“The crisis is so severe that CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation on 10 February (effective later this year). Also, she will not be the party’s candidate for Chancellor in the next elections. She had been handpicked and groomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel to become her successor. Who will it be now? No-one knows. But Wolfgang Schauble (CDU), President of the Bundestag, has warned that “whoever will be our candidate will not become Chancellor if we carry on like this much longer’.”
Germany: The Dam that Broke
An election and yet another racist murder spree have left Germany in a state of political frenzy. The very foundations of the ruling party, the CDU, are fracturing. Its chairwoman has announced she will resign. Her party looks angry, scared and bewildered.
How it all began: A small election that shook Germany
On February 5th a hitherto unknown politician by the name of Thomas Kemmerich became Prime Minister for a day in Thüringen, a Bundesland (federal state) in Eastern Germany. Elections in October had produced a hung parliament and deprived the previous PM, leftwing Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke) of his coalition majority with the Greens and Social Democrats (SPD). Two rounds of voting in parliament had failed to produce a winner.
This is where Mr. Kemmerich, of the small Liberal Party (FDP), stepped in as a surprise candidate. He won with the votes of his FDP, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the AfD, a party variously labeled (depending on who does the labelling) as “populist”, “fascist”, “rightwing” or “national conservative”.
The next day, Mr. Kemmerich announced that he would resign.
It doesn’t sound like much. But this small event has triggered a political earthquake that has kept on shaking ever since, exposing fractures on the national level in the very foundations of the ruling CDU and threatening to collapse it.
The crisis is so severe that CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation on February 10th (effective later this year). Also, she will not be the party’s candidate for Chancellor in the next elections. She had been handpicked and groomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel to become her successor. Who will it be now? No-one knows. But Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), president of the Bundestag, has warned that “who ever will be our candidate will not become Chancellor if we carry on like this much longer”.
Indeed. On Febuary 12th Lars Klingbeil, the secretary general of CDU’s current coalition partner SPD, bluntly ruled out a continuation of that coalition without Merkel as Chancellor. She has ruled out another term.
If without her means without the SPD, there is no coalition. Instead, Germany may well experience the chaos of Thüringen on a grander scale. There, Mr. Ramelow’s ended up being elected as Prime Minister of a minority red-red-green (R2G) government (with tacit approval of the CDU) on March 4th. By then, opinion polls were showing, for the first time, a theoretical majority for such a coalition on the national level as well. If the next chancellor is to be from CDU, the party would need to form a coalition with the Greens and, in such a coalition, be the bigger party. That is by no means sure. The Greens have been surging and the CDU shrinking in polls ever since May 2019.
I had argued even before the fact that the elections in Thüringen (and other Eastern federal states) heralded an “End of Stability” in Germany.1 But I didn’t think events would unravel so fast, so brutally.
A Rebellion in the East
What is this all about? In 2018, CDU leadership decided, as a matter of principle and not just in Thüringen, to not cooperate in any way with either the AfD or leftwing “Die Linke”. This was to serve as a “dam” or “Brandmauer” (“firewall”) against “populist parties” and protect the “political center”, meaning the establishment that has ruled Germany since World War 2.
This is why hysteria broke out when Mr. Kemmerich was voted in with the help of the AfD: “The dam has broken”, editorialists and politicians shouted in unison. The AfD, they said, now stood a chance to participate in government, not just on the local, but later on the national level as well. Many Germans are convinced this will happen anyway, sooner or later. An opinion poll by YouGov, commissioned by the German press agency dpa, found that 48% of Germans believe that the AfD will be included in government within the next 10 years.
As it turned out, the dam that broke was not that one. The CDU, afraid of being labeled “rightwing”, in the end came to an arrangement with leftwing Mr. Ramelow and will support his government in the regional Parliament. The dam that has broken is the one that was to keep the extreme left from breaking through. Not the one that was to keep out the AfD.
But why were Die Linke and the AfD to be kept from power? Die Linke is the legal successor of the former East German communist party. And the AfD is considered to harbour racist, even fascist elements. Its leader in Thüringen, Björn Höcke, can be called a “facsist” by court decision, “based on his writings”.
But in Thüringen, voters decided in October that the “political center” was dead. An absolute majority of voters opted for Die Linke (31%) and the AfD (23,4%). The “political center” collapsed. CDU, with 21,7 % of votes, lost a whopping 11,8% compared to the previous elections in 2014. The SPD shrank to the size of a splinter party, with 8,2% (2014: 12,4%).
