The new chairman, 66 years old, born in Brilon, Sauerland, almost in tears, thanked him for “the strong mandate.” At the party conference, Merz indicated the direction he wanted to take: “Powerful opposition in the federal government” had to be the CDU , win the next state elections and develop their own ideas, which lead to a new basic program, one that, like in 1978, paved the way back to power in the opposition.
The party should no longer argue or “diverge in all directions”, otherwise the way back to responsibility in the federal government would be “possibly very long”. He swore to the party that a defeat like that in the 2021 federal election would not be repeated. “Courage and cheerfulness,” he recommended to the members. People should notice “that we enjoy our work”. Then the Union would be re-elected.
The party needs a new program, and Merz immediately laid out a plan. “We are liberal and open, social and protective at the same time. That’s conservative in the best sense of the word,” he said.
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Merz shook hands with the social politicians. So “the social is a constitutive part of the market economy” and not just the “repair operation of capitalism”. He recalled a central promise of Catholic social teaching that had not yet been kept: “The participation of workers in productive capital.” Freedom, responsibility, the protection of the family and opportunities for children were important to him. He spoke of the “activating welfare state”.
A new program that reconciles the wings of the party is one of the big tasks. The commercial lawyer Merz, who himself comes from a family of lawyers and has two children and five grandchildren, also has to solve structural problems. After 16 years under a head of government, Angela Merkel, the party is exhausted in terms of content, but not only that: the structural data show how deep the problems of the party and its structures lie.
The CDU is struggling with a decline in members and a surplus of men
With the reunification in 1990, almost 800,000 people belonged to the CDU, today there are only 384,204 members (end of 2020). Of these, 73.4 percent are male and only 26.6 percent are female. The average age is 60.8 years, that of the new members an impressive 43 years. There are also slightly more women among them: 28.8 percent. The party is anything but a cross section of society, not even the middle class.
Isabelle Borucki, party researcher at the University of Siegen, cites “too little initiative and commitment in speeches and offers, especially for women” as the reasons. Local club regulars’ tables are unattractive for younger mothers. However, it is difficult for all parties to be a mirror of society with their members.
This is not absolutely necessary, because “men can also represent women and vice versa. In order to move the party forward, however, it might be helpful to involve more women, more young people and generally more diverse people.”
The party wants to become “younger, more female, more digital”. Merz, who is considered to be conservative and economically liberal, must pave the way that Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer have already taken in vain.
In the short term, however, it is important for him to win state elections. They decide whether the CDU will still provide young prime ministers. And whether she still has an important voice in the Bundesrat to influence the policy of the traffic light coalition. In total, 19 of the 69 votes in the Bundesrat are at stake.
Important state elections in a few weeks
Tobias Hans is standing for election in Saarland in March, followed by Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein at the beginning of May. Both are behind in the polls – which was also the case five years ago.
At the end of May, the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state, are coming up. Hendrik Wüst, who took over the office of prime minister and state presidency from Armin Laschet in October, has to assert himself here. It could be the shortest term in office for a prime minister.
Elections will follow in Lower Saxony in the fall, where the CDU governs as a junior partner with the SPD. If the Union were to lose its government participation everywhere, it would only have an influence on 23 votes via the state chamber – a serious cut, since numerous laws also have to be passed by the Bundesrat.
“The state elections are very, very important for us,” said party leader Silvia Breher. “We will do everything we can to ensure a positive tailwind from Berlin.” The expectations of Merz in the first few weeks of his tenure are correspondingly high.
NRW state chief Wüst clearly demands: “No factional fights, we have to be a progressive center party”. And his state party friend, the vice-president of the workers’ wing, Dennis Radtke, told the Handelsblatt: “The most important thing is to first bring peace and order to the elections.” Radtke also sits in the European Parliament. Winning the elections should “first be the focus, everything else has to take a back seat”.
Radtke had recently warned against the “Merz Ultras” in the party and a purely economically liberal course, but he urged a socio-political course. This caused unrest within the party. Axel Knoerig, the new head of the workers’ group of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, also demands: “We must again clearly set the pace for good labor and social policies for people.”
The question of group leadership is still unresolved
The new deputy party leader and Merz confidante Carsten Linnemann, as head of the basic program commission, should bundle and reconcile the substantive questions. The expectations are high: “We should also bring the three roots that we have together in our basic program so that everyone can find a home in our people’s party and we can then move forward together and with determination,” said the new member of the presidency, Ines Claus, chairman of the parliamentary group Hessian state parliament.
At the end of January, the CDU officially announced the results of the elections at the digital federal party conference. After that, it is said, an equally crucial question for party leader Merz will be clarified very quickly: who will lead the parliamentary group in the Bundestag? Merz had always said that in the government the party and chancellery belonged in one hand, in the opposition the party and parliamentary group chair. However, Ralph Brinkhaus does not want to give up without a fight.
Brinkhaus has been lobbying for himself for weeks and is hoping for the support of the CSU. When the parliamentary group had to save jobs and rooms in view of the lost federal election, Brinkhaus did not cut the CSU, as the parliamentary group found out. At the same time, it is pointed out that it is not the regional group that decides, but CSU boss Markus Söder.
Merz and Söder have made an appointment, want to work closely together, want to consult with the leaders of the parliamentary group every week, and the party presidencies should also meet regularly. “We have clarified a lot,” said Merz after Söder’s conciliatory speech at the party conference. “We are now looking ahead. We will work together and make sure we get back to good strength.”
On February 2, Merz will visit the CSU state group during their retreat on one of the first public dates. It could be the day when the question of the group presidency will be clarified. In his inaugural speech, Merz demonstrated that he would be a suitable opposition leader. He immediately attacked Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and accused him of lacking leadership: in the pandemic, in the Ukraine crisis, in view of people’s fears of inflation. “We are committed to political leadership,” said Merz.
More: Merz is the last cartridge of the CDU