Germany: CDU/CSU – A central pillar of German capitalism is shaking

For a long time, the CDU/CSU was considered the most stable conservative party in Europe. But the battle now raging in public for candidacy for the chancellorship between Armin Laschet (CDU) and Markus Söder (CSU) has shown that this central pillar of German capitalism is riven with deep cracks. Laschet has prevailed, but stability is gone.

This year will mark the end of an era when Angela Merkel steps down as chancellor in September, after 16 years in office. She was supposed to go down in history as a chancellor of stability – as a strict but caring ‘Mutti’ (mother). But in her home stretch, the facade is crumbling. She bequeaths her aspirants for the chancellorship, a crisis-ridden system and a party that is divided at all levels.

The crisis of the conservative parties

The crisis of the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union in Bavaria) gathered momentum with the onset of the refugee crisis. From 2015 onward, it suffered severe setbacks in state elections and in the last federal election. In the beginning, this was mainly at the expense of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Important conservative sections of the traditional electorate turned away from the party and toward the demagogic, chauvinist and racist AfD. Starting in 2018, and especially with the ‘Fridays for Future’ protests, the CDU lost further ground, this time to the Greens. A comparable process has also taken place with the Bavarian sister party CSU.

Merkel Image European ParliamentThe departure of Angela Merkel, after 16 years in office, marks the end of an era of relative political stability in Germany / Image: European Parliament, Flickr

This process of polarisation and politicisation of ever-broader layers of society means that the traditional parties are increasingly collapsing because they have no solutions to offer for society’s problems. On the contrary, they are part of the problem, which is why more and more people are looking for alternatives.

The crisis faced by the CDU/CSU is an expression of the general crisis of bourgeois democracy. Capitalism is in a deep crisis and therefore the bourgeois parties everywhere can no longer offer substantial concessions to the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. Instead, they set their sights on austerity, social cuts, the privatisation of public institutions of healthcare, social housing, and so on. At the same time, they subsidise companies while they close sites and cut jobs or, above all, expand precarious employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis

The German economy, especially the automotive sector, was already suffering from a deep crisis of overproduction in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic enormously exacerbated the crisis, deepening it and spreading it across the entire economy. At the onset of the pandemic and the economic crisis, the CDU/CSU was able to temporarily consolidate its support last year through the short-time allowance (Kurzarbeit – a government scheme that allows companies to reduce the working hours of their employees while the state paying 60 percent of the resulting loss in wages) and various recovery programmes for small businesses. In the polls, the CDU/CSU rose from 26 percent at the end of 2019 to 40 percent in the early summer of 2020. The CDU/CSU-led government, with Angela Merkel at the helm, appeared to broad layers as a reliable crisis manager.

However, this leap of faith was squandered in the course of the second wave. Even in the third wave, the lockdown applies largely to private life, while work continues in the companies. Chaos continues to reign in the educational institutions. The vaccination campaign is only now really getting off the ground. Then there are the corruption scandals, with CDU and CSU making money from deals for face masks. All of this is eroding public confidence.

Leadership crisis of the CDU

The CDU/CSU has thus begun to plunge in opinion polls. At the end of March this year, it again sank to 26 percent, with the Greens slowly catching up with them. For this reason, Armin Laschet, who was elected as the new federal chairman of the CDU on 22 January 2020, kept a low profile for a long time over whether he would be a candidate for chancellor. His election as chairman would have made that his natural right.

Laschet, who was previously the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, replaced his predecessor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, after she was forced to resign after just two years in office as federal chairwoman. Her end was sealed after the government crisis in Thuringia in February 2020, when Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) was elected Thuringia’s prime minister with votes from the AfD, CDU and FDP – against the direction of the CDU's leadership. She lacked the necessary authority in the party, lacked charisma, and couldn’t break free from Merkel’s shadow.

Armin Laschet beat Friedrich Merz in the election for the new CDU federal chairman in January 2021. Merz was chairman of the supervisory board and a lobbyist in Germany for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, from 2016 to 2020. Like Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Laschet belongs to the Merkel camp. He also stands essentially for ‘business as usual’.

His term of office however began with two bitter defeats in the state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. There, the CDU registered its worst result in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. In terms of public perception of the handling of the pandemic, Laschet came across as vacillating. He was poor at disguising his actions in the interests of the bourgeoisie and corporations. In contrast, Söder staged himself as a compelling crisis manager, cleverly concealing the fact that Bavaria regularly recorded the highest incidence levels of COVID-19 and that he frequently acted contrary to government decisions.

Candidacy for chancellor, therefore, didn’t immediately and clearly fall to the leader of the CDU, the larger sister party of the CSU.

Markus Söder maneuvers his way to the top

Laschet is currently one of the most unpopular politicians. In a Civey poll conducted at the end of March, only 10.3 percent of respondents said that Armin Laschet’s candidacy for chancellor would be a reason for them to vote for the CDU/CSU in the upcoming federal election. By contrast, 53.3 percent saw Söder as a reason. In the same poll, 53.5 percent stated that they trusted Söder to “lead the country out of the COVID-19 crisis,” whereas a paltry 5.9 percent said they trusted Armin Laschet. Other polls have had similar results.

Markus Söder, Bavaria's prime minister and chairman of the CSU, had soared in the polls. This was primarily because, as chairman of the Conference of Ministers during the first wave of the pandemic, he had always appeared alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel – who is still Germany’s most popular politician. In words, he had supported her decisions, even appearing as a hardliner.

