(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The contest to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union when she steps down next month has raised an important question that is being debated within many conservative parties in Europe: Which of the two words in “center right” is more important?
The succession contest will be close. On Dec. 7 and 8, the CDU will hold a party conference in Hamburg and select a new leader among three serious candidates: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, often referred to as AKK, who Merkel picked to be the party’s general secretary; Friedrich Merz, who heads the supervisory board of the German branch of the asset manager BlackRock and unexpectedly came out of political retirement; and Health Minister Jens Spahn. All three have made clear how they would steer the party, and their differences provide fascinating insights into the political and ideological currents within German conservatism. Similar debates over ideology are taking place less openly in conservative parties from Austria to Spain, and even, though in a different form, in the U.S. Republican Party.
Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz are the front-runners. In a poll published on Thursday, 36 percent of Germans said they could imagine Merz as a good chancellor; 33 percent said the same of Kramp-Karrenbauer. AKK led among supporters of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, 52 percent of whom said she’d make a good chancellor, versus 50 percent for Merz and 21 percent for Spahn.
The poll question makes sense: The CDU is Germany’s biggest party, despite a steep decline in recent polls, and its leader has a strong claim on the chancellorship — perhaps even before the current legislative period ends — if Merkel is driven out of office. Most Germans in recent polls say she should quit ahead of time, though that’s not her intention.
The politics of the choice of leader are complicated. The candidates have been vying for the support of various lobbies within the party: AKK is backed by the women’s organization; the powerful Mittelstand group of medium and small business representatives favors Merz; the youth organization is for Spahn. The pretenders to the throne must also woo state organizations. Merz and Spahn come from Germany’s most populous state and AKK from the second smallest, which puts her at something of a natural disadvantage. But the final choice will be about the way the candidates see the party’s future, not their backgrounds.
“We must make it clear again what the CDU is,” Michael Kretschmer, the minister president of Saxony and a leading CDU member, said in a recent interview.
The candidates have all been clear about their views. Merz is a pro-business, pro-American conservative who believes in immigrant assimilation and traditional Christian values. He once proposed a simple tax system that would fit an ordinary German’s returns on a beer mat. In recent years, he has voiced skepticism about the future of the euro. His positions have been unpopular under Merkel’s leadership, and some people who espoused similar views defected to the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, but most stayed: The CDU is the respectable right-wing party with a powerful tradition of leading the country, and that’s important for members of the party’s sober business wing.
Spahn doesn’t quite have Merz’s conservative credentials: He’s young, married to a man (an overwhelming majority of the CDU faction voted against marriage equality last year), and has minimal private sector experience. Yet he hews relatively close to Merz’s line, which could be important if he comes in third and there’s a runoff between Merz and AKK. Spahn wants to make immigration the central issue as a way for the CDU to compete with populists on the right and the left (meaning primarily the Greens, to whom the less conservative CDU voters have been defecting).
Immigration, Spahn wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is “the elephant in the room”; the party must say clearly that it opposes the “disorderly influx of mostly male immigrants” that he says still afflicts Germany despite official assurances that everything is under control. That stance wouldn’t be a shift to the right because “the time for reflexive left-right schemes is gone.” Instead, politicians should rely on common sense and “a new honesty,” not just about immigration but about the costs and execution of Germany’s clean energy plans and euro zone rescue efforts.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s message is very different from her rivals’. Immigration got no mention among her priorities; instead, she spoke of instilling in Germany’s people a feeling of security (which, because of open borders within Europe, can only be done with the help of other European nations) and giving citizens a sense of being at home in the country, regardless of how long ago they arrived. AKK sees the CDU as a protective umbrella for people with different views, a party that “doesn’t think in either/or terms.”
That may not sound like a clear political program, but it is. The role of a Volkspartei, a “people’s party,” is as much part of the CDU’s DNA as conservatism. But this older notion is about slightly different traditional values, such as community and shared responsibility, than right-wing conservatism. AKK’s ecumenical, communitarian line is close to Merkel’s, except the candidate promises to let the party make the important decisions, while the chancellor imposed her own convictions and hard-fought compromises on an often reluctant membership.
The choice, then, is between two strategies: differentiation (defining the CDU more clearly via mostly traditionally right-wing stances), and an inclusiveness that aims to put the party above the political fray and make it into a welcoming political home for all Germans.
There are clear disadvantages to both approaches. The harder line risks alienating the more moderate supporters, who cringe at anti-immigrant rhetoric, often mistrust big business and the U.S., and are strongly pro-European Union. At the same time, that position wouldn’t win back AfD voters, who are anti-elite and wary of people like Merz and Spahn. AKK’s ecumenism, on the other hand, may be obsolete in these times of political division, when many people’s views tend to be sharply defined. It’s not clear whether a Volkspartei is possible or necessary anymore.
Both choices, therefore, may be losers for the CDU as it aims to retain power in the next electoral cycle. In the end, the race to lead the party and become chancellor may all come down to the contenders’ charisma and skill. All three are brilliant speakers who can do well on the stump; Merz is acerbic and intellectually powerful, AKK is full of credible emotion and instinctively trustworthy, Spahn is a persuasive straight talker. AKK has more experience as a party functionary and in government (in her native state of Saarland) than her rivals, but Merz is a consummate backroom dealer, and Spahn, who has no record of failure at anything he’s attempted, might only be in the running to play kingmaker.
The debate in the CDU can serve as a blueprint for any modern center-right party trying to avert an identity crisis, and it’s useful to outline a clear agenda and stick to it, but picking the most persuasive, electable leader may be even more important. Whether that will be a divisive or unifying figure will likely determine Germany’s path for years to come.
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Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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