Merkel and the CDU: “A Safe Hand and a Clear Compass”
“A strong Germany—with chances for all!” was the motto of the CDU’s national party conference that took place in Hanover this week, the last of that kind before next year’s national elections in September. Neither motto nor venue had been chosen accidently: the national gathering of 1,000 party delegates—and an even bigger contingent of media observers—at the state capital of Lower Saxony was intended to provide additional momentum to CDU minister-president David McAllister (whose Scottish name traces back to his father, a civil servant at the British forces in Germany during the Cold War) in his re-election bid in the upcoming state election on January 20. The state election in Lower Saxony has made Hanover the Mecca for national party gatherings these days. The Greens have already been there, and Peer Steinbrück will be formally proclaimed as Merkel’s challenger at a SPD conference in Hanover this coming weekend.
Lower Saxony is seen by many observers as a key bellwether in the run-up to the federal elections in September 2013. While the polls see McAllister and his CDU clearly ahead of the political competition, the weak position of his fading coalition partner, the FDP, puts his re-election bid at risk—a situation not that fundamentally different from the political landscape on the federal level, where Merkel’s personal ratings in the polls have remained favorable, and the poll numbers for the CDU have recovered over the last couple of months to levels not seen since before the last national election. Yet, the fate of Merkel’s coalition partner, also the FDP, remains very much in doubt at the national level. Another blow for the FDP in Lower Saxony—which also happens to be the home state of its current leader, economics minister Philipp Roesler—will likely kick start a further period of uncertainty. This could make another row within party leadership imminent, as the struggle for survival of Germany’s traditional liberal party will intensify even further.
Angela Merkel’s keynote speech was rather sober in tone—not uncommon for her—and similar to the one a year ago in Leipzig (also see my piece at the time: /issue/seriousness-and-wish-for-unity/). Her claim of “having led Germany out of the crisis stronger than the country had gone into it,” with unemployment at the lowest level since German unification in 1990, was presented in a confident but by no means triumphant way. Against the background of the European crisis, she explained what a major achievement it was for Germany to remain one of the few European countries to not suffer from a loss in real wages since 2010. Looking ahead, Merkel described the agenda going forward as positioning Germany for future growth in an increasingly global economy, while also maintaining social cohesion at home—re-iterating the writing on the stage background wall: “A strong Germany—with chances for all!” She was laying out principles rather than precise action points, while her recurring claim remained to lead the country “through turbulent times and sometimes rough stormy waters” with a “safe hand and a clear compass.”
This careful approach reflects the awareness of uncertainties and further challenges, in particular on the economic and European front, which may well be occurring between now and the election. However, it is also in anticipation of a potential post-election scenario in which Merkel and the CDU may be forced to have to come to terms with either of the two current opposition parties—SPD or Greens—to form a workable majority in the Bundestag. While stressing the point that there was far more agreement on policy issues with the FDP than any other political force, Merkel also dared to openly joke about the difficult situation of her coalition partner: “Some say God only created the FDP to test us.” Clearly, the CDU is fully aware that Merkel remains by far its key asset in the upcoming election campaign, as evidenced by her re-election as party leader with a record result of almost 98 percent of votes. Merkel, typically the very controlled and analytical natural scientist, showed a rather rare moment of emotional reaction following the announcement of this overwhelming vote of confidence. She was keenly aware that it also expresses a strong expectation on which she will have to deliver come September next year.
Some other results of the leadership elections taking place in Hanover have also raised attention. To begin with, there is the emergence of Julia Klöckner, the young female CDU leader in the state of Rhineland-Pfalz, on the national level. She was newly elected as a Deputy Party Leader of the CDU—one out of five in total—and her record result of 879 of 946 votes (92.92 percent) by far overshadowed her peers—including not only the highly ambitious national labor secretary Ursula von der Leyen, but also three male candidates, all of them state party leaders in states larger than Klöckner’s. The result clearly gives Klöckner additional political momentum and public attention on the national level for the time being, with media reports immediately referring to her as the rising star of the CDU: “the woman after Merkel”or “the next Merkel”.
But who is Julia Klöckner? Still under the age of forty, she became a darling of the party as she willingly abandoned her role as Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Consumer Protection in Berlin in 2011 to take on the party leadership in her home state in order to challenge the incumbent SPD state premier. The CDU in Rhineland-Pfalz has suffered from internal divisions and power struggles ever since losing its traditional grip on power more than twenty years ago. Klöckner unified and energized the local party by moving to the state legislature in Mainz to lead the parliamentary opposition in preparation for a second bid for the state leadership in 2016. One aspect of Julia Klöckner’s appeal is her authentic rootedness in traditional Christian Democratic values, having grown up on the family vineyard in rural Rhineland-Pfalz. She also possesses an educational background in both theology and journalism. At the same time, she has proven her ability to credibly reconcile this background with an openness to the modern and more plural lifestyle of a younger urbanized generation. For example, while she pioneered the use of social media sites, such as Twitter, among politicians in Germany, she is also able to successfully connect with local citizens based on skills she likely began to develop many years ago while filling the marketing role of “Germany’s national wine queen” for a year in her early twenties.
