Building party membership Merkel's Mechanic

Germany's ruling party is hemorrhaging members despite good poll ratings. Adept political fixer Peter Tauber could be the man to turn grassroots support around and modernize the party.
Quick! I can see some potential members over there.

Peter Tauber has plenty to consider when he takes stock of his first year as general secretary of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union in the next few days.

He has visited about 100 local and district government associations in the past 12 months and is set to keep up the pace in the coming year. His familiarization process is more or less obligatory for every such newcomer to the Berlin headquarters of the center-right party, the senior partner in Germany's ruling right-left government coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

It's especially so for someone as little known as Mr. Tauber, 40, whose boss is Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The CDU general secretary’s travels have another, more important purpose. All of Germany's political parties are in search of ways to survive in a society where party membership is on the wane.

By the end of 2015, Mr. Tauber is expected to draw up a strategy for the CDU and summarize it in a party reform package. As part of the process, he will also consult closely with party leaders and Ms. Merkel.

The job has less to do with politics and more to do with fixing a complex internal apparatus.

The general secretary’s job description has changed over the years. Heiner Geissler, one of Mr. Tauber’s predecessors, once defined the job as “managing director cum party chairman.” He felt the statutory definition that the general secretary “support” the work of the party chairman was open to interpretation. As someone long on substance, he did not see himself at the service of his former party boss, Helmut Kohl, but rather as his equal.

Now, the job has less to do with politics and more to do with fixing a complex internal apparatus, a challenge faced by many parties in Germany. Only The Green Party and The Left Party now have general secretaries – called federal managing directors – who are involved in politics and internal horse trading.

Mr. Tauber has displayed his abilities as a political fixer at cosy local party meetings, and despite some pockets of infighting, the CDU's national poll ratings are good.

But grassroots support is crumbling. Only a quarter of party members are women, even though they constitute more than half of its voters. And only 3 percent are under 25, despite a third of young and first-time voters supporting the CDU at the federal elections last year.

Party name not mentioned in text - FDP: Free Democratic Party

Transition to the main party from the joint youth organization of the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, is dysfunctional, Mr. Tauber says.

For this reason, the average age in local CDU associations is 59. “What on earth would I do in this old CDU?“ was the rhetorical question asked by a youth organization member in the assembly hall at a meeting in the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf. In the Internet age, only a third of party members can be reached by e-mail.

It is even becoming increasingly difficult to find political functionaries. At the meeting, Mr. Tauber talked about the treasurer of his local association, who stepped down at the age of 91 when he was told he had to change to online banking. The successor is 61. The CDU has a problem if it can no longer send tens of thousands of energetic volunteers onto the streets to spread the word during campaigns.

At the same time, the substance and fundamental profile of Germany’s “popular parties” is becoming more complicated. The reasons for the increasing homogeneity of the big parties and the mid-sized ones are varied and range from tactical intent to force of circumstances.

There is often a yawning gap between the culture of the older membership and political reality.

More challenging for the party “mechanics” is the consequence: There is often a yawning gap between the culture of the older membership and political reality. This alienates the older generation from their own policies and deters younger people from joining the party. “We have a real problem with the 30- to 50-year-olds,“ was Mr. Tauber’s accurate observation in the Zehlendorf assembly hall.

No quick fixes exist for fractures on this scale. The paradox between the agenda of the minority coalition partner, the SPD, and its basic left-leaning culture has blown away whole groups of loyal voters, perhaps forever. The Alternative for Germany party, AfD, a relatively new, right-leaning populist party, threatens a similar fate for the CDU/CSU. And now the shrinking parties have to find new ways of attracting the next generation.

It is altogether a different task than that faced by previous general secretaries, who had to deal with issues such as opening up their parties to women. Today, Mr. Tauber and his counterparts in the other parties are far too busy in the “engine room,” keeping the rattling old steam engine going while also adapting to modern electric drive.

It makes even a younger man such as Mr. Tauber a little nostalgic. “I joined the CDU because of Helmut Kohl,” as well as the party's Christian values and belief in a social market economy, he said. The question is whether these motives from 1992, even packaged differently, will apply in the future.

There is, in any case, one figure from the past he could turn to for advice. Kurt Biedenkopf was the first CDU general secretary with a comparable combat mission to Mr. Tauber. In four years as Mr. Kohl’s general secretary, Mr. Biedenkopf rebuilt the legions of dignitaries and chancellor electioneers into a popular party.

Many of his reform ideas from the 1970s sound amazingly up-to-date: The revival of federal panels of experts and commissions, for example, or the strengthening of inner-party democracy.

The fact that these policies swelled the party ranks by 200,000 members is a valuable lesson for Mr. Tauber.


This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]