"Would the Last Christian Democrat Please Turn Out the Lights?" The 2021 German Elections and What They Mean for the Future of Germany's CDU

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Germany’s Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union, CDU), alongside its Bavarian counterpart, the Christlich Soziale Union (Christian Social Union, CSU), has become, to an extent, almost inseparable from the very fabric of modern Germany itself. With founder Konrad Adenauer having played a vital role in the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and, more recently, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel (or ‘Mutti’, as she is affectionately known to some Germans) playing a substantial role in world politics - topping Forbes’ list of the most powerful women in the world every year since 2006 with the exception of 2010 – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the CDU has become fairly comfortable in power. The party has held the chancellorship in Germany for 52 of the 72 years since the Federal Republic was founded, and the three politicians to have been in that role for the longest length of time, Helmut Kohl, Adenauer, and Merkel, have all come from the Union.

Yet, the centre-right party seems to be standing on a precipice, with its internal affairs in disarray due to the departure of Merkel and bleak polling figures for the 2021 Bundestag elections. In fact, polling company Forsa’s voting intention figures published on September 7th showed the Union on only 19% of the vote, beating the record for the CDU’s worst ever polling figures previously set by INSA just days before, which showed the party on just 20% of the vote. Further to this, the CDU’s results in state elections for Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March 2021 were disappointing, receiving record low vote shares in both of 24.1% and 27.7% respectively.

By contrast, their long-time rivals in the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party, SPD), led by Olaf Scholz, have consistently led in the polls since July 2021, with their figures climbing to 25% in the same Forsa poll. Likewise, the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), originally founded by individuals including former CDU members, is going into the elections on 26th September with improved electoral prospects compared with the 2017 elections. This is not reflective in any sense of the Union’s former strength within Germany, rarely ever polling below the 31% of votes it gained in the first Bundestag elections of the Federal Republic in 1949. The Union also held an important role on the international stage, with President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, being a member of the CDU herself. Going from the strength the party endured during the years of Merkel’s premiership and the prominent role it has played within the European Union, we are led to ask; what has happened to the CDU to cause this downfall? Does Christian Democracy have a place in modern Germany and, if so, how does it recover?

The departure of Angela Merkel from the leading ranks of the CDU is undoubtedly a factor that may have led to their recent decline, especially considering the disarray the CDU fell into following the resignation of her presumed successor to the chancellorship, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, from the party leadership in February 2020, as a result of the Thuringian government crisis and her general inability to unite the party or provide it with direction. Though Armin Laschet, a more liberal candidate, won the resulting leadership election against the more conservative Friedrich Merz, the division between the candidates in the race demonstrates how deeply the CDU may have fallen into disarray in recent years. Laschet himself has also not truly been able to garner any sort of personal popularity, with the CDU centring their election campaign around keeping Germany ‘strong’ and ‘together’, rather than rebuilding from the pandemic and fixing Germany’s ails. With a lacklustre leadership coming after a period of chaos and confusion, it seems more and more like an impotent force in German politics, unable - or perhaps, unwilling - to innovate for the future of the nation.

It is a fair judgment to suggest that the CDU’s greatest successes have come at times in which a personally strong leader is able to take advantage of events in internal or global politics; Adenauer’s popularity and strength for the beginning portion of his chancellorship can be largely attributed to his leadership and influence on the founding of the Federal Republic and on Germany’s economic recovery. Kohl’s early electoral success can be in part attributed to his role surrounding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany, taking hold after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, Merkel’s outward-looking foreign policy predisposed her and her country to success within the growing European Union. This can be contrasted with how recent events have impacted the CDU and its current leadership; the criticism it has faced both for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the allegations of corruption within its ranks, with lawmakers from the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, earning millions from brokering deals on masks during the pandemic, have damaged the party’s reputability in the eyes of the public, and, when combined with a change in leadership, it has borne the consequences. The CDU’s real crash in the polls then came upon the rising coronavirus cases and devastating floods of July, and since then they have consistently polled under 30%. An unstable governing party dealing with an unprecedented global crisis, even without the allegations of corruption that arose from it, makes for tension and waning approval for the party within a nation.

By contrast, Olaf Scholz’s SPD have capitalised from the general sense held worldwide that, from the pandemic and other crises facing the world such as climate change, innovation and change is needed to build a better world. In accepting an ailing Germany, something that the AfD have also capitalised from in a different manner, the slogan ‘Scholz packt das an’ (‘Scholz will sort it’) is resonating deeply with a German population hoping for a better future upon the sunset of the Merkel era. Despite the Party’s bright red colour scheme, associated previously with East Germany’s Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party, SED), Scholz presents as a moderate, trustworthy figure, even ‘boring’ and ‘technocratic’ at times, but equally as a strong leader. It is, therefore, no doubt that although he is presented as being in contrast with Merkel’s leadership, the SPD’s campaign is heavily focusing around Scholz and his personal appeal to a Germany seeking to rebuild from the pandemic. This has certainly been reflected in his personal approval polls; even from his first months in office, he was one of Germany’s most popular politicians with an approval rating of 46%, just five points behind Merkel, and, though 46% of those surveyed were undecided, in a poll by Forsa from 14-20 September asking Germans to choose their preferred candidate for Chancellor, Scholz held a 15 point lead over Laschet, who polled at just 14% of those surveyed. It is perhaps no surprise that, whilst Laschet has been dubbed the Merkel ‘continuity candidate’, a country crying out for change looks towards the warm embrace of the bright red.

