10 December 2018

By choosing Merkel 2.0, Germany’s conservatives have rejected change


In the end, it came down to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Friedrich Merz. The race to succeed Angela Merkel at the helm of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s main conservative party, had been in full flow ever since the Chancellor announced her intention to not run again for the party leadership.

The woman dubbed “Mini-Merkel” or “Merkel 2.0″ ultimately won out against an economically liberal, socially conservative millionaire. But the vote, which has made “AKK” the favourite to be the next Chancellor, showed how split Germany’s biggest party is. It also showed that, even with the opportunity presented by Merkel’s impending departure, the CDU is still not ready to change.

Merkel’s 18-year reign as the leader of the party, including 13 years as Chancellor, has been controversial to say the least. In 2000, she became only the third party leader since 1973. Since becoming Chancellor in 2005, she has been omnipresent in international affairs. In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, some even called her the new leader of the free world.

On the way, however, Merkel alienated many in both her country and party. To her critics, the mistakes were manifold, not just her handling of the migration crisis in 2015, but also the Greek bailout and a costly and hasty energy transition. For businesses and entrepreneurs, Merkel’s economic policy has been a particular problem.

Attempts to lower taxes were blocked and, together with the Social Democrats, she helped introduce a minimum wage, which has subsequently been raised several times. And rather than overhauling a pension system on the verge of crisis, the entry age was actually lowered.

Indeed, under Merkel, the CDU was drifting further and further to the left, leaving behind a swath of dissatisfied conservative and liberal voters. In recent years, cries of “Merkel muss weg” (Merkel must go) have reverberated across the country. With the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country saw the first party to the right of the CDU in the post-war era – and the CDU continued to flounder at the ballot box. The recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, where conservatives put in a historically poor showing, were another sign that Merkel’s days were numbered.

At first, it looked as if the returning Friedrich Merz — who had run against Merkel in 2002 and left politics altogether in 2009 — would follow in her footsteps and chart a course for radical change. The announcement of the old newcomer’s candidacy had created an immediate wave of excitement among rightwingers hungry for change.

After all, it was Merz who promised a clear departure from Merkelism. A severe critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, he advocated a return to the CDU’s roots, which he saw to be a mixture of traditional conservative positions combined with economic liberalism.

On the latter, Merz has always argued for deregulation and privatisation. An old motto of his was that after he had reformed taxes, the system would be so simple that every German would be able to calculate their taxes on a beermat. His credentials were solid too — as well as pursuing a career in finance (including a role at the German branch of Blackrock, which perhaps proved to be his undoing), he also co-founded the Initiative for a Social Market Economy, a pro-market think tank in Berlin.

His young colleague, Jens Spahn, was not all that different. Before Merz’s arrival, Spahn was the darling of the conservative wing of the CDU, and a thorn in Merkel’s side (though he toned that down on becoming Health Minister in the new government). Before that appointment Spahn had been the biggest CDU critic of Merkel’s handling of the migration crisis.

Faced with the choice of Merz and Spahn, the 1,001 CDU delegates went for a third candidate. Throughout the campaign Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK for short, stood for a steady as she goes approach. Having been premier of the Saarland, a small state on the French border, from 2011 onward, she was promoted to the position of General Secretary of the CDU earlier this year. It was a move which was seen as Merkel laying the ground for a loyalist to succeed her.

Indeed, Kramp-Karrenbauer, who calls herself a “modern conservative,” has been seen as one of the most progressive voices in the party. She supported Merkel in her open-door migration policy, is strongly pro-EU, and has been a leading advocate for many of Merkel’s economic policies, including the introduction of a minimum wage. Indeed, her tax proposals have sometimes seen greater hikes than those proposed by either the Social Democrats or the Greens (who are admittedly far less leftwing than their British equivalent).

When it comes economics, AKK says she is influenced by the idea of a “Christian labour force”. For others, such as Rainer Brüderle from the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), she is simply a “socialist varnished in black” (the CDU’s colours).

And while she thinks of herself as being a social conservative, her track record is mixed. As a Catholic, she is critical of abortion (to the extent that she is opposed to allowing advertising it) and same-sex marriage. yet she also supports quotas for women in business and, more strikingly, among Catholic clerics as well.

Bearing all that in mind, it is unsurprising that the reaction to her victory has been subdued, both in the CDU’s business wing and among German voters more generally. AKK has promised to deliver her party a 40 per cent vote share once more – such results were commonplace for most of Merkel’s time in charge, but the party’s performance has badly faltered of late.

However, by betting on continuity, the CDU has chosen a path which is likely to lead them to ever worse results. While AKK’s centre-left policies might help her party of so-called “conservatives” win voters from the even-worse Social Democrats, AKK has little to no answer for either the AfD or the resurgent Greens. All the while, her anti-business approach continues to alienate entrepreneurs, who are liable to flock to the more economically liberal FDP.

Most worryingly, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s old Merkel-inspired politics could lead to ever greater polarisation and bolster far-right extremists. Many Germans crave real reforms and a change from the status quo, which has been in place since Merkel became Chancellor in 2005. Unfortunately, by crowning AKK as Merkel’s successor, the CDU has told Germany it is happy to offer more of the same.

Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.