The Christian Democrats have elected the 33-year-old head of the youth division Paul Ziemiak their new operative chief. His rise reflects the new diversity of the party — and a bid to make it appeal to younger voters.
With Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeding Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party was in need of a replacement for the former as general secretary. At the final day of the party conference in Hamburg on Saturday, delegates duly filled that void by electing 33-year-old Paul Ziemiak with 63 percent of the vote.
Kramp-Karrenbauer herself put forward Ziemiak, the head of the Young Union, for the office, even though he is more conservative than she is herself. The centrist Kramp-Karrenbauer's decision is a clear gesture of reconciliation to traditional conservatives after squeaking by her more right-wing rivals Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn in the party leadership vote on Friday.
According to Kramp-Karrenbauer, Ziemiak initially intended to refuse her offer out of loyalty to Merz and Spahn, but then reconsidered. In his speech ahead of his election as general secretary on Saturday, Ziemiak stressed his conservative bona fides.
"The CDU must be the party of law and order with a clear direction that speaks a clear language," the 33-year-old said. "Now the task is to renew the party." A huge part of that renewal is generational — something Ziemiak himself both recognizes and embodies.
The demographic dilemma
One of the main signs of and reasons for the decline of both the CDU and their traditional rivals on the left, the Social Democrats, is the rapidly advancing age of their core membership.
As the 38-year-old Spahn pointed out ahead of the leadership vote, there are currently more CDU members over the age of 75 than under 40. Though still Germany's largest party, the Christian Democrats have lost more than half of the party's membership since 1990 and struggle year after year to recruit younger members to replace those who die off.
Like Spahn, Ziemiak — the youngest CDU general secretary in the big-tent party's history — defines demographics as one of the Christian Democrats' trickier challenges.
"We need to get younger in the party, the parliamentary group and in the government," Ziemiak told German television in the run-up to the party conference. "I said that after the national election and called upon the chancellor to name her ministers before signing the coalition agreement so that we were guaranteed to get younger. And in the end that was done."
But while the will toward rejuvenation in the CDU is clear, a cursory glance at the delegates, and in particular the speakers, at the Hamburg conference made a painful truth all-too-apparent: the CDU is significantly older than the German populace. Reversing that trend will be crucial, if Christian Democrats are to turn round their recent decline in regional elections and opinion polls.
The new diversity
Ziemiak is also representative of a new orientation in the CDU because of his background. He was born Pawel Ziemiak in the Polish city of Szczecin, close to the eastern German border. He emigrated to Germany with his parents at the age of three.
Thus, the new general secretary of a party that has had such difficulty reaching consensus about migration himself has an immigration background —and he stresses the importance of diversity in the CDU's intended renewal.
"The entire spectrum of the party should be represented," Ziemiak said in a newspaper interview earlier this year. "We have very different wings and a great diversity of opinion. We need this, too, if we want to win back voters we've lost to the (center-right) FDP, the (far-right populist) AfD or the Greens."
On Friday, with Merz, the CDU had a chance to elect a leader who would have been, in many senses, a throwback to the pre-Merkel past, when the party was dominated by heterosexual men from traditional German backgrounds, often from the Catholic West. However narrowly, the party rejected that option in favor of Kramp-Karrenbauer, its second centrist female leader in a row.
Despite his personal conservativism, Ziemiak also embodies the gradual diversification of Germany's primary conservative party and German society in general.