70th anniversary

Rejuvenating Merkel's Christian Democrats

cdu2 merkel
A CDU in search of a new image.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The CDU needs to make numerous changes  to diversify and grow its aging base.

  • Facts


    • The CDU has been in power for a total of 46 years since it was founded in 1945.
    • In an effort to make itself more accessible to a younger base, members under 25 will no longer be required to pay dues, while families will receive reduced rates.
    • Many party members favor an alliance with the Green Party.
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Ask Peter Tauber, the general secretary of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, how he envisions the party and his prompt answer is: modern, young, diverse and interconnected.

The 40-year politician is an avid blogger and user of Twitter and Facebook. He embodies society’s image of a modern citizen, and hopes his party will eventually do the same.

In July, the CDU’s top strategist plans to unveil proposals to reform the party, intended to “preserve its character as a big-tent party” with broad appeal, according to the draft of the final report by the “My CDU 2017” commission, which Handelsblatt has obtained.

His vision of Germany making greater use of digital communications and the CDU using all new media channels to reach new members is shared by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the party’s leader.

The CDU has vowed to rejuvenate itself as it prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary. The party, established on June 26, 1945, directly after the end of World War II, intends to show voters that it is firmly anchored in the 21st century, not only with a new communications approach, but also with new members and ideas.

The party needs young people, women and Germans with an immigration background.

Former Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl were long the patron saints of the party. Now it needs young people, women and Germans with an immigration background.

The party of conservative-liberals is shrinking and getting older. In the late 1980s, it had more than 700,000 members, but today it has a little over 400,000. Men make up three-quarters of membership, and the average age is 59. The future of the CDU as a big-tent party is at stake.

To counter this development, the CDU aims to reach out to non-members through a range of “project-oriented activities” and to encourage them to help shape election platforms. Party meetings will be scheduled to begin and end at fixed times, so that working people and parents can also become involved. In the future, members rather than delegates will make decisions at the local level.

Membership officers will recruit new members, and a welcome service will attend to their needs. Members under 25 will no longer be required to pay dues. Families will pay less while longstanding members will see their dues increased.

The pepped-up CDU also wants to encourage lively online discussion. But if an internal party website is any indication, online debates are still more of a pipe dream than anything else. Posts to the site receive few if any comments.

“It makes sense to attract new members,” former party general secretary, Kurt Biedenkopf, told Handelsblatt. “But the goal of remaining a big-tent party isn’t enough to bring them in.”

Mr. Biedenkopf, the CDU general secretary from 1973 to 1977, knows what it means to introduce reforms. He pushed through several himself. It is important, he said, to permit debate, noting that it should begin “with the right questions – and not with answers or by pointing out that there are no alternatives.” He seems to have taken a page from Chancellor Merkel’s playbook.

A move once seemed inconceivable is now a possibility: an alliance with the Green Party. “The CDU can also govern with the Greens today,” Mr. Biedenkopf said. And he is not alone in that opinion.

Helmut Kohl Angela Merkel phtothek net
Helmut Kohl congratulates Anegla Merkel when she wins the deputy party president seat in 1991.


“There is no longer any field of politics that constitutes an insurmountable hurdle,” said Volker Kronenberg, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.

The chancellor’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, has long been seen as a driving force for a Christian Democrat-Green alliance. His supporters include Mr. Tauber and steering committee member Jens Spahn, who founded a round table for links between the two parties, called the “Pasta Cowboys.” The group will meet again on July 1, during the CDU’s anniversary week.

According to Green Party politicians, the first meetings with their CDU counterparts were surprisingly positive. “There was a serious effort to build bridges,” said Green Party Chairman Cem Özdemir.

An aversion had turned into an affinity, and yet when the parties sounded each other out in 2013, there was still not enough common ground for coalition negotiations.

That could change in 2017. “A Christian Democrat-Green alliance is an option at all political levels, and it isn’t nearly as exotic as it used to be,” said Mr. Kronenberg, who has counted close to 200 alliances between the two parties over the years, from the local to the state level.


Big-Tent Parties are Losing Their People-01


The failure of such coalitions in two German states, Hamburg and Saarland, attracted huge  media attention. The reason was not the incompatibility between the two parties but, in the case of Hamburg, the departure of Ole von Beust, the city’s mayor for almost a decade and, in Saarbrücken, the Free Democratic Party’s role in the government there.

A cultural shift that was introduced long ago is now taking shape in Hesse, where a conservative CDU governor, Volker Bouffier, has been quietly running the southwestern state since 2014, together with his deputy, economy minister and Green Party member Tarek Al-Wazir. “If a Christian Democrat-Green alliance succeeds in Hesse in the long run, which I don’t doubt for a minute, it can become a model for other states and, of course, for the federal government,” Mr. Bouffier said.

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Merkel hands. Source: Handelsblatt


As recently as 2010, Ms. Merkel characterized a Christian Democrat-Green alliance as a “fantasy.” At the time, there was a heated controversy over the Stuttgart 21 railway and urban redevelopment project, and efforts were underway to postpone Germany’s phase-out of nuclear energy.

But everything has changed since Fukushima, the nuclear disaster in Japan which prompted Ms. Merkel to abandon nuclear power in Germany. There is now a large faction within the CDU willing to consider an alliance, including Mr. Altmaier and Rhineland-Palatinate CDU politician Julia Klöckner, who could even imagine joining force with the Greens after the 2016 election in that state.

Armin Laschet, deputy party chairman and head of the party’s powerful state organization in North Rhine-Westphalia, also supports a Christian Democrat-Green coalition.

Still, an alliance remains a “second-choice model” for both parties, Mr. Kronenberg said. The CDU, he added, would prefer to align itself with the pro-business Free Democratic Party, while the Greens are more comfortable with the center-left Social Democratic Party.

Mr. Spahn called it “an exciting option, but not necessarily a sure-fire success.”

“Our goal is to develop a sense of each other,” he said.

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Hans-Jürgen Jakobs is the paper’s editor in chief. To contact the authors: delhaes@handelsblatt.com and jakobs@handelsblatt.com

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