That left not much for the firewalls to protect. It was going to have to be either a cooperation with Die Linke or AfD if Thüringen was to get a government. Every local politician saw that. Thürigen’s CDU chief Mike Mohring proposed talking to the AfD, or to Die Linke. 17 CDU deputies in Thüringen demanded that the party should seek and understanding with the AfD.
But Berlin would have none of it. Chancellor Merkel was happy to see that, thanks to SPDs dismal results, outgoing PM Ramelow had lost his left-green majority. She recommended (according to Robin Alexander, deputy editor at “Die Welt”) to do nothing and see what Mr. Ramelow would do. This, it turned out, was a big mistake.
In Thüringen, the local CDU rebelled. Berlin, they felt, was suffocating them. If they as CDU were not ready to embrace AfD themes, then the AfD, who had already robbed them of half of their voters, would grow even further, and CDU would shrink even more. That meant their livelihoods as politicians were at stake. Also, they themselves and their voters saw many things (for instance migration or same-sex marriage) much like AfD politicians and their voters.
There seem to have been behind-the-curtain talks between CDU and FDP, and between FDP and AfD. Publicly, local CDU chief Mohring later claimed that he was surprised when Mr. Kemmerich won the vote with the help of all AfD delegates. AfD had, as a ploy, fielded ist own candidate, Christoph Kindervater, but then “surprisingly” voted for Mr. Kemmerich.
In fact, everyone involved knew where this was heading and it was probably a planned coup. Karl Eckhard Hahn, the chief strategisst for the CDU in Thüringen, had published an essay describing the FDP option just three days before it happened: That an FDP candidate could be voted in with help of the AfD. This would not oblige the new government to anything, he argued, but it would be “unrealistic and undemocratic” to not cooperate with the AfD later on in the course of events. After all, he wrote, the programs of CDU, FDP and AfD were almost identical.2
Thüringens AfD chief, Mr. Höcke, had already offered, in a letter to Mr. Kemmerich on November 1st, to make him Prime Minister if the CDU would support that.3 Michael Heym, the CDU’s parliamentary group leader in Thüringen, later claimed that “it was a collective decision” to support Mr. Kemmerich – everyone knew that the AfD would help him win. Nobody, he says, objected. Heym has also said he was all for working with the AfD.
Within hours of Mr. Kemmerichs victory, Germany and the CDU in particular were in the grip of political frenzy. Everyone understood that the AfD had just put her foot in the door to the halls of power. And the national CDU, who had forbidden any such cooperation, suddenly realized that it was losing control of its own branches in the East, with elections due in the federal states of Sachsen-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern next year. Already, Lars-Jörn Zimmer, deputy parliamentary group leader of the CDU in Sachsen-Anhalt, openly called for working with the AfD.
Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer immediately traveled to Thüringen for a crisis meeting. After eight hours, she emerged with no result. She demanded new elections. The local CDU refused. Now Chancellor Merkel stepped in, from South Africa, where she was tending to international matters while mayhem was unfolding in Germany. Mr. Kemmerich’s election with CDU votes, she declared, was “unforgiveable”, the “result of the election has to be undone” and that it was “a bad day for democracy”.
This was a death sentence for Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer. Mrs. Merkel has no function or office in the party. For her to publicly intervene in party matters meant she was doing Mrs. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s job. A clear humiliation. The CDU chairwoman understood, and resigned. It was only the first of a whole cascade of resignations.
By the looks of it, Mrs Merkel had decided that there was only one way to control the rebellion in the East. Heads needed to roll, and the AfD needed to be branded “facsist” with no room left for nuance. Within days, forced resignations of highranking officials amounted to a political bloodbath. Christian Hirte, who had unwisely congratulated Mr. Kemmerich on Twitter, announced that Mrs Merkel had asked him to resign from his job as Ostbeauftragter (Commissioner for Eastern German Affairs), and that he was thus leaving. Making him even more “suspicious”, he had also praised, on Twitter, Karl Eckhard Hahn’s aformentioned “prophetic” essay on the FDP option.
