Listen to this article
Give us your feedback Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
To get a feel for what Germany’s Christian Democrats really think of their leader, Angela Merkel, look no further than Untermarchtal. A village of 900 souls in the rural, well-to-do south-west, it is a stronghold of support for the CDU — but not necessarily for the woman who has led it for the past 17 years.
Hubert Bold, a former Bundeswehr colonel, is in Untermarchtal for a local CDU conference. Asked to explain the party’s dismal performance in September’s national elections, he blames Ms Merkel, saying she has drifted too far from her base. “Conservatives here don’t feel she represents them,” he says.
Walter Haimerl, a florist from nearby Allmendingen, is more scathing. “The CDU is not just the party of the chancellor, you know,” he says. “Why is it always Merkel who sets the course?”
Merkel fatigue is spreading in large parts of Germany — and even her own party is not immune. The CDU rank-and-file are becoming increasingly critical. Local functionaries and young activists routinely call for her resignation, an act of insubordination once unthinkable in such a hierarchical party.
The disgruntlement with Ms Merkel is the background music to the crisis triggered by the collapse this month of talks on forming a new governing coalition. Her CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are now hoping to form a “grand coalition” with the left-of-centre Social Democrats, in effect continuing the alliance that has ruled Germany for the past four years. If that doesn’t work, the chancellor can try to form a minority government or push for repeat elections — both of which have no precedent in Germany’s postwar history.
But a new grand coalition is poison to many CDU members. They feel that in the constant give-and-take with a leftwing partner, the Christian Democrats lost what little conservative identity they still had: and Ms Merkel drove that process. “She put pragmatism ahead of the profile of her party,” says Manuel Hagel, secretary-general of the CDU’s branch in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, where Untermarchtal lies.
The irritation in the heartlands contrasts sharply with the high regard in which Ms Merkel is still held internationally. The 63-year-old pastor’s daughter from the communist east is still seen as a rock of stability and a bastion of liberal values in a turbulent, Trumpian world. She steered Europe through the euro crisis and has presided over a long boom at home, cementing Germany’s reputation as the continent’s powerhouse.
And the grassroots’ frustration does not mean Ms Merkel’s days are numbered. After the coalition talks collapsed, the CDU hierarchy closed ranks around their chancellor. She has no obvious challengers, and the odds are that she will ride out the crisis and continue to govern Germany. She is, after all, the ultimate political survivor: she withstood the savage backlash over her decision to let more than 1m refugees into Germany in 2015-16. As chancellor and CDU party boss she remains unassailable.
Chancellor Angela Merkel still has her supporters
Since the election, however, some say her crown has slipped. Rightwingers in the CDU tolerated Ms Merkel because she kept leading the party to victory and formed stable coalitions: but in September the conservative bloc fell to its worst result since 1949 and, nearly 10 weeks later, Germany still has no proper government. That has encouraged the critics to come out of the woodwork. “She’s become a polarising figure, especially for the right,” says one senior CDU MP. “Before, no one would have dared to say something rude about her in public — now it’s on the normal spectrum of opinion within the CDU. She definitely has less authority than she used to.”
None of that anger is being expressed in the upper echelons of the party. And to some, that suggests the existence of a dangerous gulf between the party’s grassroots and its leadership. “The CDU is split,” says Alexander Mitsch, leader of the Values Union, a conservative pressure group within the party. The atmosphere among the rank-and-file is “abysmal, the worst it’s been since I joined the party 32 years ago,” he says.
The mood is particularly bad in Baden-Württemberg, a traditionally conservative region of pious craftsmen, farmers and small businessmen that is also home to big industrial groups like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Robert Bosch. There the CDU scored just 34 per cent in September — 11 points down on 2013. Nationally it lost 1m votes to the Alternative for Germany, a rightwing anti-immigration party that picked up seats in the Bundestag for the first time.
