1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany's conservatives flirt with far-right populism

July 25, 2023

Officially, the German center-right CDU's stance is to reject any cooperation with the far-right populist AfD. But new comments by CDU leader Friedrich Merz have sparked concern that the party's resolve is weakening.

the letters CDU AFD from a scrabble game positioned to link up at the D, positioned on a Germany flag
The CDU is debating how to deal with the far-right AfDImage: picture-alliance/dpa/ZB

Looking at the numbers in a matter-of-fact way, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its chairman, Friedrich Merz, should be satisfied: The center-right party has been leading German political polls for many months. Incorporating its Bavarian regional "sister party," the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative Union would currently hold about 28% of the vote.

The conservatives could have won the 2021 general election with this result. But they ended up in opposition  and seem to be struggling in this role — particularly as it relates to their willingness to cooperate with the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD).

CDU finds it hard to be in opposition

Perhaps part of the CDU's struggle is because it's strange for it not to be the party of the German chancellor. The party has governed for 52 of the 74 years since the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949 — most recently for 16 years in a row, from 2005 to 2021. CDU chancellors Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel each played significant roles in shaping German politics. Friedrich Merz, who was elected party leader in January 2022, wants to follow in their footsteps.

But now the far-right populists are coming increasingly close to the Union in the polls — the AfD currently sits at about 20 percent. It is against this backdrop that, in a recent television interview, the CDU chairman continued to rule out a collaboration with the AfD in the Bundestag federal parliament or any of the 16 state parliaments. However, he left the door open for cooperation at the city and local municipal government level.

"If a district administrator or mayor who belonged to the AfD was voted in," Merz said, "it's natural that we have to look for ways to ensure that we can continue to work together in the city."

With these statements, Merz unleashed objection and outrage from across the political spectrum. Only AfD co-leader Alice Weidel rejoiced, writing on Twitter: "The CDU will not be able to avoid lifting the nonsensical ban on contact with the AfD." Her party, she indicated, is ready to work together.

Germany: CDU leader rows back on working with far right AfD

No coalitions or cooperation with the AfD

The fact remains that, at a high-level meeting in 2018, the CDU decided who it would rule out cooperating with: "The CDU in Germany rejects coalitions and similar forms of cooperation with the Left party and also with the Alternative for Germany."

In 2019, CDU politician Walter Lübcke was murdered by a far-right extremist who has since been tried and jailed. It was following this crime that the federal board of the party reiterated its decision not to work with the AfD.

"Everyone in the CDU who pleads for an approach or even cooperation with the AfD, must know that they are aligning themselves with a party which deliberately tolerates right-wing extremist ideas, antisemitism and racism within its ranks," the board declared at the time.

When Friedrich Merz campaigned for the leadership of the CDU in early 2022, he also drew a clear line against the far-right populists then: "With me, there will be a firewall between us and the AfD."

Merz's rivals wade in

But after his latest statements, doubts are growing about how serious Merz really is about upholding that so-called firewall. Two Union politicians who want to be reelected as state premiers in upcoming elections in October, also spoke out.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder from the CSU wrote on Twitter that the AfD was "anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and divides our society." That, he added, is not compatible with the values of his party.

Hesse state premier Boris Rhein from the CDU pointed out on the German public broadcaster ZDF that the AfD youth wing, the "Young Alternative" (JA), was recently classified as a "certified right-wing extremist endeavor" by Germany's domestic intelligence service.

But Rhein, who unlike Söder is not rumored to be interested in running as the Union's candidate for German chancellor, also expressed understanding for Merz's position.

He said he didn't think that Merz was really advocating for cooperation with the AfD on a local level. Rather, he thought Merz wanted to emphasize that in the case of an AfD mayor being voted into office, it "cannot be ruled out that you would also speak with such people."

Germany’s migrants and minorities fear a far-right surge

Unprecedented AfD victories

There are now two such cases: In June, an AfD candidate was elected to the role of district administrator in Thuringia and in early July, an AfD mayor was elected in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Both results sparked renewed debate about the recent surge in support for the far-right populists.

Shortly after his controversial statements during primetime TV on Sunday, Merz attempted to walk back his comments.

"To make it clear once more, and I've never said it differently: CDU resolutions apply," Merz explained. "There will be no cooperation with the AfD, also at the municipal level."

This was not, however, the only communication blunder by the 67-year-old party chairman. Germany's next nationwide election is due to be held in 2025 — and it remains to be seen who the Union will put forward as its candidate for chancellor. If this had to be decided now, Merz would not stand much of a chance.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.