German conservatives find new strength in post-Merkel times – DW – 11/01/2022

When Friedrich Merz, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took to the stage at the party conference of the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Augsburg last Saturday, he delivered an hour-long celebration of the parties’ newfound unity. “We’re unbeatable when we stick together,” Merz told the regional Bavarian party’s delegates, pointing to their respective poll leads.

The CDU and the CSU are distinct parties united by a sometimes creaky marriage that goes back to the very beginning of the West German republic in 1949: The CSU is a fiercely proud Bavarian party that has never been out of office in Germany’s largest state. As long as the CSU sticks to Bavaria, the CDU has vowed never to field candidates there, and the two center-right parties agree on a common manifesto for national elections. If the alliance wins, which they have more often than not, the CSU is rewarded with a few ministries in the federal Cabinet in Berlin.

Hendrik Wüst, winner in North Rhine-Westphalia, Friedrich Merz, Daniel Günther, winner in Schleswig-Holstein
The CDU has celebrated major victories in regional elections this year in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-HolsteinImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Surprised to be friends

When the CDU convened for their conference in Hanover in September, chairman Friedrich Merz joked about how “surprised” he was that he was getting on so well with his opposite number in the CSU. The remark drew a laugh, both because the CSU’s Markus Söder has caused much friction with the “big sister” CDU in recent years and because both men enjoy their reputations as highly ambitious leaders.

On stage in Augsburg, Merz promised the Bavarian delegates, “An annus horribilis like 2021 will not be repeated. Divided parties don’t get elected.”

CDU and CSU supporters won’t have needed reminding of how horrible that post-Merkel hangover year became. The painful row between Söder and then-CDU leader Armin Laschet over who would lead the conservatives into the general election set the campaign off to an ugly start, which left both parties looking bitter, dissatisfied, and divided.

Laschet was the leader of the larger party, which usually puts forward the alliance’s chancellor candidate. But Söder was seen by many — also in the CDU — as the more electable candidate. In the end, he did not bow out gracefully.

That public power struggle, and Laschet’s gaffe-strewn campaign, virtually handed the chancellorship to Olaf Scholz, though his center-left Social Democrats had long been way behind in the polls.

Markus Söder and Armin Laschet smiling for the cameras
The rivalry between Markus Söder (l) and Armin Laschet (r) was one of the factors leading to the conservatives’ 2021 election defeatImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

In opposition, the pressure is off

But Söder has learned from his stubbornness, according to Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing Academy for Political Education in Bavaria. “I think he understood that that wasn’t the right strategy,” she told DW.

Now, the CDU/CSU bloc constitutes the largest opposition in the federal parliament and is making its voice heard. Sometimes things are easier in opposition, according to political scientist Münch. “It’s easier to criticize together when you have a common enemy in the federal coalition than it is when…

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