Delegates at the annual conference of the local CDU branch in Untermarchtal, a village on the Danube river surrounded by lush, rolling hills and topped by a baroque monastery, were hardly rebellious: local boss Paul Glöckler spoke quietly of “painful setbacks” as well as the need to “face up to reality” and “scrutinise all our policies”. Munching on their sausage sandwiches, the good burghers nodded in agreement.
But in the corridors during the breaks some, such as Mr Haimerl, were more forthright. The CDU’s poor showing was down to Ms Merkel and her controversial “open door” refugee policy in 2015-16. “The clientele here is very conservative, and many members just didn’t understand what she did,” he says. “The AfD scooped them all up.”
Chancellor now for 12 years, Ms Merkel has long been a target for rightwing Christian Democrats who accuse her of relentlessly shifting the party to the political centre. She ordered a shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations after the Fukushima disaster and abolished military service. She angered fiscal conservatives by backing bailouts for Greece and other distressed eurozone countries, introducing a minimum wage and lowering the pensionable age to 63. Then came her controversial decision, at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, to keep Germany’s borders open.
Because of such decisions, says Mr Hagel, the Christian Democrats are increasingly seen as a “left-of-centre party”. “Conservatives in the CDU have suffered a bit over the past few years,” he says over a coffee in Untermarchtal.
Carsten Linnemann, one of the rising stars on the right of the party © INSM/Flickr/CC
Party bigwigs in Berlin argue that the leftward shift under Ms Merkel has allowed it to poach millions of votes from the Social Democrats and dominate the centre-ground of German politics. Mr Hagel doesn’t buy that. “I don’t agree with the idea that you gain more votes on the left that way than you lose on the right,” he says.
Carsten Linnemann, a CDU MP and one of the rising stars on the party’s conservative wing, says the leftward tilt also helped fuel the AfD’s rise. “I think we left a void on our right flank,” he says in his Bundestag office in the German capital. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and in politics it always gets filled — in this case by the AfD.” Many conservatives blame Ms Merkel for the fact that Germany now has a far-right party in parliament for the first time in more than 60 years.
As the refugee crisis dragged on, conservatives in Baden-Württemberg and beyond felt their voice was not being heard in Berlin. Many cite an incident in December 2016 when the CDU annual conference voted to limit some immigrants’ right to dual citizenship. Ms Merkel rejected the resolution outright.
“That was a slap in the face of party democracy,” says Daniel Hackenjos, head of the Baden-Württemberg branch of MIT, a CDU business organisation. “And if she continues in that vein, then the frustration is only going to grow.”
“The CDU is becoming a party that is tailor-made for one person alone — Ms Merkel,” says Philipp Bürkle, head of the Baden-Württemberg chapter of the Junge Union, the CDU’s youth wing, in the regional capital, Stuttgart.
Jens Spahn argues the CDU needs to bring in a new generation © Getty
The rumblings of discontent only intensified after September’s election. For Mr Linnemann, the CDU did so badly because it lost sight of its core values. “We’re in a Catch-22 situation,” he says. “On the one hand, our brand is all about law and order. On the other, a lot of voters associate us with what happened in Germany in 2015” — when tens of thousands of undocumented aliens illegally crossed the border. “We need to once again become a party of the rule of law, of law and order, of security.”
Mr Linnemann has demanded a “long, hard look at the election result, to figure out what went wrong and draw the necessary conclusions”. So far, there has been no such post mortem.
Instead, Ms Merkel caused consternation by saying at a post-election press conference that she “didn’t see what we should do differently”. To critics it suggested an unwillingness to learn the lesson of the result. “The question is — do we listen to the message voters sent us by voting AfD, or do we just muddle through?” asks Mr Hagel.
Some members were furious at what they saw as the complacency of the party bosses. Sven Rissmann, a senior figure in the CDU’s Berlin branch, wrote an open letter criticising the “disastrous” result, saying the Christian Democrats had “degenerated” into a party that “unconditionally applauds the chancellor”. Mr Hackenjos adds: “The problem with Frau Merkel is that she’s so dominant that sometimes party democracy falls by the wayside.”
