Centre-oriented How the German conservatives became liberal

German Chancellor Angela Merkel;
German Chancellor Angela Merkel; | Photo (detail): © Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the CDU a more socially-oriented party and has broken with the conservative dogma. Now there is increasing resistance to this approach. Matthias Geis takes stock.

The Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) is the country’s most successful political party. With a clear policy of Western alignment, a social market economy concept and its commitment to German reunification, it had a decisive bearing on the post-war order. It has provided the chancellor in 47 of the Federal Republic’s 67 years, and there was no sign of any imminent crisis during the 2013 elections to the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. Winning more than 40 percent of the votes, the course of liberal modernization that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pursued since taking up office in 2005 appeared to have been impressively endorsed, both in terms of its content and its power politics.

The situation changed dramatically in the spring of 2016, however: Merkel’s politics encountered resistance, not only from her political opposition but also within the CDU. On the right-wing fringes, a rival party by the name of Alternative for Germany (AfD) formed, and Merkel was openly criticized even by some in the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). In nationwide polls, the Union lost support, while the right-wing populist AfD had already mobilized 15 percent of the electorate by the spring of 2016.

Adapting to social reality

One might say that Angela Merkel is now paying the price for her successes. Ever since taking over as leader of the party in 2000, she has consistently adapted her party to the social reality. After 16 years of Helmut Kohl (CDU) as chancellor, who left behind him a tired and washed out party when he was defeated in 1998, Angela Merkel wanted to “build bridges to society” as CDU leader. She kept her word, right across her political agenda: under Merkel’s leadership, the CDU broke with the conservative dogma that states that Germany is not a country of immigration and opened itself up to a moderate migration policy; it reformed its conventional image of the family and promoted the reconcilability of family and work; it opened its policies to the concerns of same-sex civil partnerships and combined its traditionally economy-friendly attitudes with a significantly more ecological orientation.

During Merkel’s chancellorship, there have been drastic course corrections such as the abolition of compulsory military service, the introduction of a minimum wage, the withdrawal from nuclear power and the rescue of the euro at a cost of billions. Each of these decisions brought Merkel approval from the opposition camp – and criticism from her own ranks. Yet the election successes appeared to prove her right.

Turning point in Merkel’s chancellorship

It was not ideology and a consciousness of tradition but rather solution-oriented pragmatism that shaped the Union’s policies during the Merkel era. Her sober approach, which no longer made any concessions to the traditionalists in the party, alienated some people at first. After winning three general elections and forming consecutive coalition governments with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), however, Merkel advanced to become the unchallenged leadership figure for her party and beyond.

Merkel is an extremely cautious politician. But perhaps she was not after all cautious enough at the zenith of her power. The fact that the chancellor expected Germany to accept nearly a million victims of the Syrian civil war during the course of 2015 met with deep reservations both within her party and outside it. Merkel’s decision marked a turning point which cast her entire chancellorship in a different light.

Dangerous liberalization

Suddenly, the spectacular election successes of the right-wing populist AfD appear proof that it is not only Merkel’s refugee policy but the entire course of liberal modernization pursued in recent years that could pose a danger to the Union. Merkel’s CDU hardly offers any sort of political home to those scared and unsettled voters of a conservative bent who feel overwhelmed by the challenges of globalization. That is the niche into which the AfD is now advancing.

Unlike the Social Democrats, Angela Merkel long succeeded in stabilizing the Union as a people’s party. To achieve this, it pursued policies consistent with the expectations of the German mainstream. Without establishing any formal coalition with the Alliance 90/The Greens party, Merkel increasingly often adopted policies which pleased right-of-centre, left-of-centre and green voters – on issues such as immigration, the family and the environment. In doing so, she disarmed the SPD and Green parties. And compared with other countries in Europe Germany has not fared at all badly during her chancellorship. Yet Merkel has disappointed the conservatives, who are now taking their revenge by harshly criticizing her successful model or turning in their droves to the AfD. Following the Social Democrats, the Union could now be facing a crisis that will cast doubt on its character as a people’s party.