IN THE 1950s West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) reassured wary voters that it would deliver “no experiments”. So it is striking to see the party, languishing in opinion polls and tiring after 13 years in government, suddenly revitalised by an almost unprecedented innovation: a leadership election.
Having mustered three serious candidates to replace Angela Merkel as party chairperson, the CDU has become intoxicated with the possibility of change—even as Mrs Merkel hopes to remain as chancellor until 2021. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn are a study in contrasts, lending the proceedings an air of competition far removed from the usual CDUstitch-up. This matters, for the winner, to be elected by 1,001 delegates at a congress in Hamburg on December 7th, may sooner or later replace Mrs Merkel as chancellor. “It is very sexy to be a member of the CDUthese days,” says Oliver Wittke, a junior economics minister.
Admittedly that was not the first word to spring to mind this week as 4,000 predominantly grey-haired party troops packed an exhibition hall near Düsseldorf airport to see the would-be leaders in action. But the party is delighting in its sense of renewal. The heartiest applause of the night went not to a candidate but a questioner from the audience who revealed that he joined the party three weeks ago. A homecoming feel added to the occasion: Messrs Merz and Spahn are from the surrounding state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest, and Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer used to run nearby Saarland.
The event was the sixth, and most important, of eight regional beauty contests in the run-up to Hamburg. The 296-strong North Rhine-Westphalia delegation there will far exceed that of any other state. Long a left-wing stronghold, the state’s blend of wealthy cities, rust-belt industry and sleepy countryside mirrors Germany as a whole. The CDUwon a surprise victory in a state election here last year, instantly elevating its local leader, Armin Laschet, into one of the party’s national stars (and, say some, a future chancellor). The candidates were thus keen to impress.
On stage Mr Merz (pictured left), a former party hero squeezed out of politics by Mrs Merkel years ago, jabbed at his old rival by urging the party to stop aping the Social Democrats, its junior coalition partner. His charisma appeals to members who have grown tired of Mrs Merkel’s centrist equivocations, but recent gaffes, especially on the asylum guarantee in Germany’s constitution, highlight his long absence from politics. Perhaps for that reason polls make Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer (pictured right) the clear favourite among CDUsupporters (of whom the delegates to Hamburg are not necessarily representative).
After a slow start to the campaign, the candidates have begun sniping at each other, albeit in newspaper interviews rather than on stage, over migration and how to defeat the far right. Yet for all the hubbub, the debate has failed to ignite properly. All want to appear fresh, but without rejecting the party’s successful past. In Düsseldorf Mr Merz and Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, the front-runners, touched on defence, taxation and foreign policy, but seemed most interested in convincing the crowd that they could restore the CDUto its proper place as a Volkspartei, with over 40% of the vote. (Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer points out that she achieved that feat in Saarland, while Mr Merz was off making a fortune in the private sector.) Today it hovers around 27% in polls.
So for all the talk of party renewal, it is difficult to discern a hunger for revolution. Over beer and sausages, party members in Düsseldorf spoke warmly of all three candidates. Many of the delegates to Hamburg, a hotch-potch of state representatives, local politicians and party apparatchiks, have not yet decided whom to back. The mood is Merkelism without Merkel, or perhaps even with her: the candidates all say they will happily cohabit with her as chancellor (though in Mr Merz’s case that seems implausible). “Many people in the party are looking for some change,” says Günter Krings, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia CDUgroup in Germany’s parliament. “But not too much, otherwise we wouldn’t be Christian Democrats.” Experiments are fine, so long as the result is predictable.