Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) finds itself at a crossroads as some 1,000 party members meet this weekend in Leipzig for 270 policy debates. The party is preparing for the dawning of an era without longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she will not run for re-election when her term ends in 2021.
Here’s what to watch for as Germany’s largest political party gathers.
Finding unity or splintering further apart?
Party members won’t be making any major leadership decisions this year as party chairwoman and Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, generally known as AKK, still has another year left in her term.
But it’s still bound to be “an intense” party convention centering on questions of how to hold German society together in times of increasing polarization, CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak told German public broadcaster ZDF.
The CDU has faced setback after setback since 2017. In two recent regional elections in eastern Germany, the party was overtaken by the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). And while the CDU is holding on to its spot atop nationwide polls with 26%, the environmentalist Greens are within striking distance at 22%, in a November poll conducted for the ARD public broadcaster.
A turnaround in the polls is needed if the party wants to seat the next German chancellor, as it has for the past 15 years. But that turnaround depends on the CDU answering the question of what it actually stands for.
Since AKK’s election last year, the party has splintered into conservative and middle-of-the-road factions as it attempts to game out a future course in a post-Merkel era. In parts of Germany where the AfD has seen the most success, some in the CDU have toyed with hardline stances on immigration policy. Meanwhile, others have embraced environmental reforms to latch on to the Greens’ upward momentum.
But neither course has panned out, party insiders say.
“The CDU no longer has an agenda for the most pressing questions of our time,” Wolfgang Reinhart, the CDU’s local party head in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, told ZDF, adding that the party is “thematically bankrupt.”
Is AKK the end all be all?
Blame for the party’s floundering and soul-searching has been placed squarely on the shoulders of AKK, who Merkel dubbed her heir apparent when she announced her impending retirement last year.
With some seeing AKK in a weak position, watch her rival Friedrich Merz. He lost the party’s leadership contest last year but has remained in the limelight for his critique of the government’s work in Berlin and the murky future of his party.
He’ll be giving a highly anticipated speech and even came out on Thursday in support of involving the full party’s base in deciding its next candidate for chancellor. The CDU’s youth wing has also applied for a formal debate on the matter to be had in Leipzig.
But the CDU will be shooting itself in the foot if it concerns itself with a leadership debate in Leipzig, Olaf Böhnke, Berlin director of Rasmussen Global think tank, told DW.
“The main objective of the CDU is to stop and avoid the current self-destructive dynamic of internal fights,” said Böhnke. “It’s just too early for Merz and co. to start the big bang on the current leadership.”
As such, expect AKK to give the speech to end all speeches when she opens the convention on Friday, observers have said. She has publicly welcomed the opportunity for opponents to debate her mistakes over the past year in Leipzig. But she’s also signaled she won’t back down from her convictions to bolster Germany’s military might and its role on the international stage.
Can the GroKo survive?
The CDU’s inner turmoil has leeched into a bigger question about Germany’s government as a whole: Can the so-called grand coalition, or GroKo, actually survive to the end of its term?
When the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD) signed their third marriage contract in early 2018, they did so begrudgingly after terrible election results for both parties. Though their coalition has nearly disintegrated over policy squabbles multiple times over the past two years, the GroKo gave itself a good grade on its recent halfway report and doubled down on its commitment to the coalition until 2021.
But watch out for the policy debates in Leipzig with the potential to throw that harmony for a loop.
The party is split on allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei to bid on Germany’s 5G network. Merkel advocates for the firm to compete, while security and diplomacy experts, both within and outside of the party, warn against Huawei’s participation. The SPD has also remained vehemently against the tech giant’s involvement in such a crucial infrastructure project.
“The issue is not so much data privacy but security and the risk of spying by the Chinese government,” Niko Härting, a Berlin lawyer specializing in data protection, told DW. “I think those fears are justified: China is not a democratic country, but a non-transparent dictatorship.”
To see which direction the party intends to head, watch the debates on everything from a gender parity rule within the party, to discussions on a headscarf ban for young schoolgirls and a rethink of a recently adopted basic pension scheme. Those issues will test the patience of the CDU’s left-leaning coalition partners at a time when neither party can afford to lose voter support.
“If the CDU remembers that party congresses are there to provide the public an image of a party with strong leadership that’s thematically up-to-date, then it will endeavor … to avoid anything that would allow political rivals, in this case the SPD, to question the coalition,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.