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Soul searching in Germany's CDU

October 12, 2021

Swiftly and brutally open — that's how Angela Merkel's venerable party wants to overcome its current crisis. It's a path with many perilous unknowns. And it's happening too quickly for some.

A man trying to assemble the letters C, D and U
The CDU is trying to figure out what to do to get back on trackImage: Imago Images/M. Trammer

The beleaguered and defeated Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is about to hold a conference of its local chairpeople to find a way out of its impasse.

In the heat of a crisis, the party leadership has decided to rely on a body that has always existed but rarely played a role in the party's politics. On October 30, just before Halloween, the chairpeople of the CDU's nearly 330 district associations are to sound out its future. The outcome will shape the future for the party of departing Chancellor Angela Merkel, which has governed Germany longer than any other. Soon after that, all of the CDU's main leadership posts are to be newly elected.

This course of action highlights the magnitude of the party's current crisis. It exceeds the crisis that followed 1998, when the party, weary from 16 years in government, had to find itself anew after Helmut Kohl's resounding defeat in the Bundestag elections. Back then, Wolfgang Schäuble became the party leader. Angela Merkel, then 44 years old, began serving as the party's new general secretary after eight years in the role of federal minister. 

Friedrich Merz, Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen on stage
In January 2021, Laschet (center) won the party chairmanship, beating Friedrich Merz (left) and Norbert Röttgen (right)Image: Andreas Gora/Getty Images

 Young forces are missing

Since the Bundestag election at the end of September, which brought the CDU the worst result in its history, tensions in the party have escalated. Many believe that party leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet is to blame for the result, though others suspect there are other reasons. The two Union parties, the CDU and the Bavarian sister party CSU, are bickering even more openly than before the election, blaming each other. 

Another problem is playing out in the background: In 2020 the number of party members fell below 400,000, only 10 years after it slipped below 500,000. The party is outdated: More members are dying than young members are joining. It is a moment of truth for what have long functioned as "big-tent parties."

Losing candidate Laschet, meanwhile, continues to struggle. When he sent out invitations at short notice to a press statement last week, many expected a resignation announcement. Instead, he merely announced a shake-up in the CDU federal leadership. 

New elections for all offices

What this shake-up would look like was clarified by General Secretary Paul Ziemiak after a leadership meeting that lasted several hours: New elections are to be held for all offices: party leader, general secretary, the entire presidium, and the federal executive committee.

It is unique to elect all of these offices outside of the usual timetable, and two aspects stood out when Ziemiak explained this path. First, his strong statement: "Everything that happened in this election campaign must be put on the table. It has to happen brutally, openly, in all candor." The other was his repeated emphasis that this new clarification should happen by the end of the year, if possible. "We all know the window of opportunity is the turn of the year." 

Time is of the essence

The urgency is evident because of the timetable for the next state elections, three of which are due to occur by mid-May 2022: Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and North Rhine-Westphalia. In all three states, the CDU currently leads the state government. It can only defend power — or lose it. On the other hand, many members remember that after the 2013 and 2017 federal elections, the repeated promises to come to terms with mediocre results never really took place, in their view.

But why now the district chairmen's conference? At first, it seems as if a struggling party leadership is simply playing for time. As a rule, the meetings of the district chairpeople are routine, but these 330 members offer at least as much a reflection of the party's mood as a large party conference. And far more than the federal executive committee.

Why young voters are unhappy with election result

The party base

This was shown in mid-April, for example, during the showdown over the chancellor candidacy between Laschet and CSU leader Markus Söder. To resolve the conflict, the deputy party leader of Rhineland-Palatinate, Christian Baldauf, called for a conference of district chairs because they are, he said, the most important representatives of the party "grassroots." Moreover, they could be convened at short notice.

But the CDU has traditionally been reticent about letting its members make decisions.

Baldauf's proposal went unanswered in April. The CDU federal executive board ultimately decided on the chancellor candidacy — and unanimously supported Laschet. For that reason, many of the district chairpeople expect a reckoning with the current party leadership. In an interview with DW, one member expects the supporters of former candidate Friedrich Merz to "dominate". 

Jens Spahn speaking
41-year-old Health Minister Jens Spahn has voiced ambitions in the past, but may lack inner party supportImage: Michele Tantussi/AFP/Getty Images

Few celebrities

All the more interesting is the composition of the committee. Among almost 330 district chairpeople, there are also many who do not earn a living from politics but actually have a main job. And only a few "prominent figures" in the party still hold a district chairship. But eight of the 27 elected members of the federal executive committee are also district chairs — and they will expect to listen to strong criticism. And even higher is the number of district chairs who — whether from Berlin, Trier, Stuttgart, or other cities — were Bundestag members and lost on September 26.

So all the tensions that are currently straining the CDU will come together in the district chairs' conference, including the frustration, the anger, and the formation of opposing camps. The next few weeks are likely to be a tense time in the party.

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C