Angela Merkel is all too familiar with the loss of power. After all, her career began with her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, losing power.
At the time, the party had become rigid under then Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It had isolated itself from social developments, and it had become a conservative party in the worst sense — a party resistant to change. The CDU had lost power because it had stopped taking chances, and because Mr. Kohl had expected too little of the party. Ms. Merkel recognized the party’s shortcomings at the time.
Is she now expecting too much of her party?
Chancellor Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees could be the most spectacular and far-reaching decision of her chancellorship. But it could also be the decision that alienates Ms. Merkel from her party, the CDU, more than any other decision in the past. Has Ms. Merkel, at the height of her power, actually programmed her demise?
There is no criticism of Ms. Merkel, a member of the party’s steering committee said after the committee’s meeting on Monday. Well, he conceded five minutes later, the mood is a little fragile at the moment. Or perhaps the mood is even shifting, he added half an hour later, after reporting from the party’s local organizations.
Long suppressed conservative reflexes are now being combined with pragmatic concerns: Can we do this? It is no longer a matter of perceived conservatism. Suddenly Merkel the problem solver is now the cause of a problem.
Top candidates Julia Klöckner and Guido Wolf sense that refugee policy could influence but not decide these elections.
The prediction that things could eventually go too far for the party has hovered above Ms. Merkel’s leadership from the very beginning. She has driven the CDU into an ongoing process of renewal. She is not pursuing a master plan, and she has never truly managed to win her party’s enthusiasm for her uninterrupted modernization efforts.
But she has brought about some fundamental changes, including parental allowances, a minimum wage, equality for gay and lesbian couples, the nationalization of banks, the phase-out of nuclear power and the end of compulsory military service. Today’s CDU has little in common with the party in 1998.
The identity problems the party has incurred as a result were inevitable. Is the CDU still a tradition-conscious, orienting and preserving power? Or has it become a political machine under Ms. Merkel, one that reacts meekly and mildly to every demand for flexibility from government headquarters? The roots of the CDU are “liberal, social and conservative,” as Ms. Merkel has exclaimed on countless occasions, while her leadership of the party went about driving out its remaining conservatism.
But why has the CDU submitted to Ms. Merkel’s course redirection over the years? Of course, there have been awkward whispers from anxious party members, which always amounted to the charge the Ms. Merkel was selling off the party’s “good silver.” But the party ultimately tolerated the loss of tradition because it was successful under Ms. Merkel’s leadership. And the more it shed the burden of outdated ideas, the more pragmatically and unsentimentally did it attack reforms in energy, security and social policy.
But the most important criterion was the power that came with the CDU’s renewal, which translated into the party gaining more power in 2005, securing it in 2009 and triumphing again in 2013. To this day, this is the unbeatable argument for Ms. Merkel’s principle of leadership. Because she has been able to secure power, she can keep the party in the forefront of social developments. And, conversely, because the CDU remains at the forefront, it can continue to claim power.
But Ms. Merkel has veered from this path in a spectacular way with her decision on behalf of refugees. She is now defining the change society should take, in effect leading — instead of following – public opinion. For years, Ms. Merkel claimed that the CDU shapes the zeitgeist rather than follows it. Although this wasn’t true, it was intended to counteract suspicions of opportunism within the party. But now Ms. Merkel has assumed the leading role on a critical issue, and in doing so she is shaping the German zeitgeist. This could be the point at which her party no longer wants to follow her.
Skepticism over growing immigration, fear of foreign infiltration and concern over a core German identity have always been part of the CDU’s basic political and cultural understanding. The corresponding political utopia read: “Germany is not a country of immigration.” In February 1999, 10 years after the CDU’s loss of power in 1989, Roland Koch provided the first bright spot for his party with an election victory he had achieved with a campaign against dual citizenship.
