It is a Friday evening in Berlin and three middle-aged, dark-suited men are setting out their vision for the future of Germany — the last debate in a withering 10-month campaign for the leadership of the country’s most powerful political party.
Friedrich Merz, a millionaire businessman, says he will “dare to make a fresh start, and renew Germany and the EU”. Armin Laschet, governor of one of Germany’s biggest regions, says he wants to modernise his country for the 2020s and fix “all the deficiencies” exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Norbert Röttgen, an MP and foreign policy expert, says he is not part of any camp — “I stand for all . . . for the modern centre.”
The tone is polite and low-key. All three seem to agree on almost everything — battling climate change, for example, and strengthening Europe.
But appearances can be deceptive. Below the surface a fierce battle is raging for the soul of the Christian Democratic Union, a party that has governed Germany for 50 of the past 70 years and this year will stake its claim to a further four years in power. And with the leadership election only three days away, the outcome is still too close to call — one recent poll put Mr Merz on 29 per cent and Mr Laschet and Mr Röttgen both on 25 per cent.
Much is at stake. Under Angela Merkel, chancellor for the past 16 years, Germany has been Europe’s anchor, an island of stability in often stormy waters. But Saturday’s election, at a digital party conference in Berlin, could usher in a new era of uncertainty — especially if Mr Merz wins. An old rival of Ms Merkel, he is more sceptical about closer European integration than others in his party and speaks of the need for Germany to do more to “safeguard its interests” in the EU, and “learn the language of power”. A Merz victory could have far-reaching consequences for Europe and beyond.
The election comes at an anxious time for the CDU, too, as it braces itself for Bundestag elections in September that will see Ms Merkel shuffle off the political stage. “Merkel exasperated a lot of people in her party, but in the end she was the reason it kept winning election after election,” says Frank Stauss, one of Germany’s most experienced campaign managers. “With Merkel there was continuity. Now she’s about to leave there is real fear in the CDU at developments no one can foresee.”
The contest has crystallised awkward questions about what kind of party the CDU wants to be. In her years as chancellor, Ms Merkel steered it towards the centre ground of German politics, often in the teeth of dogged resistance from conservatives. She abolished compulsory military service, ordered the closure of Germany’s nuclear power stations, introduced gay marriage and a national minimum wage and vastly increased childcare for working families. And then, at the height of the European migration crisis, she famously welcomed more than a million refugees into Germany.
But in the process she scrambled the German political landscape. “The CDU just stole the policies of the Social Democrats [SPD] and the Greens,” says Andreas Rödder, a historian at Mainz University. “It was like a big jellyfish . . . that sucked the air out of the other parties.”
Under Ms Merkel’s leadership it turned into a well-oiled election-winning machine, able to appeal to environmentally-conscious urban liberals as well as rightwingers. “But the price it has paid for Merkel’s success is that it has lost its programmatic identity,” Mr Rödder says.
He cites the example of “schwarze Null” or “black zero”, Ms Merkel’s commitment to sound public finances and balanced budgets, which was abandoned last year as the government ramped up spending to tackle the pandemic. “It was the last thing you could say the CDU really stood for, and now that’s gone, too.”
Complicating the CDU’s predicament is the protracted vacuum at the top of the party. Ms Merkel stood down as leader in 2018 and her anointed successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer won the election that year to replace her, narrowly beating Mr Merz. But she announced her resignation in February last year after failing to stamp her authority on the party.
Messrs Laschet, Merz and Röttgen quickly threw their hat in the ring to succeed her. For months, many in Germany assumed that whoever won that race would then become the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in September’s poll. A decision on who is to run is expected in the spring, after consultations between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
But in a sign of how febrile and unpredictable German politics has become, the future CDU leader is now no longer seen as a shoo-in for chancellor-candidate. Other contenders are waiting in the wings — such as the ambitious health minister, Jens Spahn. German media have reported in recent days that he sounded out CDU grandees at Christmas about standing for Germany’s top job, even though he is supposed to be Mr Laschet’s running mate.
Mr Spahn has denied the reports. But mistrust of his intentions is pervasive. “Spahn has been campaigning for himself, not Laschet, and a lot of people in the party are unhappy,” says one CDU official.
Then there is Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, who, like Mr Spahn, has grown in stature in the course of the corona crisis. Speculation is rife in Berlin that he also entertains an interest in running as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate for Ms Merkel’s job — though he insists in public that his “place is in Bavaria”.
“The race for chancellor is basically a contest between five people, not three, though only three are on the CDU ballot,” says the party official.
Of those five, none represents a more decisive break with the Merkel era than Mr Merz. A brilliant orator who was opposition leader in the Bundestag before being squeezed out of the job by Ms Merkel in 2002, he quit politics seven years later to pursue a career in business, rising to become chairman of BlackRock Germany.
He has pledged to win back conservative voters who, despairing of Ms Merkel’s liberal policies, defected to the far-right Alternative for Germany — or stopped voting altogether.
His aim, he says, is to provide “a political home to all those people of goodwill, traditional conservatives” and “bring them back to the centre”. It was the only way, he said, to stop such people “self-radicalising” and “suddenly ending up on the far-left or far-right”.
The strategy includes seizing on key AfD issues such as immigration. During a discussion in December about Germany’s welfare state, he said the country would have “1m fewer people living on benefits if we hadn’t had the immigration influx of 2015-16”.
He also likes to talk tough on law and order. In the debate last week he said police should confiscate the assets of criminal clans. “If these guys have to get out of their souped-up cars and walk, that hurts them more than a prison sentence,” he said.
