International Politics

Life after Merkel

Having elected a new designated party chairman, the CDU is trying to return to its conservative roots. But will the party define itself against Merkel’s historic legacy?

Friedrich Merz (CDU) stands after the announcement of the results of the CDU member survey. At a party conference of the CDU in January 2022, the new federal chairman is to be elected by the delegates as the successor to Armin Laschet – Michael Kappeler/dpa/Alamy Live News

For those disenchanted with the state of politics in the Western world, Germany has been a soothing balm of constancy this past decade. Angela Merkel was praised by The Economist as the true leader of a beleaguered free world during the Trump administration. On the surface, the results of elections to the Bundestag which determine who shall be the country’s chancellor this year seem to confirm the optimism of those who cherish the image of the “grown-up country”; the centre-left Social-Democrats led by self-described pragmatist Olaf Scholz forming a coalition government. Another happy symptom, alongside Biden in the White House, of the global political pendulum swinging back in the direction of the left-of-centre. However, both Olaf Scholz and his CDU opponent Armin Laschet have refrained from distinguishing themselves from Angela Merkel, if not from loyalty than from a lack of imagination sufficient to revolt. The election in December 2021 was essentially between two brands of the status quo and its principle effect in the long-term will be the movement of the CDU away from Angela Merkel’s legacy in the form of Laschet’s successor as Leader of the Party Friedrich Merz. 

Friedrich Merz, like Joe Biden, is a man of the 1980s; embodying the combination of free-market capitalism, symbolic commitment to conservative moral policy and a strong Atlanticist line on the world stage which defined the Kohl decade wherein Germany was reunited, and the Maastricht treaty signed. His 2018 candidacy to become leader of the party, promoted by members of the CDU’s old guard such as Wolfgang Schäuble, was a return after a 10 year spell in the private sector: Friedrich Merz is a restorationist rather than a revolutionary. The journalist Jacques Schuster says that Merz will give the CDU back its “soul”; and Merz himself, ruling out electoral cooperation with AfD, said “we are not the XYZ party, we are the CDU”. What this means in the context of 2021 is unclear. Like Armin Laschet, Merz hails from Nordrhein Westphalia, colloquially known as NRW: a prosperous region in the Westernmost corner of the West known for bibulous bonhomie and wealth. He is a Catholic, an Adenauer Scholar and a multimillionaire lawyer. Not a man in automatic kinship with the atheistic, formerly communist, Prussian and economically disadvantaged regions of former DDR many see as playing a similar role of electoral tinderbox to populism as Britain’s “red wall” or America’s “rust belt”. 

Merz has cultivated the faintest whiff of Trumpian machismo which sets him apart from the species of sensible bureaucrat said to dominate continental politics; in 2018 he, passionately, self-identified his socioeconomic status as “middle class” in the face of owning two private jets. People have called Merz an anti-Merkel: but the trouble is whether there is enough “Merkelism” for him to define himself against. Merkel’s biggest legacy will be her decision to offer asylum for millions of Syrian refugees in 2015; a decision finding its primary critics in the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Merz has presented himself as a “firewall” against AfD which threatens the CDU from the right, and is unlikely to take up the baton of an anti-immigration candidate. 

In his solidly bourgeois background and appeal to bringing a party back to its roots, Friedrich Merz is similar to the leader of Britain’s Labour Party Keir Starmer. Both leaders face the problem of how to lead opposition parties amidst a crisis where conscience and public opinion demands consensus. When all visible representatives of the people are more or less unanimous in their approach to the definitive economic and social crisis people face: those who do not share in that unanimity, the natural marks of any ‘opposition’, can become alienated from the system writ large.  The biggest issue in German politics today is the country’s ongoing response to the Coronavirus pandemic; Germany has seen among the toughest restrictions in pursuit of a zero covid goal, as opposed to Britain’s oscillating ambiguity and the constitutionally inevitable laissez-faire attitude of the United States. Merz’s party introduced the restrictions, which are supported across the political spectrum, and it is unlikely he will stand against them; but in that case what will the business of politics be? Starmer was hailed as all Labour needed to defeat a divided Tory party; but is now berated as a “dud” from all sides. Terminal diagnoses of intransigent populism should keep in mind that electorates seem to want more than appeals to the old order of normality.

Merz is the head of the German branch of asset-holding company BlackRock, which a cursory glance at Twitter will reveal features prominently in anxieties concerning “The Great Reset”. Germany has among the strongest lockdown-sceptic movements in the world, fed by the eccentric, quickly radicalising Reichsburger movement; a sort of German spin on Qanon avant la lettre which claims the Federal Legitimate is illegitimate and pledges allegiance to the country’s pre-1945 borders. The AfD has not fared well this election. The new political trajectory of populism, as shown by the motley crew who stormed the Capitol in January 2021, thrives off the creative tension between the traditional far right and earnest anti-authoritarians many have identified as a weakness in the AfD. If lockdowns continue to replace immigration as the driver of anti-establishment politics in Western countries, the AfD’s libertarian and “social nationalist” wings would have less to disagree with on a shared opposition to state power: and a potential new constituency to harbour. 

Friedrich Merz is a quintessential man of the moment; an establishment insider seeking to return said establishment to an earlier purism. As a newly-minted leader of an opposition party he additionally serves to illustrate a worldwide challenge of dissent and consent in Western Democracies under conditions of emergency. It is unlikely Germany’s robust consensus which is Angela Merkel’s legacy will be overthrown. The problem for Merz, and for German politics as whole, is whether shape can be given to dissent in a society which must increasingly make appeals to the logic of emergency in order to defend its core values. Ideological pluralism is difficult to re-establish in political systems which have been united against threats; but without it the opposition which defines said systems can become a form of ceremony for the narcissism of small differences.

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