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Angela Merkel has left the CDU in tatters

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Rob Mudge
September 25, 2021

Change has been the buzzword of the German election campaign. Though that may sound good on paper, DW's Rob Mudge says much of it is merely paying lip service — especially in the case of the Christian Democrats.

Angela Merkel with her back turned
Germany needs a change, but will the new government deliver?Image: Stefanie Loos/AFP/Getty Images

I don't know about you, but I've lost track of the number of — mostly rather lame — metaphors used by journalists (yes, guilty) to describe Chancellor Angela Merkel's influence and legacy in German politics.

Over the past 16 years, we have heard much eulogizing about her, ranging from descriptions of her as "a rock of stability" and talk of her popularity having "reached new heights" to warnings that her successor will face an "uphill battle" (bit of a theme going on here). 

A rock, a hill or a mountain is an immovable object. Applied to the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), inflexibility and complacency in a post-Merkel world spell stagnation or a further downslide for this once-mighty Volkspartei (major party), reminiscent of the decline of the other major party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

DW's Rob Mudge
DW's Rob MudgeImage: DW/R. Mudge

On paper, at least, the Social Democrats and the Greens are emphasizing the need for fundamental change to meet the many daunting challenges ahead: notably, those of tackling the climate crisis and finally joining the digital 21st century. Despite the CDU's assertions to the contrary, it still comes across as being mired in Merkel's sedate weiter so (keep it up) politics.

But here's the paradox: Though there is public recognition to a certain extent of the need for some form of change, German politics are steeped in conservatism and the tradition of not upsetting the status quo. Deep down, it will always be a bourgeois society. Change is welcome only when it doesn't compromise wealth and prosperity.

The CDU's claim that a possible coalition of the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party would somehow constitute a political shift to the radical left and spell doom for the country is misplaced fearmongering. It doesn't get more mainstream and middle-of-the-road than the SPD and the Greens these days.

A change would do you good

For the CDU's chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. He was in a bind from the moment he was anointed as Merkel's would-be heir. Should he present himself as a fresh start, shaking off the shackles of the Merkel era at the risk of alienating the party's traditional core demographic voter base (65 and over), or should he play it safe by providing stability and embrace a role as the natural continuation of 16 years of Merkel?

It was the chancellor herself who provided the final nail in the coffin for Laschet and any attempt to paint himself as the candidate for change. For the longest time during the election campaign, it appeared that Merkel had forgotten that she was a CDU member. She came across as tired, indifferent and listless and was nowhere to be seen on the campaign trail.

But as the specter of the above-mentioned SPD/Greens/Left Party center-left coalition loomed ever larger, she scrambled to officially endorse Laschet. Any hopes he had harbored of starting with a clean slate were dashed. The Mutti der Nation (mother of the nation) essentially decreed that any talk of visionary change was delusional.

Evolution and revolution

Change for the sake of change in politics is a double-edged sword. There was an almost palpable collective sigh of relief after the CDU lost the 1998 election to the Social Democrats and Helmut Kohl's tenure as chancellor came to an end after 16 years at the helm (as an aside, this country would benefit greatly from a two-term limit for chancellors). Gerhard Schröder adroitly recognized the signs of the times and embarked on an ambitious reform agenda that changed the face of his Social Democrats and the country.

When Merkel came to power in 2005, she demonstrated her much-admired political acumen by not throwing out Schröder's Agenda 2010 — the reforms of the labor market and the social security and health system — with the bathwater. She anticipated correctly that those changes would ultimately benefit Germany.

The evolution of a party is a laborious and painstaking process. For the Greens, it was more of a revolution. Just look at how the party went from a pacifist protest party whose members knitted jumpers and scarves in parliament to while away the time to an established, mainstream (some would say boring) party that supported Germany's involvement in the NATO-led war against Yugoslavia.

Granted, I'm struggling to reconcile the image of revolution with the staid and unadventurous nature of the CDU. One of its election posters in this campaign depicts Laschet and the caption "Gemeinsam für ein modernes Deutschland" ("Together for a modern Germany"). The party should scale back its ambitions and modernize itself first — whether it wins or loses on election night.

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