
(Officially, there is an even smaller regional party from Schleswig with 1 seat, but they slipped in on a technicality and are not a major political force.)
Merz’s ideas of how to renew the CDU might have once had greater coherence: in 2017, for the first time in recent memory, a genuinely right-wing force was entering the German Parliament, and the CDU lost a significant number of voters at the same time. But then and now, Merz was and is wrong to say that the AfD’s base are simply discontented CDU voters who need to come home.
The AfD, just like the far-right in Britain and the United States, emerged from many more places than the disgruntled factions of the center-right. They took voters from the SPD, with its traditional voter base largely drawn from the white working-class. They took voters from the several explicitly neo-Nazi parties, who were small enough to avoid being banned by the Constitutional Court but large enough to have reliable voters. They drew on former non-voters. They even took from The Left, who once dominated in former East Germany, a region which is now the home base of the AfD.
AfD supporters are not lost CDU voters. They are malcontents of every stripe, a basket of deplorables, who have willingly placed themselves on the political fringe, radicalized steadily for over half a decade, and fully endorse the racist worldview of a party whose leadership has called for the end of Germany’s remembrance culture around the Holocaust, claimed that Germany should think of its Nazi-era military victories with pride, and covered for episodes of horrific right-wing violence. The CDU cannot win its way back to power by extending a hand rightwards to AfD voters, who have chosen their political marginalization and deserve no acknowledgment or compromise. Friedrich Merz is sorely mistaken.
The CDU lost seats to the left, not to the right, and while not much about this election was obvious in hindsight, this stands out as a predictable outcome. The CDU has been playing tug-of-war with the Greens over Germany’s undecided moderate voters for years. Were it not for the disappointing performance of Green leader Annalena Baerbock, it is very probable that such a game of tug-of-war would have gone on until the end of the election season. As it happened, following disappointing leadership choices of both the Greens and the CDU, most of those voters broke for the SPD.
This is a lesson that the CSU has already learned. In 2018 regional elections under Markus Söder, the CSU attempted to ape the AfD in rhetoric and strategy and ended up losing the party’s majority in the Bavarian parliament for the first time in post-war history. The AfD only gained mildly in that election, while the Greens made out like bandits in the famously conservative state. Now, Markus Söder poses on Instagram hugging trees and calls for a vaccine mandate.
Going to the right won’t work. The CDU needs a leader who can chart a moderate course and win back the voters that they’ve lost to the center-left; someone who’s reasonable, forward-thinking, and above all, competent. For what it’s worth, this author has his fingers crossed (or thumbs pressed,) for Norbert Röttgen.
The CDU has ruled Germany for 51 of its 72 years of independence for good reason: it is as close to a “natural governing party” of that country as it gets. Germany is not a land striving for change: post-war, it has secured the bounty of being the EU’s richest state through careful steps and a cautious attitude. Even in times of crisis, the old slogan rings true to many a German ear: Keine Experimente. But the CDU cannot simply assume that it will retain the mantel of “natural governing party” with no effort. It must prove itself to a new generation, who are much more likely to vote for the liberal FDP or the progressive Greens.
With victory in Germany, a re-ascendance in Austria, and improved numbers more generally in various EU states, European social democracy seems to have (for now) pulled out of what seemed to be a death spiral. The S&D, the social-democratic faction in the European Parliament, now polls just ahead of the EPP, the Christian-democratic faction. It is now time for Christian Democrats across the continent to take the same long look in the mirror that the Social Democrats have and reassess what exactly they want to offer to the people of Europe and the European Union. (I have written for this magazine before on just this topic and I plan to do so again.)
But an EU-wide realignment begins with a re-alignment in the 27 states. The German Christian Democrats hold significant sway in such a process, and how they choose to position themselves in defeat will determine whether their time in opposition is more akin to forty days in the desert or forty years in the wilderness.
The original artwork for this article was done by East Frisian illustrator Alexa Fischer. You can follow them @angryspamming on Instagram.