Opinion: Merkel and the CDU - A throwback to Helmut Kohl | Opinion | DW | 06.12.2016
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Opinion

Opinion: Merkel and the CDU - A throwback to Helmut Kohl

Following her re-election as party chair at the CDU party conference, Angela Merkel made a restrained call to "carry on as before." It was not a powerful new beginning, writes Christoph Strack.

It is the start of the 2017 parliamentary election campaign. Angela Merkel wants to motivate her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and carry it forward. But the thrill is gone. Her speech, in many ways, was too detailed; meandering over long stretches. And the base lets her know it.

That is made drastically evident by the results of her reelection as party chair. Merkel received 89.5 percent of the vote; seven percent less than in 2014. One in ten of those in the Grugahalle in Essen voted "no" - and that, just ten months ahead of federal parliamentary elections. (On top of that 52 delegates actually abstained from this most important vote of the party conference.)

Merkel already seemed tired as she began her 80-minute speech, long before the vote took place. Maybe she has a cold. But it fits the mood of the grumbling that went on in the hours leading up to the party congress. Observers note that there is a lot of murmuring going on among the rank-and-file. Still, the base has great respect for Merkel's effectiveness as chancellor, especially for her 2015 refugee decision.

She garners the most approval, and applause, for her "yes" to a burqa ban, her denunciation of populist hate-mongering, of Islamism and of parallel societies. That aligns with the sentiments of the base, which is no longer entirely her base. But that's also how it started with Helmut Kohl, whom she dethroned, and yet mentioned twice in her speech.

She is most convincing when recalling the past

Strack Christoph Kommentarbild App

DW's Christoph Strack

The strongest passages in her address were her recollections of the period of German reunification. Merkel spoke about how she came to politics from the natural sciences. How she first went to the SPD (Social Democratic Party) then left just as quickly for the "Democratic Beginning" which eventually led her to the CDU.

Then, her voice changed. She wasn't finished relating her memories. "Head into the open," she recalled. "That is where freedom is." And politics opposed to freedom is a sacrilege. The hall was hanging on her words and then she addressed the crowd in a move that was uncharacteristic for this cool and reserved chancellor. Resorting to the informal collective "du" she entreated the party base:  "You have to help me!" And "I have asked a lot from you."

Despite these passages, despite the demonstratively long applause: The speech pales in comparison to the one she delivered at last year's party conference in Karlsruhe. Even to her performance two weeks ago, when she announced she would seek reelection as chancellor.

Perhaps the parallels to Kohl really are growing. In 1994, he also ran for a fourth term as head of government, and dragged along a weak party, one whose only enthusiasm came from members of "Generation Kohl" - those young people who had known no one else at the helm other than Helmut Kohl.

This time around, Merkel did not reinvent herself or her party. Maybe she doesn't want to. Perhaps she just wants to concentrate on restoring the recently tarnished essence of the brand. Perhaps she has already reinvented herself too often.

But the message of this - her most important speech in months - was simply "carry on as before."

Will that be enough for a campaign that "won't be a walk in the park" and possibly the toughest since German reunification? That question now hangs in the air. And it's not going away.  

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