Such language has made him a hero to the CDU rank-and-file. But large parts of the CDU establishment see him as irascible, uncontrollable and too thin-skinned. And there is widespread scepticism about his plan to tilt the party rightward. Some experts think he would lose far more centrist voters to the Greens and SPD than he would gain from the AfD. That could lead to a Merz-led CDU losing the next election to a coalition of the Greens, SPD and the far-left Die Linke party.
“You win elections in Germany in the centre, not on the fringes,” says the CDU official.
Some younger, more liberal CDU politicians have a genuine horror of Mr Merz. “He won’t win a flowerpot in my city,” says one female activist in the party.
It’s different in the SPD: they would love to see Mr Merz, a man who owns two private planes, go head-to-head against their candidate for chancellor, the popular finance minister Olaf Scholz. “Merz is a classic representative of the West German CDU of the 1980s and ’90s,” says Nils Schmid, a senior SPD MP. “He’s the antithesis of Scholz.” The BlackRock connection also makes him vulnerable. “[Its] business model isn’t popular with German voters.”
Some in the Laschet camp think recent events in the US could also harm Mr Merz’s chances. “I’m not saying Merz is a German Trump — far from it,” says one of Mr Laschet’s allies. “But America has shown us what happens when an establishment party veers to the right. It can quickly escalate out of control.”
With the CDU still in shock over the riots in Washington, it might, he says, be more inclined to elect a more moderate, unifying figure as its leader — someone like Mr Laschet.
An affable, easy-going Rhinelander, who has run North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, since 2017, Mr Laschet positions himself as Ms Merkel’s natural heir — a man who will keep the CDU together and maintain its current, centrist course.
“It’s important to me that we don’t choose a rupture with Angela Merkel, but rather continuity,” he told reporters recently. “The CDU must convey the idea that the 16 years when [she] was chancellor were good years, and that we stand by her policies.”
But it’s been a rocky path for Mr Laschet. When he announced his candidacy in February, he was seen as the frontrunner, especially after he recruited Mr Spahn, popular with the CDU’s young conservatives, as his deputy. But his unsteady performance amid the coronavirus crisis, where he came across as hesitant and indecisive, especially in comparison with the tough-talking Mr Söder in Bavaria, cost him support.
Recently, however, he has been edging up the polls — a shift that could, according to one member of the Laschet camp, reflect views on Ms Merkel. Even with Germany in a second lockdown her approval ratings have remained stellar, driven in part by admiration for her cool, unruffled style of crisis management. Mr Laschet, who is the closest to Ms Merkel of the three candidates, has benefited from that, he says. “People no longer want such an abrupt break with the Merkel era, which is exactly what Merz seems to represent,” he adds.
It is a factor Mr Laschet played up in last Friday’s debate. “The government is hugely popular right now because people trust us, trust the chancellor, trust the federal government and trust the prime ministers of the regions to get us through this crisis,” he said.
But as the face of the liberal camp, Mr Laschet faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from the third candidate — Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. His leadership bid was seen as somewhat quixotic back in February. But he has won more support, especially among younger activists attracted to his message of renewal.
It’s an extraordinary comeback. Mr Röttgen’s career seemed to be over in 2012 when he lost in elections in North Rhine-Westphalia to the SPD, and Ms Merkel subsequently sacked him as environment minister. But he painstakingly rebuilt his career, carving out a niche as the CDU’s pre-eminent spokesman on foreign affairs. He has emerged as one of the country’s most outspoken critics of China — a line Mr Merz has also taken — and a vocal proponent of excluding Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from Germany’s 5G network.
The telegenic Mr Röttgen has also positioned himself as a liberal moderniser who will shift the CDU’s focus to issues young people care about most, such as Europe and climate change. “We can’t be satisfied that we are only number one with the over-60s,” he said in a TV debate in December.
With a quirky campaign on social media, featuring Spotify playlists and photos of koalas, he has attracted an army of young volunteers. “Of all the three candidates, he has the most creative brains working for him,” says one woman member of “Team Röttgen”. “He makes the other two look really old-school.”
Mr Röttgen’s poll performance keeps improving. But experts point out that a lot of the polls are meaningless. What matters is the voting preferences of the 1,001 delegates — functionaries, ministers and elected officials. They will take part in the CDU’s digital party conference on January 15-16 and elect the new leader: and they may be more inclined to vote for the man widely seen as the establishment candidate, Mr Laschet.
“The delegates will vote for whoever is best placed to help them keep their jobs,” says the CDU official.
Observers say that there is another advantage to a vote for Mr Laschet: it gives the CDU more options when it comes to the more important choice of CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor. If his standing with the German electorate fails to improve even if he wins the election, Mr Laschet may agree to let someone else — say Mr Söder — run for chancellor. Mr Merz, many experts believe, would never agree to such an arrangement.
In Friday’s debate, the three candidates made some of their last pitches of the campaign. A relaxed, urbane Mr Röttgen boasted of how his campaign had “galvanised so many young people” — even those who don’t vote CDU. “I want everyone to get involved with me in this project,” he said. Mr Merz said he sought an “ecological renewal” of Germany’s economic model and a “new contract with the younger generation . . . so they have the same opportunities as their parents.”
Mr Laschet said he should be rewarded for his deft management of the pandemic, having shown that “we can take responsibility and make tough decisions”. He had also shown, in North Rhine-Westphalia, that he can win elections, balance out competing interests and govern one of Germany’s biggest states — a veiled swipe both at Mr Röttgen’s electoral defeat in 2012 and Mr Merz’s lack of experience in government.
Germany is holding its breath. On Saturday, after the CDU delegates have finally voted, it will find out whether its most important party has chosen a smooth transition into a new, post-Merkel era — or an abrupt change of route to a destination unknown.