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After an unprecedented defeat in the German election, some grassroots Christian Democrats are pushing for members to choose the next party leader directly. But that strategy often backfires, as other parties have found.
Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is under pressure to allow members to elect its next leader 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 has led to a rift between the CDU leadership and its disgruntled rank and file. Laschet has expressed his willingness to step down, but intends to oversee the selection of his replacement.
But the strategy is perilous: In recent decades — both in and outside of Germany — allowing the membership to directly elect the party leader has backfired on Election Day.
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 RND. He also wants the next party leader to be elected by members, and such a survey is possible according to the CDU statute, but unless changes are made would not be binding.
CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak echoed calls for a sweeping change in leadership personnel following the poor election performance. "Everything that happened in this election campaign must be put on the table. It has to happen brutally, openly and in all candor," he said.
In the wake of these attacks, 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 has nonetheless 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. "We can't take forever to select new internal leadership like last time," Dennis Radtke, deputy head of the CDU workers' wing, the CDA, told the public broadcaster WDR, rejecting the call for a vote of all members. "Next spring we have three important state elections."
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 1998
Directly electing the head of the party is not unheard of in Germany, but it 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.
A similar example comes from the United Kingdom. In 2015, 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.