Yet, the SPD’s rise has not been universal, and, especially in Bavaria, the AfD have grown considerably as a political force since their founding in 2013 and entrance into the Bundestag in 2017, polling in national voting intention polls for the September 2021 elections at a consistent level of around 9-11%. Perhaps, therefore, this is suggestive of a wider problem in German, and indeed world politics, that democratic parties such as the CDU are struggling to face. Alternativ für Deutschland originated as a right-wing splinter group of the CDU, yet hold what are widely perceived to be extremist political views, with most major German media outlets reporting in March 2021 that the party was even put under surveillance as a suspected extremist group by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, BfD). Factions of the party have been dubbed antisemitic, racist, islamophobic and more, and the party has been increasingly open to work with far-right extremist groups such as the anti-Islam Pegida. Therefore, we approach a wider problem affecting the CDU’s fate and future electoral prospects, and indeed the face of European politics as a whole; with the rise of authoritarian nationalist groups such as the AfD in Germany, and countries such as Hungary, Poland electing leaders with such views, what place do Christian Democracy and centrist ideologies as a whole have in the modern world? Is the fall of the CDU indicative of a world in which the nation stands above the politician and party?

The CDU, along with other more moderate political parties in Germany, have failed to quell the rise of the AfD. No nation exists in a vacuum, and many other countries are beginning to experience a similar phenomenon. Globally, more radical ideologies, particularly those of the extreme right, are taking ahold in a way that may not only undermine the democratic ways of these countries, but also of institutions such as the European Union, of which Germany is a steering member. The pro-European and internationalist outlook of the Merkel era is increasingly overshadowed by euroscepticism, both because of far-right groups such as the AfD and failures of the EU surrounding issues such as the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations. The CDU has continued its dedication to the European Union, with one of its main attack lines against Scholz having been the suggestion that, if he were to become Chancellor, Germany may not remain in the EU. However, judging by the polling figures the SPD and Scholz are enjoying, this may be falling on deaf ears. This failure of messaging and adaptability may therefore be symptomatic of a wider problem within the CDU and, thus, centrist and Christian Democratic parties as a whole. Failing to recognise the key issues that people care about is a recipe for electoral failure that the CDU seem to be brewing to perfection, whilst populists such as the AfD harness these issues and warp them towards their ideologies, building up anti-immigrant sentiment amongst other reactionary beliefs in their supporters.

What does this mean in the wider picture? Considering Germany’s driving role within the EU, a rise in euroscepticism in the country may prove catastrophic for the European project. Already destabilised by Brexit, providing fresh hope to eurosceptic movements in other countries, it is difficult to predict what may happen should this sentiment become more mainstream in Germany. France is also seeing a similar phenomenon take place, with far-right Marine Le Pen of National Rally gaining more momentum for a potential presidential challenge to centrist president Emmanuel Macron. In Finland the Finns Party, also right-wing populists akin to the National Rally and AfD, are now the second largest party in the national Parliament. Across Europe, not just in Germany, right-wing populism is gaining strength, and moderate political parties are unable to tackle their rise. The CDU/CSU coalition’s failure to retain electoral strength, losing votes to the SPD but also to the AfD, particularly in Bavaria, is symptomatic of the waning strength of liberalism and centrism in Europe. Therefore, given that the EU is a bastion of liberal democracy and middle-ground politics by its very foundation and constitution, the decline of these ideologies and the subsequent rise of euroscepticism may prove fatal for the project as a whole.

For now, it seems that the SPD have been the primary benefactors of the CDU’s decline, with a Scholz-led coalition undoubtedly the most likely outcome of the upcoming federal elections based on current polls. What form this will take is uncertain; a ‘traffic light’ coalition between the SPD, Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), and Die Grüne looks most likely, alongside a possible ‘red-red-green’ coalition between the SPD, Die Linke, and Die Grüne. Another so-called ‘grand coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the SPD looks incredibly unlikely, as this volatile combination made for immense difficulties in the latest German government, making it an outcome Scholz is unlikely to desire.

For the first time since Merkel took power nearly sixteen years ago in November 2005, it appears that the CDU will become Germany’s opposition. This leaves the Union’s future in an incredibly precarious state; to face better electoral success, it may require an immense change not only in party leadership, but in the direction of the party as a whole. The CDU’s staunch adherence to its founding principles may have left it as a party of the past, unable to adapt to modern circumstances and facing electoral consequences. Thursday’s elections will tell, but the future of the CDU and of centrist ideology within Europe is looking ever more uncertain.