Michael Heym and and Lars-Jörn Zimmer, the CDU deputy group leaders in, respectively, Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt, announced that they were stepping down. Mr. Heym’s parting words in an interview were that Mrs. Merkel’s methods reminded him of the “deepest DDR” (the former communist dictatorship). Mike Mohring, the renitent CDU chief in Thüringen, also announced that he would quit.
Anyone who was anyone in the CDU now hurried to publicly call the AfD a facsist party. A conservative group within the CDU, the “Werteunion” (“Values Union”) with clear sympathies for the AfD, was fiercely attacked by the rest of the party as an “insult to Christian Democracy” for whose existence there was “no need”. An icy wind was blowing. CDU officials all over Germany understood that they needed to dress warmly or freeze to death.
The chill became even deeper when a deranged man killed nine people of foreign origin, his mother and himself in the city of Hanau on February 19th. He left a “manifesto” saying that a number of ethnic groups needed to be exterminated. The media ond politicians of all stripe lost no time in pinning the murders on the AfD, specifically on Mr. Höcke in Thüringen and his, by court decision, “facsist” writings. Haehas called for “cruel” methods in order to rid Germany of muslim migrants. The racsist rampage in Hanau came after a similar attack, on Jews, in the City of Halle.4
These murders have made it impossible for any CDU politician to openly call for cooperation with the AfD – he or she would be attacked as cooperating with killers.
So this is where it stands. The CDU is in tatters. It has “lost it’s core, and it’s direction”, Robin Alexander wrote in “Die Welt”. Opinion polls in Thüringen show that the party may well completely collapse there – suppost has dwindled to only 12-13 percent. Elections in the city-state of Hamburg on February 23rd saw the CDU drop to 11,2%, a loss of 4,7% compared to 2014. The party that has dominated German politics since World War 2 is struggling to remain on its feet.
Who will succeed Merkel?
There is a fullblown crisis of leadership as well. Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said she will resign once the Party decides on her successor. That person should then also be the party’s candidate for Chancellor in 2022. A party congress has been convened for April 25th. There are, as of this writing, three contenders.
Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary group leader who got sidelined by Mrs. Merkel and left politics for many years to pursue a career in business, is regarded as the man who could lead the party to a more conservative profile. He enjoys the broadest support base in the CDU itself (40%). Armin Laschet, Prime Minister in the populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is a “moderate” whose positions are difficult to tell apart from those of the Greens or the SPD. He has teamed up with Jens Spahn, the Minister for Health, who was also seen as a potential candidate but has decided to instead support Laschet. Politically, Spahn is a conservative like Mr. Merz. The CDU branch of North Rhine-Westphalia, the biggest regional party organization, has thrown ist weight behind Laschet, and so he is now regarded as a frontrunner – not least because nationally he is more popular than Mr. Merz.
And then there is Norbert Röttgen, who chairs the foreign affairs committe in the Bundestag. He was the first to boldly declare his candidacy. A former minister who was removed by Mrs Merkel, he probably holds a grudge against her but is regarded as close to Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer. In polls, he quickly gained as much support as Mr. Merz. But in the party his position is much weaker.
From the sidelines, Markus Söder, the Chairman of CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, has intervened to say that in his view, the new CDU leader did not necessarily need to become the party’s candidate for Chancellor as well. That prompted accusations that he himself might want to be that candidate.
With so many contenders, even the strongest is weak. Mr. Merz, Mr. Laschet and Mr. Röttgen each enjoy the support of only a quarter of CDU sympathizers.
At least one CDU leader has proposed to ditch all of the above and stick to Mrs. Merkel as candidate for Chancellor. Daniel Günter, Prime Minister in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein, has called on her to reconsider her decision to withdraw from politics after 2022. “We would get very good results in the elections with her”, he argued.
Would she reconsider? Some observers believe that the real reason for her decision to not want another term in office is her health. She has been seen to tremble uncontrollably on a number of occasions.
Then again, her party is in bad health as well. The Greens, in the latest polls, seem poised to overtake the CDU/CSU as the strongest party in the land (25% to CDU/CSU’s 26%).
The next Chancellor may not come from the CDU at all. All newest opinion polls (as of March 7th) show a mathematical majority for a Left-Left-Green coalition, and Green party Co-Leader Robert Habeck is now the most popular potential candidate. Mr. Laschet is second, and Mr. Merz third with only 27% of voter sympathies nationwide. The next Chancellor may well come from the left – now that the dam has broken.