The 2017 to 2021 Parliament has not been plain sailing for Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). In late 2018, Angela Merkel announced her intention to step down from the CDU leadership, after disappointing state election results in Bavaria and Hesse. Summer 2018was wretched, with a lengthy argument over migration policy (and interior minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU threatening unilaterally to turn asylum seekers back at Germany’s borders, or to resign, with the social democratic SPD also threatening to leave the coalition). In December 2018, at the party’s conference, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — considered a centrist continuity candidate to Merkel — narrowly won the CDU’s leadership. Her closest opponent was former CDU parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz, who argued for a more squarely conservative positioning.
History dealt Kramp-Karrenbauer an unlucky hand. She engaged in rather clumsy efforts to shore up the CDU’s conservative flank, with her appearance at a regional carnival event making jokes about unisex toilets drawing criticism. Becoming Minister of Defence in mid-2019 did not appear to help her standing. In early 2020, in the eastern state of Thuringia, the CDU voted with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) to install the latter’s candidate as Minister President, breaking a clear CDU decision at the national level never to co-operate with the AfD – such co-operation is taboo in post-war Germany. Although eventually the CDU and FDP pulled back from the brink (and allowed the installation of the Left Party’s candidate as Minister President), Kramp-Karrenbauer’s credibility was irreparably damaged and she resigned a few days later in February 2020.
The election of a new CDU leader took a long time, as the coronavirus pandemic led to several delays to the planned party conference. Yet it was the pandemic that also increased the CDU’s standing. In the early months of 2020, pre-Covid, the party was polling in the mid-20s, and the Green Party came close to overtaking. By June, it was approaching 40%: the government was perceived to have handled the pandemic very effectively, with lower infection and death rates than in comparable European countries. Political pundits were sure that the next coalition would be between CDU/CSU and Greens – they would have had a clear majority and both indicated a clear willingness to co-operate, whereas the SPD did not favour a renewal of the ruling “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU.
In January 2021, Armin Laschet, the Minister President of North Rhine Westphalia, was elected CDU leader (at a virtual conference), again coming just narrowly ahead of Merz and confirming a trajectory of CDU centrism; although Laschet’s personal relationship with Merkel did not appear strongfollowing disagreements during the pandemic (when Laschet pressed for swifter relaxation of restrictions than Merkel was comfortable with). At that point, a CDU/CSU-Green coalition still appeared nailed on, with the CDU/CSU getting credit for the management of the pandemic and still profiting from Angela Merkel’s extremely high personal ratings.
However, things soon began to turn very sour. The CDU had two poor results in the March 2021 state election, losing to the incumbent Greens in Baden-Württemberg and the SPD in Rhineland Palatinate. While these defeats probably owed more to the popularity of the regional incumbents than the CDU’s failings, they were a blow to Laschet’s authority. At this time, it was becoming clear that the CSU’s leader, Markus Söder, also harboured ambitions to become Germany’s chancellor. What was at first a “behind the scenes” tussle came out into the open: in the end, Laschet (for all his failings, an effective internal party operator) forced through his own candidacy in April. A good deal of ill-feeling resulted in the CSU but also amongst CDU members who noticed Söder’s personal ratings were a long way ahead of Laschet’s. There was a bit of relief for Laschet in June, when the CDU overcame a threat from the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt to score a clear win in its regional election. But things got worse and worse. Laschet’s reputation as a crisis manager was already tarnished by a questionable performance on Covid in his home state, but his response to catastrophic floods there in July 2021 did further, enormous damage. The authorities’ reaction appeared tardy, but worse was the image of Laschet apparently laughing and joking with party colleagues at an event in the affected area, while the Federal President gave a solemn speech commemorating the victims. Put in some plagiarism allegations – de rigeur for all too many German politicians, and a hapless interview in which he apparently struggled to name three things he would change as Chancellor, and his credibility as a future German leader was shot to pieces. The Greens also had a torrid time in the election campaign, with their leader facing her own claims of plagiarism, shoddy personal book-keeping, and embellishment of her CV. The FDP profited from the CDU’s misfortune, but the real winner was the unusually united SPD, whose Chancellor candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, appeared to convey the sort of seriousness and gravitas that Germans had come to associate with Chancellor Merkel, and which Laschet so clearly lacked.
Taking a step back from the personalities (although these are a big part of the issue), where did it go wrong for the CDU/CSU? German Christian Democracy has suffered from Germany’s transition from a “two and half” party system (during most of the post-WW2 to the 1990 reunification period) to the current six-party system with the Greens, Left Party, and AfD all on the scene. Christian Democratic decline is of course familiar to other European countries (Italy and the Netherlands, for example). But in relation to more recent years, four tentative claims can be made. Firstly, the party’s pivot to the centre ground led to an exposed right flank, which the AfD proved able to exploit (aided by events during the 2015 refugee crisis). Secondly, Merkel’s own brand was a great success, but she gained popularity independently from her party (at one point leading the Greens to put up posters cheerfully reminding voters of the neglected fact that “Angela Merkel is in the CDU”); she did not build up a credible successor, and the CDU entered the 2021 campaign with a fantastically popular Chancellor and little popularity to show for it. No CDU politician came close to matching Merkel’s standing. Thirdly, and similarly, the CDU perhaps became complacent in parts of Germany, getting used to decent election results without putting in the hard work on the ground. Finally, relations between the CDU and CSU, while no doubt inflamed by weak poll ratings, became increasingly fraught. Post-Merkel, all these areas – ideological positioning, credible leadership personalities, renewed grassroots organisation, and healing CDU/CSU wounds – will all require attention.