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The tricky process of electing new party leaders

Ian Bateson | Jens Thurau
November 9, 2021

After their defeat in the German election, the Christian Democrats have decided to let the grassroots members choose the next party leader directly. But that strategy often backfires, as other parties have found. 

Armin Laschet
Armin Laschet led the CDU to its worst ever resultImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has decided to allow its members to elect the next party chairperson directly after chancellor candidate Armin Laschet led the party to its worst-ever result in September's national election.

Laschet was selected as party chairman in January and as chancellor candidate in April, both times in tight races against powerful rivals, and both times in the traditional CDU way: by delegates nominated by the 400,000 party members, rather than directly by those members.

Many observers believe that his bullish rival Friedrich Merz would have become party leader had the vote been direct, and Laschet's poor election campaign led to a rift between the CDU leadership and its disgruntled rank and file. 

But in recent decades — both in and outside of Germany — allowing the membership to directly elect the party leader has backfired on Election Day.

Computer screen showing Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, Norbert Röttgen at CDU's digital party vote in January 2021
In January 2021 Armin Laschet (l) beat Friedrich Merz (m) and Norbert Röttgen to become CDU chairmanImage: Rüdiger Wölk/imago images

CDU inner workings

Prominent CDU figures are keenly aware of the tensions. "There is an alienation between the federal party congresses and the members. The decisions of the committees have been taken in part against a large part of the base," Hamburg CDU chairman Christoph Ploss told media network RND in October.  

The CDU leadership has been left fending off accusations that the party has paid a heavy electoral price for losing touch with its base. "When you're looking for explanations after a poor showing, there is a pattern of seeing the party leadership as disconnected from the base and being overly highbrow,” says Martin Emmer, professor of communications at the Free University Berlin. 

There had been pushback against opening the vote out of fear that it would fuel conflict in the party and not leave enough time to reestablish unity ahead of three state elections next year. But now the procedure has been finalized and candidates can put themselves forward.

From December 4 to 16, CDU members will be asked to vote online or by mail and the winner will then be officially elected to office at a federal party conference in Hanover on January 21 and 22. 

SPD conference in Mannheim 1995
In 1995, Social Democrat Rudolf Scharping (left) was chosen as chancellor candidate, before he was replaced, eventually, by Gerhard Schröder (right), who won his election in 1998Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The SPD experience

Directly electing the head of the party has more frequently done by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — though that has brought its own problems. The SPD first allowed members to directly vote on the head of the party in 1993. They chose Rudolf Scharping, then state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, over Gerhard Schröder, who later proved a gifted campaigner who would go on to become chancellor. 

Scharping became the SPD's chancellor candidate in 1995 and proved unable to unseat incumbent Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The SPD subsequently lost several state elections as well.

By the time of the next party conference in 1995, Scharping's star was sinking. He was supposed to be re-elected to the party leadership position unopposed, but after delivering a lackluster speech he faced a rebellion, and lost the leadership to left-wing firebrand Oskar Lafontaine.

More recently, the SPD has learned that popularity with the rank and file does not necessarily translate to popularity with the electorate. The SPD again opened voting to all party members in 2019, when party leadership tickets were made up of teams of one man and one woman. Former North Rhine-Westphalia Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans and Bundestag member Saskia Esken won the contest with 53% of the vote. Among their beaten opponents was Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who two years later went on to win the German election and now looks likely to be the next chancellor.

After years of stagnation as part of a grand coalition with the CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Walter-Borjans and Esken moved the party to the left, partly to reinspire the base. But — wisely, as it turned out — when it came to selecting a chancellor candidate for the 2021 election, they both deferred to Scholz’s candidacy rather than try to clinch the nomination themselves. Scholz proved a major electoral asset, with polls positioning him as the most popular chancellor candidate, and, crucially, more popular than the party itself. In the 2021 election he led the SPD to edge out the CDU, winning 25.7% of the vote to their 24.1%. 

The choice of Scholz was widely seen as choosing broad appeal over preference within the party. "It's been shown in many parties that intraparty sentiments and party member preferences don't necessarily represent what the electorate wants.” says Emmer.

When Norbert Walter-Borjans announced his intention to step down,the SPD impressed observers with a swift plan for his succession: 43 year old Lars Klingbeil, current party-secretary and Scholz-ally, is expected to be voted co-chair to Saskia Esken at a party conference in December.

Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken smiling
Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken are set to become the SPD's new co-chairsImage: Jens Krick/Flashpic/picture alliance

Not just Germany 

German Social Democrats noted how in 2015 in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader of the Labour Party with nearly 60% of the vote. The election was open to all party members who had paid £3 ($4.60) to join, and his left-wing positions led to a surge in support from younger voters and to a growth in party membership.

Corbyn failed to lead Labour to victory in 2017, though he made moderate gains. Then, in the 2019 general election, Labour suffered a devastating loss to the Conservatives, who led by Boris Johnson, gained 48 seats and won 43.6% of the popular vote — the highest percentage for any party since 1979. 

A report on the defeat by a group of MPs, union leaders, officials, and activists called Labour Together identified Corbyn's low popularity with the general voting population as a major cause of the loss. According to the report, 67% of voters disliked Corbyn strongly, and only 12% liked him. The report mentioned Corbyn's previous support for left-wing radical groups and antisemitism accusations in the party during his tenure as reasons for his low numbers.

This is an updated version of an article first published in October 2021.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau