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“By CDU standards, this is extraordinary,” Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist with the University of Kiel, told me. “This kind of open debate is somewhat unusual for Merkel’s CDU … it’s always a big deal when you have a new CDU leader, because it doesn’t happen all that often. Unlike a lot of the other political parties, it’s very stable.”
The effort to strike the tricky balance between change and homage was evident in Berlin last Friday night, at the last of eight regional conferences during which the three candidates presented their case to party stalwarts.
Though the candidates—Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and Jens Spahn—have largely been nonconfrontational during those meetings, their most charged exchanges have been over migration, easily the most controversial aspect of Merkel’s tenure. Perhaps their sharpest back-and-forth (by German standards, anyway) came when Merz, after initially lauding Merkel, accused the CDU of accepting the rise of the AfD “with a shrug.” Merz, who spent nearly a decade in the finance sector after having been vanquished by Merkel in an internal party battle, promised to bring the CDU back to 40 percent in the polls—approximately the same percentage it won in the 2013 elections.
In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Kramp-Karrenbauer, a protégé of the chancellor who is sometimes called “mini-Merkel,” fired back, calling Merz “naive” and noting that she, as the former premier of the German state of Saarland, had already proved that she could deliver such results in the state’s 2017 elections. Spahn, a 38-year-old health minister, called on the party to openly debate the United Nations’ migration pact, which created a set of nonbinding, common international guidelines for dealing with migration issues. It has become a lightning rod for far-right criticism.
The debate consuming the CDU is the same one facing its center-right brethren across Europe. With right-wing populism chipping away at their former dominance, these parties have largely chosen to either stand their ground in hopes that voters eventually come back, or mimic the rhetoric and policies of the far right to beat it at its own game.
Some, such as Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, have found success with the latter strategy: His center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has largely adopted the far right’s views on immigration, to the point that the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is now its junior governing partner. Others, such as members of Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party or Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have tried this tack with far less electoral success.
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At least until now, Merkel and her CDU have provided the prime example of the anti-Kurz strategy. She has not only mostly resisted pressure to shift toward the far right, but also moved the party pragmatically to the left over the years, on issues ranging from energy and the environment to immigration and same-sex marriage. This approach has strong detractors in the CDU, who argue that the party’s platform is no longer recognizable. But she also has loyal defenders, who contend that the CDU and the country will miss Merkel and her leadership when she’s gone.