Young CDU supporters react to poor results in state elections in Stuttgart in 2016, when Angela Merkel’s party received a drubbing in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden Wuerttemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz © AFP
Ms Merkel’s supporters have rebuffed the criticism. Despite all the popular misgivings about refugee policy, the CDU had won three out of four regional elections this year and emerged from the September poll as the largest party in the Bundestag, and the only one capable of forming a government.
But such assurances have fallen on deaf ears. “The party leaders said pretty quickly that they had achieved their electoral goals,” says Mr Hackenjos. “That’s not the attitude you should have after such an election result.”
Even her staunchest internal critics want Ms Merkel to stay on as chancellor. But some senior figures are now openly calling on the CDU to prepare for the post-Merkel era. Daniel Günther, prime minister of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, last month demanded the party begin succession planning.
There are also calls for her to promote younger faces, many of them on the conservative wing of the CDU. One of those arguing for change is Jens Spahn, the 37-year-old deputy finance minister, who is a standard-bearer for the right.
Angela Merkel’s refugee policy has been much criticised by many within her own party
“We need to bring in a new generation,” he says. “We have a lot of really good young people in the second or third tier who could be promoted to positions in the parliamentary group or in the government, so they can have a chance to show what they’re made of . . . and to bring them more into the public eye.”
That’s a view shared by Mr Hagel, at 29 one of the youngest of the CDU’s conservative upstarts. “We need to give the party an intellectual jolt,” he says. “We need new faces.”
Mr Hagel issued a paper last month called “Wake Up, CDU!”, which called for a conservative renewal of the party and a better defence of “Germany’s cultural identity”. He says: “We need a tough debate about our future direction — and that’s what’s missing at the moment, at least on the national level.”
However, it is questionable whether that debate can happen now, especially if Ms Merkel renews her grand coalition with the SPD. “We are in danger of getting stuck in the mainstream,” he says.
Back in Untermarchtal, Mr Bold is still reflecting on the reasons for the CDU’s poor showing in September. “There was this feeling of unease in the population, and the leaders just didn’t see it,” he says. “They didn’t realise the people had a different opinion.”
Chancellor loses imperious touch
The authority Angela Merkel enjoyed over her ministers and her party was once legendary. Now there are signs the chancellor’s grip is eroding.
The latest one came this week during a dispute over the controversial weedkiller glyphosate. The EU reapproved the herbicide after Berlin unexpectedly shifted its position: it normally abstains during votes on glyphosate but this week the agriculture minister Christian Schmidt decided to approve it, without consulting his colleague, the Social Democrat environment minister, Barbara Hendricks. Some people suggested Ms Merkel should sack Mr Schmidt for such an open breach of cabinet discipline. He got away with a gentle slap on the wrist. One prominent commentator argued that Ms Merkel has been so weakened by her party’s disappointing election performance and the collapse of coalition talks with the Greens and Free Democrats that she lacked the authority to fire Mr Schmidt.
Just after the election, her confidante Volker Kauder was re-elected head of the CDU/CSU’s parliamentary group, but with a much reduced majority. The result was seen as reflecting deep dissatisfaction among some conservative MPs with the chancellor’s leadership.
Then last month, Ms Merkel abandoned attempts to have an old friend, the former education minister Annette Schavan, elected head of the Konrad Adenauer foundation, a CDU-affiliated think-tank, after encountering stiff resistance. The job will now probably go to Norbert Lammert, the former Bundestag speaker. That, too, was seen as a reflection of her dwindling authority.
Yet Ms Merkel remains firmly in the saddle as chancellor and CDU boss. “No one is really calling her leadership into question — there is still this sense that there is no alternative to her,” says Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “So I can understand why she seems so relaxed.”