With Angela Merkel set to step down as German Chancellor, many members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had hoped for the party to shift away from centrist politics toward a more conservative platform. Luuk Molthof argues that this would not only be a strategic mistake for the CDU, but would also overlook the continued strategic relevance of Merkel-style centrism in German politics.

The Merkel era is nearing its end. The Chancellor has already laid down her position as party leader and will not seek re-election in 2021. For some, her departure cannot come soon enough. Many feel that Merkel’s centrism has “sucked the life out of politics”. Even some members of her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are eager to see her go. They feel that Merkel has moved the party too much to the left and blame her centrist brand of politics – long seen as a guarantee of electoral success – for poor regional election results and dwindling poll numbers.

This is why some CDU members had hoped that Merkel would be succeeded by a more conservative party leader who would bring the party back to its conservative roots. Their hopes were dashed last December, however, when the conservative Friedrich Merz lost out to Merkel’s preferred successor, the also centrist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Yet Kramp-Karrenbauer is eager to appease the conservative faction in her party. Ever since assuming the role of party leader, she has tried to distance herself more from Merkel and made it clear she will lay out a more conservative agenda for the party. According to some commentators, she has been smart to do so. They see this re-positioning of the party as the most appropriate strategy for addressing dwindling poll numbers and recovering some electoral ground on the right. Yet this assessment both overestimates the strategic potential of a ‘return to the party’s conservative roots’ and underestimates the continued strategic relevance of Merkel-style centrism.

Angela Merkel, Credit: World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

First of all, it is highly questionable whether a ‘return to its conservative roots’ would help the CDU reclaim some of the territory on the right. It is true that Merkel’s centrist politics and her welcoming refugee policy have done anything but hurt the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It is highly doubtful, however, whether those voters that moved to the AfD could be so easily reclaimed. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, tried to appeal to potential populist voters by moving more to the right and by criticising Merkel’s refugee policy in the last state elections, but suffered significant losses. In fact, it lost more votes to the liberal Greens than to the AfD. A move to the right, then, could prove not only disappointing but also counterproductive for the CDU.

Second, despite all the talk of the collapse of the centre, Germany is still a relatively centrist country. While the two Volksparteien, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the CDU, are indeed facing dwindling poll numbers, voters aren’t necessarily all moving to the flanks. Many of the SPD’s and CDU’s voters are moving to the Green party, which has gradually moved to the centre in recent years and is currently polling at around 19 per cent (which would make it the second biggest party in the Bundestag). The success of the Greens demonstrates that moving to the flanks isn’t necessarily a better strategy – for either the SPD or the CDU – for capturing more votes, especially considering the already existing alternatives there – e.g. Die Linke on the left and the market-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the populist AfD on the right.

Both big-tent parties will have to come to terms with the fact that the days in which they could split 70-80 per cent of the votes are likely over. However, in comparison to some of the other traditional European Volksparteien, the CDU, in particular, is still doing relatively well. Despite the electoral losses, the CDU/CSU faction is currently polling at 28 per cent, which would still make it the biggest faction in the Bundestag by a wide margin. It may well be that this is exactly because – and not despite of – its centrist profile. Moreover, despite the growing pressure on Merkel within her own party, Germany’s centrist Chancellor remains incredibly popular, with 59 per cent of Germans wanting her to remain in office until the next federal election. The continued appeal of her centrist brand of politics, therefore, shouldn’t be underestimated.

In other words, Kramp-Karrenbauer would be well advised to carefully consider the extent to which she wants to distance herself from her predecessor. Moving the party in a more conservative direction may well come at a cost and isn’t guaranteed to bring back voters who have turned to the AfD. More importantly, to underestimate the continued strategic relevance of Merkel-style centrism would be a big mistake.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Luuk Molthof
Luuk Molthof is a Research Fellow at d|part, a political think tank based in Berlin. He completed his PhD in Political Science at Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis examined Germany’s role in European monetary history and provided an explanation for Germany’s reaction to the euro crisis.

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