In Hanover, the CDU proved to be increasingly at ease with a more diverse and colorful German society by electing three younger women of Turkish background to its extended party leadership—a strong signal not only to the second and third generation of immigrant communities, but also to more traditional parts of German society. Recently elected Lower Saxony state minister of Social Affairs Aygül Özkan was cheerfully greeted by a proud group of young women operating a coffee bar by one of the party conference’s sponsors, most of whom were daughters from the Turkish immigrant community. Citing his own personal biography as proof of the openness and opportunities for upward social mobility in today’s German society, Younes Quagasse, a young male student of Moroccan descent now living in Thuringia in the former East Germany, was also elected to the extended party leadership.
Taking a more extensive look at the individual issues discussed by the party, most of the media attention centered on the debate between two opposing motions dealing with the rather technical issue of equalizing tax treatment for civil unions with that of traditional marriage. This has become a highly symbolic issue for both sides, as tax treatment is one of the few remaining legal differences between marriage and civil union in Germany—adoption rights are probably the only one featured more prominently. A ruling on the tax matter by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court is expected next year. While recent history of the Court’s rulings may suggest that equalized tax treatment for civil unions could be enforced by the Court, one motion strongly advocated preempting such a Court ruling by a deliberate political decision for tax equalization.
Others rejected this idea, claiming is would undermine the privilege of marriage and family as codified in the German constitution, the Basic Law. In the end, however, a compromise wording put forward by the party leadership prevailed. It expressed full respect for individual life style choices including civil unions, while also intending to preserve the tax privilege for traditional marriages. This was combined with a pledge to extend the tax benefit into a so-called “family splitting” model that puts more focus on tax benefits for children rather than couples. Most media spectators tried to label the decision as very “backward conservative,” even describing the CDU as “bombed back to the stone age.”
Nevertheless, this overlooks how much cultural change has taken place in the CDU in recent years when dealing with the gay community. The party conference saw a long and highly engaged, but equally respectful, debate on the issue. Three openly gay CDU members of the Bundestag were among the initiators of the motion, with one of them, Jens Spahn, from the rural and rather conservative area of Münsterland, also being elected to the party’s executive committee without any difficulties. Mr. Spahn was the focal point of a recent interview with Spiegel in which he was referred to as a ‘”gay conservative” — a discussion that garnered quite a bit of attention throughout Germany. With almost 40 percent of votes, the pro-equalization motion was supported by many from the party mainstream—including, for example, Julia Klöckner. A more tactical rather than fundamental motivation probably prevailed for many delegates: to have tax equalization be enforced by the Constitutional Court rather than alienate a more conservative part of the electorate through a pro-active move by the CDU on the subject.
On the second day of the party conference, parliamentary party leader Volker Kauder played his traditional role of attacking political opponents, for example for abusing their majority in the Bundesrat (Germany’s upper house through which state governments influence federal legislation) to veto tax cuts for low income earners, as well as a scheme of tax benefits for energy-saving refurbishments of residential buildings. This was followed by the traditional greeting by the Chairman of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of CDU, and Bavarian minister-president Horst Seehofer, who’s words this time around came across as unusually calm and cooperative. The key motion of the party conference to lay out the party’s economic agenda for the coming years, under the notion of “A strong Germany—with chances for all!” was passed without stirring up any major controversial debates—including the demand for a flexible quota system to increase women’s share in top management positions.
Thus, delegates headed home somewhat earlier than planned following a party conference that rallied and unified behind Angela Merkel more than ever before. However, this also means that the party base has largely entrusted to her—and what may be seen as her personal political brand—the almost sole responsibility of retaining the party’s position of leading Germany after 2013 and into a critical period that may well shape the future of Germany and Europe well into the twenty-first century.
Dr. Andreas Nick has been a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees since 2007. He was recently nominated as a CDU candidate for the Bundestag in the upcoming 2013 national election.
 Thorsten Denkler, “Die Frau nach Merkel,“ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4 December 2012, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/julia-kloeckner-auf-dem-cdu-parteitag-in-hannover-die-frau-nach-merkel-1.1541693
 Ralf Schuler and Andreas Thewalt, “Wird sie die nächste Merkel?,“ Bild, 4 December 2012, http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/julia-kloeckner/wird-sie-die-naechste-merkel-27521434.bild.html
 Of note: this is the base in his home state from which Helmut Kohl once began his rise to national power.
 The so-called “Ehegatten-Splitting” under which couples are taxed as if taxable income is attributed equally to both partners regardless of its origin, resulting in a substantial tax credit under Germany’s progressive tax regime for most couples whose individual incomes differ significantly.
 Jackson Janes, “The Price of a Political Brand,” AICGS, 4 December 2012, /issue/the-price-of-a-political-brand/