Eyeing the 2017 election, Angela Merkel cried out for help to party members at the CDU conference in Essen. No way, delegates responded. The showdown offered insights into the party's workings, says Volker Wagener.
First the good news: The CDU can still bicker, at least at a party conference. That should be a given for a political party, but has been the exception for the Christian Democrats. The CDU is a top-down organization. Party delegates quietly approve their leaders' measures regardless of possible misgivings. Public infighting is for the Greens and parties on the left, not the stoic descendants of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
Not so this time. Motion C28 brought matters to a surprising head. The question regarded maintaining exceptions to Germany's general ban on dual citizenship, pitting party leadership against the rank-and-file. The rank-and-file won, a clear case of unexpected defiance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber.
Scoring political points
The conflict reflects the party core's wish to become more conservative. Merkel, however, is the political middle personified. The party only wins with her at the top, but many who comprise the party are no longer interested in the CDU's onward march towards urbanized modernity. A majority, even if it is a slim one, went against Merkel and the dual citizenship compromise that was arduously negotiated with the SPD, its center-left coalition partner, two years ago.
Opposition to dual citizenship is not simply a political issue held by a part of the party seeking its lost conservative identity. Conference delegates in Essen submitted more than a dozen motions with the goal of strengthening immigration laws and border protection.
The CDU's youth organization led the way, which has already positioned itself to the right of the parent party. No question, the CDU has rediscovered domestic security as a campaign issue for 2017 – an issue that will prove to be the most polarizing in years.
Dual citizenship has been a highly charged issue for the CDU for a long time. The party won state elections in Hessen with it in 1999. Roland Koch became state premier at the time. To be conservative meant to be against dual citizenship. Digging up this emotional issue in an era of the AfD, the populist and anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, is highly symbolic, but not more, because the CDU could not implement a reversal. The SPD is incensed by the "attack on two passports," but secretly rejoices to finally be able to differentiate itself on the issue. It is clear that the coming campaign will not be a friendly one.
Political trench fight
To the contrary, all signs point to parties sticking to their battle-hardened positions. Merkel already has open trenches in her own party. The conference was hardly over and she was dismissing party rebels for being in the wrong. She will not cancel the compromise with the SPD, she told media. What she told delegates in her eight-minute closing remarks was to have a pleasant trip home. It is the way one responds to mutiny. The party conference leaves no doubt that the CDU is perking near the boiling point beneath the surface. Merkel's modernizing course towards the middle is no longer uncontested. The resistance on display is only a preview of what lies ahead for a post-Merkel CDU.
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