In 2002, candidate for the chancellorship Edmund Stoiber, a member of the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), made his opposition to unchecked mass immigration part of his campaign platform. Ms. Merkel’s adversary, Friedrich Merz, called for a German core culture, which made him extremely popular within his party. And even Ms. Merkel repeatedly tried to cozy up to the mood within her party, saying: “Multiculturalism is dead.” Under her leadership, the CDU/CSU passionately fought the Social Democratic Party/Green Party coalition government’s plans to liberalize immigration. Nevertheless, resentment of foreigners disappeared from the CDU’s campaign arsenal under Ms. Merkel. But her confidants have no illusions, knowing that resentments will be revived if the latest wave of immigration leads to chaos or creates excessive demands on Germany’s ability to cope with it.
Even though Ms. Merkel is not responsible for the refugee crisis, there is growing incomprehension within her party over a CDU chancellor, of all people, offering up Germany as a destination for global flows of migrants. Can we really do this?
The CSU, long a haven for frustrated conservatives from its bigger sister party, has declared itself the avant-garde of the resistance movement. CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer blatantly characterizes Chancellor Merkel’s gesture of openness toward the refugees as a “serious mistake,” and believes that Germany is in store for an “emergency situation it can no longer control.” While the chancellor wants to encourage Germans to accept the challenge, Mr. Seehofer is becoming the leader of the skeptics.
His criticism could prove to be contagious. The conservative community of mourners in the CDU was not just crestfallen because of the systematic erosion of their traditional values, but also because even the Bavarian sister party was no longer capable of asserting its basic convictions at the national level. The CSU was successful as a Bavarian regional power, but it failed as a last stronghold of political conservatism.
Just a few weeks ago, Ms. Merkel prevailed over the conservative voices in her party in her biggest conflict to date. While half of Europe held the Germans responsible for the “austerity dictate” against Greece, Ms. Merkel felt confronted with the displeasure of members of her own party, who were incensed over giving billions of euros to the bankrupt Greeks. Six weeks later, Greece seems to have been forgotten. Ms. Merkel’s supporters see this as a good sign that things could go well in the refugee issue. If a restrictive legislative package on asylum and immigration is put to a vote soon in the German parliament, the Bundestag, it could ask as a counterpoint to Ms. Merkel’s open-armed gesture to the refugees of the world. In contrast to the euro decision, she will then enjoy the solid support of her parliamentary group.
But the conflict over mass immigration will not be defused in the parliament. He received no emails on the subject of Greece after the vote on Monday, said Carsten Linnemann, leader of the pro-business wing of the CDU, but he did receive dozens of emails on the refugee issue. When several members left the party in his Paderborn district, Mr. Linnemann called each one of them. He managed to convince some to return, but not all.
Few people embody the CDU’s dilemma as perfectly as Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who has shown signs of strain during his recent public appearances. Mr. de Maizière has known Chancellor Merkel since her days as deputy government spokesperson under his cousin, Lothar de Maizière, who served as head of the federal chancellery, interior minister and defense minister. Loyalty to Ms. Merkel is part of his basic political makeup. But the hairline cracks that her modernization program has created within the party now seem to have affected Mr. de Maizière. In internal discussion, he and his department were the ones who opposed a generous border policy, both for security reasons and because Mr. de Maizière believes that the resilience of German society is limited.
A situation like the current one could have become a shining moment for the interior minister, but seems to be out of sorts. This isn’t exactly comforting, especially for his party. He recently proposed the idea of establishing European contingents for asylum seekers, which is already impossible for constitutional reasons. It is also the opposite of what the chancellor is saying, namely that there is no upper limit for political asylum.
A politician who doesn’t believe his own words cannot acquire political charisma. He can be loyal, but not convincing. Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of the CDU/CSU, is a case in point. Unlike Mr. de Maizière, he was once one of Ms. Merkel’s critics. But ever since she made him the party’s general secretary and later parliamentary leader, Mr. Kauder no longer adheres to his inner, often significantly more conservative convictions, but to his perception of his duties, as the man whose job is secure majorities for the chancellor. His approach was increasingly unsuccessful recently in the Greek crisis.
