Angela Merkel. Picture: AFP/TOBIAS SCHWARZ
Angela Merkel. Picture: AFP/TOBIAS SCHWARZ

Berlin — For the longest time, Angela Merkel was Germany and, under her, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) were the dominant political force in the EU. Today the party is a shambles and its new leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, cannot seem to straighten it out.

Just last month, the CDU suffered a historic beating in the eastern region of Thuringia. Mike Mohring, the defeated candidate, ripped into his boss in a furious election-night conference call. She told him to get a good night’s sleep and urged him not to do anything rash, according to a party official familiar with their conversation.

Next morning he went on national TV and proposed an unprecedented coalition with the former communists. For a party that helped establish German democracy in the West, such a pact would be heresy. “I don’t need Berlin to tell me what’s good for Thuringia,” Mohring added for good measure.

The breakdown of discipline in Merkel’s once-dominant party is symptomatic of a deeper crisis gripping conservatives across Europe. In France and Italy traditional parties have been overrun by populists. In Spain, the People’s Party is at a low ebb. And Britain’s Tories have been eaten from the inside out by the single-issue fundamentalists of Brexit.

The CDU is doing pretty well by comparison, the official joked, bitterly. At least it’s still in government.

But almost a year after AKK — as Kramp-Karrenbauer is known — took over the party job from Merkel, members set to gather for its annual convention in Leipzig on Friday are engulfed in a power struggle unheard of during the 18 years that the chancellor ran the show. Along with its Bavarian sister party, the CDU is leading in most opinion polls. But like its allies across Europe, it has failed to come up with a compelling vision for a world in which nationalism is on the rise and economic anxieties are growing.

Germany’s economy has been flirting with recession this year as Donald Trump’s trade war with China disrupts the global system that let the country’s exporters flourish. The flagship auto industry is wrestling with the existential challenge of switching to electric motors and the resentment in poorer areas of the East, like Thuringia, is proving fertile ground for the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

Merkel’s decision to step down at the end of her term meanwhile has led to political paralysis in Berlin, opening the door for France’s Emmanuel Macron to challenge the German approach on everything from European budget policy to Nato security.

Germans are looking for a leader who can stand up to Trump, Macron and China’s Xi Jinping and defend their economic interests. But AKK’s efforts to set a new course by reconnecting with the party’s conservative wing and heading off the AfD have left many rank-and-file members scratching their heads.

“The CDU is barely recognisable any more,” says party member Alexander Mitsch. “The party has no clear direction, because it has forgotten how to define itself through political content. The party has been kept together by the desire for power.”

As she gropes for a line that can bring the party back together, AKK has zigzagged across the piste, often alienating both sides while failing to convince voters.

Failed coup

In May, she called for a regulation of political debate on the internet after a YouTuber attacked the party. Critics said calls for censorship were extreme and out of touch.

A few weeks later, she tried to force Merkel to accelerate the handover of power and was brushed off. After joining the government in July as defence minister, her call for a military mission in northern Syria riled the CDU’s coalition partners and left German allies confused.

Merkel is watching with a mixture of horror and amusement, the official said.

The chancellor realises that if AKK fails, that would likely bring down the curtain on her own political career. But in the meantime she is benefiting from her successor’s poor performance. Polls show the chancellor remains Germany’s favourite politician with an approval rating of almost 50%. AKK is rated No 11 with 18%.

Mohring’s rebellion in Thuringia was another blow to AKK’s authority that triggered a frantic damage control effort from CDU headquarters in Berlin. AKK and her right hand man both went on TV to vow an alliance with the former communists would never happen and Mohring recanted the following day.

But the genie was out of the bottle.

Party rebels

A conservative faction in Thuringia proposed an alliance with the nationalist AfD. The head of the party’s youth organisation openly challenged AKK’s authority during a closed-door leadership meeting.

Friedrich Merz, the conservative poster boy defeated by AKK in last year’s leadership race, said Merkel’s lack of direction was smothering Germany “like a carpet of fog”.

The CDU official said AKK had failed to put in place a plan to cope with the fallout from Thuringia, where the party trailed in third behind the postcommunist Left party and the AfD.

Merz has already made clear that he will speak at the party convention in Leipzig, but he has denied reports he might try to topple AKK. “The CDU doesn’t topple its leaders,” he said.

The coup may be delayed for now, but AKK still hasn’t secured the party’s backing as its candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor.

Traditionally that role falls to the leader, but AKK is aiming to put off a formal decision until she’s consolidated her grip on the party — and hoping that the fragile coalition with the Social Democrats can hang together long enough.

In the meantime 1,000 party delegates will have plenty of other opportunities to express their frustration with their leadership.

“I am really looking forward to this party convention,” AKK said last week in a rare show of optimism. “When Friedrich Merz announces that he will give a speech about sharpening the CDU’s profile, then this is exactly the discussion I want.”

Bloomberg