The conservative Christian Democratic Union is heading into a year of parliamentary election campaigning with no new momentum. Uncertainty was on display at the party conference in Essen.
The party conference was supposed to be a dynamic new start. Launching into a hard - some even say dirty - 2017 parliamentary election campaign. Instead, it was a demonstration of the CDU's sorry state.
"Orientation in difficult times," was the title of the main proposal delegates unanimously approved to end the party conference. The applause lasted for all of three or four seconds. Political bliss looks different. The final result of Angela Merkel's reelection as party chair, which followed her meandering conference speech, was just the overture. Her 89.5 percent approval rating was called "realistic" by more generous attendees, and sobering by others. At least delegates punished deputy chairpersons just as hard, if not harder, so that no one did any better than Merkel.
Frustrated with the coalition partner
The party repeatedly turned "back" in terms of content. Merkel herself declared that she wanted a so-called burqa ban (something that gained as much attention internationally - whether in Britain, Turkey, Israel or the United States - as it did in Germany). As late as September, the chancellor pointed to religious freedom as the reason that she was opposed to a general ban, instead speaking of "precise guidelines" in individual cases.
By the second day of the conference, frustration with the party's junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), became very clear. The parties' differences were particularly apparent on issues like retirement pensions, child marriages or the fight against online hate speech.
The issue of doing away with dual citizenship was just one more example of the base's weariness: 319 delegates called for jettisoning the option, 300 were in favor of keeping it. Among the latter were Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and CDU Secretary General Peter Tauber, both of whom addressed the subject during their speeches. In the end, the matter was decided by the 382 (!) CDU delegates that didn't even bother to vote.
AfD: The elephant in the room
Essen was not a new start - unlike previous party conferences in the city in 1985 (with bold decisions on family policy) or 2000 (with the election of Merkel as the party's first female chair). No, this party conference did not symbolize a reorientation and a change of course. Instead, it was about sticking with the familiar.
One felt that strongly among many conference delegates, especially those from states where the CDU lost elections in the first half of 2016. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) was rarely mentioned, nevertheless, one could often hear it. Moreover, it was the CDU's youth wing that seemed to be enjoying raising its political voice most. It was against dual citizenship, against women's issues, and for conscription (though the youth organization fell short on the last proposal). It says a lot when the so-called "Party Youth" are scoring points with such issues. The CDU, exhausted at the end of a difficult year, is working on part four of its own version of "Back to the Future," as it heads into its next difficult year.
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