But Greece was child’s play compared to what Germany is about to face with the influx of refugees. The Greeks remain in Greece, but the Syrians, Eritreans, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and residents of the Balkans are coming in droves – and coming to Ms. Merkel. The CDU once introduced the nickname Mutti (Mom) to emphasize its ironic distance from the woman at the top. Now the nickname is being hijacked, by foreigners no less, who suddenly seem closer to the chancellor than her own party and are enthusiastically calling her “Mama Merkel.” It doesn’t help that Ms. Merkel points out – most recently at the caucus early this week, that it wasn’t her decision but the euphoric images of German train stations that have made Germany a welcoming country.
Luckily for the chancellor, she has no true adversary. No one has rebelled against Ms. Merkel in years. Younger politicians like David McAllister, Jens Spahn and Julia Klöckner are not rebels but political heirs. They address the question of what will come after Chancellor Merkel, because they know that it will be reality one day, and not because they want a completely different party. But they have developed a fine sense for the party’s desires, which Ms. Merkel is not satisfying and does not wish to satisfy. This is why it is so interesting to hear what they are saying in the current refugee crisis. Mr. Spahn, now the state secretary in the Finance Ministry, is airing his concerns over the policies of the government he belongs to, and not just internally. In the public debate, “we now have nothing but extremes, the self-proclaimed absolutely good people and the badgering xenophobes, and there is nothing in-between,” Mr. Spahn said.
Pro-business leader Linnemann also complains of a wide gap between published opinion and the real mood. But Ms. Merkel stands at the peak of published opinion. And everyone expects the government to deliver the plan they feel is missing.
Elections are scheduled for next year in the southwestern states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. Top candidates Julia Klöckner and Guido Wolf sense that refugee policy could influence but not decide these elections. Like the CDU, Mr. Wolf has also distanced himself from Ms. Merkel, and he warns that Germany could be overextending itself. In doing so, he is wading into sensitive territory for the party, where conservative reflexes and lessons from the past clash. In the 1990s, the CDU in Mr. Wolf’s native state of Baden-Württemberg voiced its criticism of asylum policy. In the end, the radical right-wing Republikaner Party managed to secure seats in the state parliament. “We cannot win on this issue” has been one of the party’s maxims since then. But perhaps it could lose as a result of the issue.
Few CDU politicians are as popular Julia Klöckner, the party’s top candidate in Mainz. She received top notes from national representatives, and the party unanimously confirmed her nomination for the state parliamentary election by a show of hands. Ms. Klöckner is not just the epitome of cheerfulness. She also feels that she is adept at emphasizing her proximity to the chancellor. “I often meet with Ms. Merkel in Berlin,” she likes to say when she is traveling. Thanks to Julia Klöckner, we know that Chancellor Merkel’s necklace is from her electoral district.
But Ms. Klöckner is equally adept at passionately distancing herself from the modernized CDU without straying from the agenda. When she, like Jens Spahn, calls for a ban on burkas, even though she knows that very few women wear burkas, and when she cheerfully announces at the national party convention: “I’d like to say hello to everyone from Helmut Kohl!” her words always contain a slightly subversive promise that something else exists besides Chancellor Merkel’s Protestant CDU. And the party’s love for Ms. Klöckner is also something of an echo of the long-suppressed discontent with Ms. Merkel.
The CDU is an extremely power-conscious party, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said on Tuesday morning, when Ms. Merkel presented his biography. This, he added, was also why it had been so clear to him on the evening of his election defeat that it was over. Ms. Merkel thought the same thing at the time, but in reference to herself.
When she seemed paralyzed as she faced off against Mr. Schröder in the legendary television debate on the election, it was not because of Mr. Schröder’s performance that she was so flabbergasted, but because she sensed that things would only get worse afterwards. Her party was waiting for a reckoning after an unexpectedly poor election outcome. Ironically, it was Mr. Schröder’s diatribe that helped her close ranks at the time.
Ms. Merkel has acquired so much authority because she was not able to guarantee her hold on power, but also the promise of securing even more power. This promise of power will inevitably decline at some point. Now her party, for the first time in years, must fear that it will not lose power in spite of Chancellor Merkel, but because of her.
A version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org