Following the retirement of Angela Merkel as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, the party have elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) as their new leader. The big winners from the election, however, are the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Merkel announced that, although remaining Chancellor, she was retiring as party leader after the CDU had again suffered heavy losses in a regional election, this time in the federal state of Hesse. It was the party’s third setback since last year’s General Election, in which the CDU returned its worst result since 1949, and the Right-wing, anti-immigration AfD surged to become Germany’s third biggest party.
The rise of the AfD cannot be explained as resurgence of fascist ideology among Germans, as some commentators have suggested: the story is a very different one. The party started in 2013 as a neo-liberal party with a strong focus on Euroscepticism, and it owes its success to its articulation of anti-establishment feelings and the widespread distrust and disillusionment with the old parties. Analysis of the last general election indicated that approximately 1,070,000 votes of the 1,280,000 for the AfD came not from neo-Nazis, but from disgruntled CDU voters, those often referred to as ‘exiled CDU’.
The shift of political perceptions in Europe is clearly evident in Germany. Many of the policy positions held by the allegedly far-Right AfD today were those held by the more conservative sections of the CDU yesterday. Meanwhile the supposedly centre-Right CDU has become very much a European social democratic party with a greenish tinge and which has no place for traditional conservatives.
Importantly, the policies which drew voters from the CDU to the AfD included a tough anti-immigration stance. As leader of the CDU, Merkel’s rejection of the party’s old German-National position infuriated and estranged segments of the CDU’s support base, providing AfD with a ready-made source of politically experienced support.
‘As federal chancellor I bear the responsibility for the successful and the unsuccessful,’ said Merkel when she announced that she would give up the leadership of her party. There is much for which she will be remembered in a positive light. Her leadership provided Germany with economic stability throughout her tenure and solidified Germany’s status as a primary leader in the EU. Although EU decisions were discussed and enacted in Brussels, Berlin was where they were made and approval given. She will, however, be chiefly remembered for bringing the EU closer to breakdown than ever before.
She will forever be linked to the decision in 2015 to extend an open invitation to immigrants to come to Europe. This was followed by three years of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, some dying on the way, chaos in Greece and Italy as they strove to cope with the flood of arrivals, civil unrest and the rise of populist movements throughout the continent. Merkel’s chief legacy is the weakening of what she hoped to strengthen.
Wir schaffen das! (We can do it!) was her slogan when confronted by the European ‘refugee crisis’. When the civil war escalated in Syria, triggering a flood of refugees into Europe, Merkel was dubbed the ‘refugee chancellor’. She refused to close German borders, which earned her applause from civil society and leaders across the world; it also earned the opposition of a growing section of German voters who already felt ignored.
Being Time magazine’s ‘Person of the year’ in 2015 didn’t cut much ice with those voters who thought themselves overlooked in favour of economic migrants whom they perceived as being unwilling to integrate.
Health Minister Jens Spahn, who ran an uninspiring campaign for the CDU leadership, argued: ‘Things cannot go on like this’. During the campaign his plea to open up debate on the widely distrusted UN migration pact, although feared by 40 per cent of voters, was decisively rejected.
Manfred Weber MEP, who leads the centre-Right European People’s Party in the EU Parliament, said of Spahn’s proposal: ‘I think it’s better to compromise, to signal to the outside world especially to our African friends, that we are ready to compromise, than to be egoistic.’ Spahn dropped out after receiving only 15 per cent in the first-round ballot.
As the party’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was favourite to take over when her mentor Mrs Merkel announced her retirement in October. Although widely seen as Merkel’s anointed successor her win was a narrow one. She managed only a narrow victory over Friedrich Merz in a run-off vote, with 51.75 per cent of the vote.
Merz wanted to try to entice back those conservative, traditionalist CDU members who used to make up the majority of the CDU but under Merkel’s leadership have been forced out or drifted away, especially as a result of her immigration policies. It is doubtful how successful Merz would have been in recovering the disillusioned. Although a long-time Merkel rival, Merz is himself a textbook globalist who wanted to continue those same Merkel policies which had driven away the conservatives, only with better spin.
The election of AKK, former prime minister of Saarland, merely reaffirms Merkel’s policies. In the face of growing disillusionment the CDU decided on a policy of more of the same. Although rejecting the description of being a mini-Merkel, AKK used her acceptance speech to urge the party, in effect, to continue on the Merkel path. Although she says she takes a tougher line on migration than Merkel she stands by her predecessor’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders. On economic issues she tilts Left, favours a growing welfare state and open borders.
Merkel leaves, but she doesn’t leave. Germany faces several state elections in the coming year. The CDU have just given a boost to the AfD which is now German’s leading conservative party.