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Merkel's CDU moves slightly to the right

Jefferson Chase
December 7, 2016

Germany's conservatives have approved a preliminary platform that's more restrictive on issues including migrants, dual citizenship and taxes. But suggestions of a lurch to the right are grossly exaggerated.

CDU Parteitag in Essen - Merkel und Tauber
Image: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach

Delegates at the CDU's party conference in Essen have approved a 20-page position paper, entitled "Orientation in Difficult Times." It will serve as a preliminary party platform ahead of the national election next September. With it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party has moved slightly to the right. On Tuesday, Merkel was re-elected CDU chairwoman with a somewhat disappointing 89.5 percent of delegates' votes.

"We've had a lot of difficult months behind us, and they've left their traces," Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a CDU member and premier of Saarland, told DW, adding that the chairwoman vote was an "honest" result, not a staged gesture.

There were a couple of last-minute changes to the position paper, including support for transit zones outside Germany aimed at preventing would-be migrants, insofar as they don't qualify for political asylum, from entering the country. 

"Things like whether or not to discourage potential migrants in camps in North Africa from crossing the ocean is something we have to consider, and it’s intelligently formulated in the position paper," Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

The paper would also make it easier for refugees with residence permits to work in Germany. It also categorically ruled out any tax increases and opposed dual citizenship for those who hold a German passport.

"Multiculturalism has failed,"  CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber told the delegates before Wednesday's vote. "We need a guiding, native culture in Germany. This election is about our values."

The moderate shift to the right is intended to mollify the conservative wing of the party that had grown increasingly worried about Merkel's welcoming stance toward refugees from Syria and other crisis regions, which saw nearly 900,000 migrants arrive in Germany last year. But there was no mention of an annual upper limit on the number of refugees to Germany, something demanded by the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) in the paper or at the conference as a whole.

CDU moves to the right of its leader

Deutschland Flüchtlinge in Berlin - Kind
The CDU wants to see fewer refugees arriving in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

In her keynote address on Tuesday, Merkel charted a centrist course, but in the speeches in the two following sessions, it was clear that the majority of the party is more conservative than the chancellor. The right-wing of the party was particularly pleased by Merkel's promise that the biggest wave of refugees was over and by her support for a partial ban on wearing burqas in public in Germany.

Kramp-Karrenbauer characterized showing one's face as a "sign of mutual respect."

"There was a clear statement about banning burqas and assurances that there would be no repeat of 2015," said Mike Mohring, CDU chairman in the eastern German state of Thuringia.

"I think that Merkel's speech brought parts of the CDU back closer together and showed that the chancellor has learned some lessons where the refugee issue is concerned," Rainer Gehring, the executive director of the German Economic Council, told DW.

Merkel's position on the partial burqa ban - experts agree a total ban would violate the German constitution - dominated the headlines, particularly outside Germany. But it was only a small part of the convention. Both Merkel and the position paper stressed the CDU's support for cultural diversity and personal liberty. This conference was about giving all wings of the party something, while no faction got everything it wanted.

"As always at a convention, the chancellor was concerned with getting everyone back in the fold," Gehring said.

A broad collection of interests

CDU Parteitag in Essen - Tauber
Tauber declared muliculturalism a failure, but the CDU is a diverse partyImage: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach

That includes the more liberal segments of the conservative party. CDU members of the European Parliament were pleased that their party had stressed the importance of Germany's leading role in the European Union.

"European topics are always well represented, we see to that," said Renate Sommer, a member of European Parliament from the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "After all, we're the pro-Europe party."

The Conservative Lesbian and Gay Union (LSU) also approved of the inclusive nature of the position paper and particularly Merkel's keynote address.

"I found the speech, especially at the end, quite moving," LSU head Alexander Vogt said. "There were a few passages that she kept fairly general, but that's what you expect at a party convention."

And solidarity is sorely needed as the CDU approaches an election everyone in Essen admitted would be the party's toughest in recent years.

The populist problem

Deutschland Wahl zum Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus
The rise of the AfD has made it more complicated to achieve parliamentary majoritiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Merkel didn't directly mention the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), but the challenge represented by the new anti-immigration, anti-EU party resonated in the background during the entire convention. The fourth point of the position paper explicitly rejects populism, protectionism and xenophobic nationalism.

"We should be honest," Tauber said with reference to the AfD. "We're not going to win over the loudmouths. We need to address the concerns of regular people."

Delegates generally felt that the CDU was confronting the AfD, which is currently polling as high as 15 percent in Germany, directly enough.

"I think that sometimes you shouldn't make others more important than they are," Vogt said. "Merkel was less aggressive than she was clear, and I prefer that. When she talked about the slogan 'We are the people,' she clearly signaled that the populists are actually in the minority."

"The problem is that if you talk about them, you indirectly give them publicity," Sven Schulze, a European Parliamentarian from the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, told DW.

The AfD presents a challenge to the CDU not just because the populists threaten to siphon off voters on the right, but also because they could make it more difficult for Merkel's party to form a parliamentary majority.

Skepticism vis-à-vis coalition partners

CDU Parteitag in Essen
Delegates overwhelmingly approved the position paper, but there's no consensus on a preferred coalition partnerImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Perhaps because of  the need to keep various coalition options open, most speakers in Essen refrained from excoriating the CDU's traditional political rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. But the grassroots don't particularly want a continuation of the current partnership with the SPD.

"I think that the grand coalition isn't always in Germany's best interest," Schulze said. "I can imagine it would be better to form a coalition with one of the smaller parties. But the question is which one."

And the rank-and-file remains skeptical about the much-discussed idea of a conservative partnership with the Greens.

"I think the Greens aren't really an option for us," Sommer said. "We're simply too far apart. We have a lot of common ground on ethical questions, but I don't think that's enough."

"In Saxony-Anhalt, we have a coalition with the SPD and the Greens, and I must say it's easier to negotiate with the Greens," Schulze said. "But that's specific to this federal state. On the national level, there are always things that make it difficult to come together."