The German chancellor's party is about to undergo a month of stress tests with elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse. But despite internal grumblings, the CDU is a long way from staging a real leadership battle.
As a recent post by the media observer outlet Übermedien noted last month, German newspapers have been publishing "beginning of the end of the Angela Merkel era" articles since at least 2001, a year after she became the first female leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and four years before she took charge of the German government.
Nevertheless, at the annual conference of her party's youth wing, the Junge Union (JU), in the coastal city of Kiel last weekend, it was hard to escape the sense that, very slowly, Merkel's era may indeed finally be drawing to a close, if only because an inevitable fatigue has set in as she presides over her fourth government.
But there are immediate challenges, too. Last month, Merkel lost one of her best allies in the German parliament: Volker Kauder, the conservative chief whip who was a master at heading off internal dissent in the Bundestag, and who had reliably delivered the chancellor majorities since 2005. The fact that he had been voted out by the parliamentary group and replaced by the relatively unknown Ralph Brinkhaus was widely read as proof that her support in the party was crumbling.
That was certainly evident in Kiel, where JU leader Paul Ziemiak drew cheers by calling on Merkel to modernize the party, and there was noisy grumbling from Bavarian delegates, who are in the final straight of a desperate election campaign ahead of a state vote next Sunday. It has not gone unnoticed that Merkel has largely been excluded from the conservative campaign in the southern German state, where the CSU is registering record lows in the polls.
While her own CDU delegates rose to applaud the chancellor as she arrived, the young people of Merkel's Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), remained in their seats as she entered the arena on Saturday, and some proceeded to demonstratively browse their phones and read newspapers during her 30-minute speech. One Bavarian delegate, Munich's Matthias Büttger, was even bold enough to stand up and tell Merkel that he no longer believed the party could move forward with her in charge.
There was an audible moan in the audience, but Büttger insisted he wasn't as isolated as it might have looked. "I think most of the delegations are not as unified as you might think. People are debating more openly at the party base than a year ago, of course partly because of our dire poll numbers," he told DW afterwards. "Because [the chancellor's] politics will fall on our feet. We have the elections this year in Bavaria and Hesse, and there is no prospect that it will be any better in the European election next year. With a different federal government it'd be easier for us against the [Alternative for Germany] and against the Greens."
Change at the top?
Another CSU delegate, Thomas Haslinger, told DW that the dissatisfaction with Merkel was still rooted in her migration policy — and the decision she made in September 2015 to open the Bavarian border to a group of refugees walking from Austria. Up until that point, he argued, the far-right AfD had been no more than an insignificant fringe party.
"I don't want to assess whether that decision was right or wrong, but the fact is that it unsettled people," he said. "And I think that for a long time the CDU/CSU did not name the problems, perhaps didn't want to acknowledge them, and that led to the AfD getting stronger and stronger."
"This is a party that has come from nothing, without a real manifesto, and is suddenly the strongest party in eastern Germany today, and certain parts of which is far-right extremist," he added. "And I think people are voting for them not because they suddenly have radical opinions, but out of deep despair that we as a conservative party are not solving these problems."
Nevertheless, the anti-Merkel voices were relatively isolated at the conference, and the official JU line seemed obvious: It was OK to criticize the chancellor, but this isn't the time for new leaders and therefore new elections.
Not only that: Angry Bavarians notwithstanding, Merkel's reception on Saturday also made clear that the chancellor remains popular in her party, especially on its progressive wing — the biggest cheer of the day came when she criticized the male domination on the JU's leadership committee: "Women enrich life. Not just in private life, but also in politics. You don't know what you're missing," she said.
So, even if the upcoming elections in Bavaria and Hesse go badly for the CDU, few political observers believe she will face a serious rival candidate in December's party conference in Hamburg, where she is due to be re-elected as party leader.