The German Center Right’s Crisis Is Bigger Than Kramp-Karrenbauer

Benner 2020 AKK CDU
Source: European People's Party / Flickr
11 Feb 2020, 
published in
Politico Europe

Don’t blame Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for the crisis tearing apart Germany’s Christian Democrats.

Sure, the German defense minister has racked up more gaffes than wins since she took over from Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the CDU a little more than a year ago. The latest storm is the local political crisis in the eastern state of Thuringia — where a liberal Free Democrat was elected as state premier with the backing of the CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Outrage over the election — and Kramp-Karrenbauer’s mismanagement of the fallout — prompted her to announce she will step down as leader this summer and will not stand for chancellor in the next election.

That was likely the right decision. But it’ll do little to solve her party’s problems. The reasons the CDU is splitting at the seams date back to well before her tenure.

When Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected as party leader in December 2018, she called the CDU the last unicorn in Europe” — the only center-right party to have preserved its status as a Volkspartei with a broad appeal across society.

This was a party that allowed for compromises to be hashed out between different factions on the center right, all within a single group.

The unicorn, it turned, out was on its last legs. Today, the CDU’s ability to integrate competing views is seriously compromised, and challenged from two sides.

To its right, the AfD is winning over conservative voters disillusioned with what they see as the CDU’s move to the left during the Merkel years. And on its left, the Green Party is luring away the party’s more cosmopolitan voters — people once attracted to the CDU by Merkel’s policies but now hungry for more decisive action on the climate crisis and the rise of the far right.

This creates a dilemma for the party that goes well beyond Kramp-Karrenbauer’s leadership or what just happened in eastern Germany.

Many CDU voters are ready to move beyond the Merkel years but the party cannot agree on the direction. The more it tries out conservative positions to win back AfD voters, the more it drives its more cosmopolitan, left-leaning voters away. And the more it prioritizes action on climate change, the more traditional conservatives feel left behind.

A captivating personality able to chart a future-oriented agenda may be able to transcend that dynamic somewhat. But none of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s likely successors as party leader and chancellor-in-waiting fit that bill.

North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Armin Laschet heads up a smooth-running coalition government in Germany’s most populous state. But to a national audience he will likely come across as little more than a continuation of the Merkel agenda both in substance and style. He will find it hard to win back votes from the AfD.

Both former CDU parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz and Health Minister Jens Spahn would signal a more conservative turn. Spahn, who is 39, projects the possibility of a youthful and dynamic alternative to the Merkel years but alienates more cosmopolitan CDU voters with his forays into conservative identity politics, from suggesting that the German language is under threat from too much English being spoken in cafés to complaining about Muslim machos.”

Merz, at 64, plays well with more traditionally conservative voters but signals a return to the past: He was fixture of the party in the late 1990s and early 2000s before Merkel finished his political career.

His attacks on teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg are likely to drive environmentally conscious voters to the Greens and his past position as head of US investor BlackRock would be a gift to the ailing Social Democrats, who are hungry for an arch-capitalist foil after Merkel co-opted much of their agenda.

If the CDU is to find a way out of its crisis, it will do so not by swerving toward its rivals on the right or left — but by charting its own confident course.

The reason both the AfD and the Greens are up in the polls is that they offer the clearest political narratives.

German voters have lost trust in the political class and suspect the good times are coming to an end. According to a recent study by More in Common, barely a quarter of Germans think their politicians are up to the task of tackling the country’s key challenges.

Many worry Germany is about to gamble away the economic basis of its prosperity. They want new political ideas and narratives.

The center right needs to offer up a distinct vision for how Germany can conquer the future. They must lay out an inclusive national, patriotic narrative for an increasingly diverse country; build excitement about social, political and economic innovation; explain how they will invest in technology and industrial leadership for a post-carbon age; and offer a plan to renew Germany’s social system and its role in Europe and the world.

Only by doing that will the CDU be able to change a political conversation that is currently dominated by outrage on the far right and what many perceive as climate absolutism among the Greens and Fridays for the Future.

None of the three leading candidates to succeed Kramp-Karrenbauer are likely to present or credibly embody such a vision. That makes it likely that support for and trust in the CDU will only continue to erode, even under a new leader.

Germany’s conservatives might not miss Kramp-Karrenbauer. But they’re unlikely to find a savior in whoever replaces her.

This commentary was originally published in Politico Europe on February 112020.