The general consensus from opinion polls is that Angela Merkel’s CDU will comfortably take the largest share of the vote in Germany’s federal elections on Sunday. As Ed Turner writes, however, the success of the CDU is at odds with other Christian Democratic parties across Europe. Christian Democrats face a number of challenges, such as the increasing secularisation of society and the impact of immigration. So far under Merkel’s leadership the CDU has been able to resist these trends, but with no obvious successor to take her place it is doubtful whether this can be maintained long-term.

Things are looking rather good for Germany’s Christian Democrats, the CDU (the Bavarian wing of German Christian Democracy, the CSU, has been covered recently on this blog). Angela Merkel’s party, together with the CSU, rides at around 40 per cent in the polls, and is as close to certain as can be to top the poll next at next week’s election.

If that happens, the party will either form another coalition with the liberal FDP (which will emerge weaker from the elections), or, if the numbers don’t stack up for that, will hop into a coalition with the Social Democrats (or conceivably the Greens). Not only that, but the German economy has proven pretty resilient following the global financial crisis. The country’s handling of the Eurozone crisis has by and large found favour with the public, and indeed to a greater or lesser degree the rest of Europe has found itself, voluntarily or otherwise, dancing to Germany’s tune.

And yet, scholars have highlighted good reasons why they expect Christian Democrats across Europe to struggle. We’ve published a full summary of these reasons, but to set these out briefly, first Christian Democratic parties were borne of Catholicism. With churchgoing in decline, in Germany as elsewhere, such parties might have been expected to struggle (as indeed they have – most strikingly with complete implosion in Italy, but also for instance in Austria and the Netherlands). This has presented Christian Democrats with a strategic dilemma – how to cast their appeal to include secular voters without losing their core support. It is easy to see how an issue like childcare could pit the two groups against each other. The trend of secularisation also eroded Christian Democrats’ organisational base.

Second, migration, and growing numbers of Muslims, almost inevitably disadvantages a party for whom Christianity is a core part of its identity (although this effect is mitigated in Germany by its restrictive nationality laws). Third, the type of welfare state favoured by Christian Democrats – with entitlements closely related to past contributions made by citizens and employers alike – has come under pressure due to population ageing, competitive pressure to reduce non-wage labour costs, and the growing inappropriateness of making women’s entitlements dependent upon a male breadwinner’s employment status.

Fourth, the end of the Cold War eroded a defining feature of Christian Democracy; the parties could no longer appeal as “bulwarks against Communism”. Finally, and partly flowing from these trends, party competition has became heightened, with competitor parties springing up on Christian Democrats’ right flank. In addition, in the German case, although reunification gave the CDU under Helmut Kohl an initial, substantial electoral boost, this might have been expected to cause problems – with the East offering a largely secular electorate which had little time for conservative social attitudes (reflected in particular in higher levels of female employment).

And yet, it would appear that Angela Merkel’s CDU is going to confound these bleak prognoses. There are several reasons for this. She has undoubtedly offered smart leadership, and in policy terms has been completely ready to jettison established policy positions when they became unattractive: whether on nuclear power (where a volte face was performed after the Fukushima disaster), conscription, or the CDU’s introduction of a legal entitlement to subsidised childcare. Party hardliners chunter about the “social democratisation” of their party, but a challenge to Merkel’s direction of the party is unthinkable. Alongside this, no effective party to the right of the CDU has developed (and a breakthrough by the Eurosceptic “Alternative for Germany”, which briefly looked possible, seems unlikely). Meanwhile, parties to the left of the CDU continue to rule out a coalition amongst themselves, further cementing the CDU’s position in government.

So, thus far, Angela Merkel has absolutely confounded the odds, and none of this looks like changing in a hurry (unless the Alternative for Germany makes a late surge). There is reason, however, to be a bit more circumspect about the CDU’s long-term prospects. In particular, there is no obvious successor, and while rumours that Merkel would stand down during the forthcoming legislative period were quashed, she can’t carry on for ever. Like Helmut Kohl, potential successors (who might also be considered rivals) have fallen by the wayside or been killed off by Merkel.

Norbert Röttgen, the high-flying environment minister, failed to win a state election and was unceremoniously removed by the Chancellor within days. Ursula von der Leyen, the progressive social affairs minister, was slapped down at the party conference after pushing her policy views too hard. Thomas de Maiziere, the capable interior minister, shifted roles to defence and became embroiled in a major defence procurement scandal. David McAllister, the up-and-coming state premier in Lower Saxony, narrowly lost his state election earlier this year. Finally, the CSU’s strongest contender, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, left the political stage after his plagiarised doctoral thesis was discovered.

Instead, these days Merkel is surrounded either by politicians of an older generation (notably finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble), or those like Ronald Pofalla, her close ally and head of her office, who do not have the profile to make a leadership bid likely. The SPD making common cause with the Left Party as well as the Greens cannot be discounted long term, especially when Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD leader who defected to the Left Party, leaves the political stage – and such a development would make the CDU’s strategic position far trickier.

So while the CDU has well and truly countered prognoses of disaster for Christian Democracy, its future may not perhaps be quite as secure as it will appear on Sunday night.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Ed Turner – Aston University
Ed Turner is Lecturer in Politics at Aston University, based in the Aston Centre for Europe. He specialises in German politics and is author of Political Parties and Public Policy in the German Länder: When Parties Matter (Palgrave Macmillan 2011). He held a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service to investigate German Christian Democracy and recently edited, with Simon Green, a special edition of the journal German Politics on Christian Democracy in Germany Mapping the transformation: the CDU in Flux.

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