He regularly placed himself in the limelight as the one who had decisively determined the decisions of the conferences of ministers and the man who was always first to implement them in Bavaria. He often spoke of the need to implement stricter measures while at the same time implementing relaxations. Unlike Laschet, his fluctuations were never inflated by the press and used against him.

On 11 April, Markus Söder threw his hat into the ring. He said he was ready to become chancellor and take on his “responsibility for the country”. This decision didn’t come as a complete surprise. From the middle of last year, the newspapers and talk shows had begun speculating over whether Söder had such ambitions. He kept a low profile, playing the same soundtrack over and over again, “His place was in Bavaria.” This wasn’t really credible, especially as the decision on the candidate for chancellor drew closer.

What followed was a week in which the previously latent power struggle between Söder and Laschet degenerated completely into a civil war between the CDU and CSU, and within the CDU. On 12 April, the CDU presidium backed Armin Laschet more-or-less unanimously. Actually, that would have decided everything. But Söder took advantage of his good poll ratings and said that it was first necessary to ‘listen in’ on the rank-and-file instead of making decisions in ‘backroom’ talks.

Civil war in the CDU

Söder's calculation worked. At the meeting of the CDU Bundestag parliamentary group the following day, a showdown followed that had been thoroughly prepared by the CSU. Laschet was dismantled in front of the parliamentary group, primarily by CSU deputies. Some CDU members were also tempted to take a stand against their own party leader.

This was followed by a barrage of calls and e-mails to the CDU organisations at every level. A wave of indignation swept through the party base. As the week dragged on, the clearer it became that a significant part of the CDU base was taking a stand against its own party leader. Then, one by one, leading CDU politicians folded, including Reiner Haseloff, the prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt. He backed Söder, from whom he hoped to gain more traction in the state elections in his state on 6 June. In the Junge Union (JU), the youth organization of the CDU/CSU, the mood was also clearly tilting toward Söder. On Sunday 18 April, the youth federation published a statement, according to which fourteen state associations of the JU would stand behind Söder. In the preceding days, CDU and CSU politicians fought it out on talk shows.

Söder had achieved everything necessary. He had demonstrated his power and had gained the necessary support at all levels of the CDU. He then placed complete responsibility for the choice of candidate in the hands of the CDU federal executive committee, and once again assured them that he would wholly submit to their decision without “grudges”. It is doubtful that anyone believed him anymore at this point. Nevertheless, he could sit back and declare every decision a victory for himself.

A Pyrrhic victory

Laschet was elected as the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor during a long meeting of the CDU’s federal executive committee on the night of 20 April. He had important personalities and party associations behind him, such as the Mittelstandsvereinigung (a bosses association in the CDU). The important capital associations, BDA and BDI, were on his side, even if they did not take a public stand.

Söder, however, took his time, only officially acknowledging the result at a press conference at noon on Tuesday. In so doing, he once again rubbed salt into the wounds and thanked all those who had expressed their confidence in him – the candidate of the “Future” and the “New Dawn” – for their great support.

Laschet Image Olaf KosinskyAlthough Laschet won the candidacy for chancellor in the end, it will prove a pyrrhic victory. However the forthcoming elections go, they will play into his opponent, Söder's, hands / Image: Olaf Kosinsky

Now Söder can retreat to Bavaria as the real winner. If Laschet becomes chancellor, Söder will insist that it was because of his own popularity and support from him and the CSU. He will push for the assignment of crucial ministries to the CSU. If Laschet and the CDU/CSU lose the federal election in September, Söder will stick his finger deep into the wound and claim that he warned everyone.

The battle over the chancellor candidacy and the discussion about the popularity ratings of the two opponents is an expression of a deep divide over the direction of the CDU/CSU. This so-called ‘people’s party’, or ‘party of the centre’, can hardly make any more concessions. Yet the living conditions of the masses have been stagnating since the 1990s, and for many have even been falling for a lot longer. The party is, therefore, unable to continue governing as it has before.

‘Governing in silence’, without attracting attention, without being particularly driven by public moods, is what Armin Laschet stands for. That will no longer be possible in the crisis. Söder stands for a different course, that of demagogy and staging. He stands for demagogically exploiting the moods of the masses to secure his own popularity and that of the government. Taking this course means putting the government, and especially its leaders, in the spotlight.

A similar process has happened in the ÖVP in Austria with the alignment of the entire party behind its leader, Sebastian Kurz. Such governments become unstable and unreliable for capital, even if they continue to represent its interests.

The established bourgeois parties and the coming governments will no longer be able to manage without demagogy, because without improvements in the material living conditions of the masses, the masses can only be ideologically dominated. But as the saying goes: “You can fool part of the people all the time, and the whole people part of the time. But you can't fool all the people all the time.”

Laschet, too, will inevitably have to rely on this, and he already showed he can do so last year in Aachen in front of the Continental plant when he denounced ‘ice-cold capitalism’. Söder, however, would have accelerated this process enormously.

The next government

Above all, the CDU/CSU will have to get a grip on the pandemic before the election if it wants to clearly defend its chancellorship. But both are far from a foregone conclusion. Either way, the CDU’s crisis will continue and progress faster.

No matter who wins the election in the end, whether CDU or the Greens, the next government will be a government of crisis. At some point, it will have to abolish the short-time allowance, which will cost many people their jobs. The waves of bankruptcies of small companies will come. The government will have to return to the no-debt policy very soon in order to get the national debt under control. The only option left to the ruling class and its political representatives to deal with the crisis under capitalism will be further austerity measures, raising the retirement age, and other forms of social cuts.

This will inevitably set the working class in motion. The trade unions and DIE LINKE (German left party) must now finally awaken from their slumber and organise the struggle against capital and the crisis governments.

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