There has seldom been so much jubilation among Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble let it be known just in time for the party’s national conference, which starts on Tuesday in Cologne, that Angela Merkel has been “more successful” than Napoleon.
The state chairman of Baden-Württemberg and party vice-chairman, Thomas Strobl, expressed his certainty that Ms. Merkel would run for chancellor again. “I am happy about that,” he said. And deputy floor leader Michael Fuchs said: “There is no alternative to her for us.”
The high praise for the chancellor is all part of the run-up to her re-election as party leader on Tuesday. After the 60-year-old received 97.9 percent of the vote two years ago, the result at the national conference in Cologne is likely to tip towards absolute approval for Mutti, or Mommy, as she is known within the party.
Still, a number of people in the party are now asking what the CDU will look like after the Merkel era. Delegates at the national conference will surely discuss the party’s “core brand,” economic policies and questions of domestic security. But in the end that will do nothing to change the government’s strategy.
“Her success proves her right,” is what one worried conservative concedes. Ms. Merkel’s most important supporter, parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder, made clear what the national conference was about: “That the CDU stands united behind Angela Merkel and her course.”
Ms. Merkel’s record is nothing to sneeze at: After nine years in office she is as popular as she has ever been. Her party benefits from that and is polling nationally more than 40 percent of voter support, with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), with whom the CDU rules in a coalition, trailing far behind at below 30 percent. It is not surprising that many want her to continue governing, notwithstanding her appropriation of Social Democratic issues or the concerns about opening up a flank on the right for the populist upstart party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
But there is also a sense of desperation resonating in the party’s sweet talk. “Who else should we hit the campaign trail with?” asked a member of the CDU national board.
It is true that there are two possible candidates among Ms. Merkel’s ministers: Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wins points with the public for her media-friendly political style, but she has built up considerable opposition within the parliamentary party. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière on the other hand refuses to play a tough, law-and-order sheriff, able to take the wind out of the AfD’s sails.
Neither Ms. Merkel nor the party headquarters in Berlin seem to have much interest in the problems the party faces at state level.
That leaves only the state premiers. But their numbers have dwindled sharply since Ms. Merkel became chancellor. Only four of Germany's 16 states now have a CDU premier, and none of them have their sights set on the a move into the Chancellery in Berlin.
Therefore, there truly is no alternative to Ms. Merkel in the CDU, and she also bears some responsibility for that, according to party members. On the one hand, she long ago thwarted one-time adversaries such as Roland Koch, the former premier of the state of Hesse, and Christian Wulff, premier of Lower Saxony and then German president. On the other hand, and this reproach is much more serious, neither she nor the party headquarters in Berlin seem to have much interest in the problems the party faces at state level.
“The national CDU has little interest in the state associations,” complained one regional party leader.
The CDU recently lost control of the state of Thuringia, after governing there since reunification. Not only were they replaced by the country's first far-left premier from the Left Party, but the CDU has since been accused of flirting with the euro-skeptic AfD in the hope of staying in power.
Other state organizations are caught up in scandals or divisions. And the party is losing control over city halls in a string of big cities, because it lacks charismatic mayoral candidates.
The young party members, such as Jens Spahn, are now calling for debate on the party's direction. The 34-year-old member of parliament is striving with all of his might to be elected to party's national committee this week. He founded the group “CDU 2017,” which brings together around 50 young members of the party, and in doing so hopes to bring pressure on the party to reform. He argues that the party should woo people by means of its own profile, and not just with Ms. Merkel’s calm hands forming the shape of a diamond, her now trademark gesture.
There is at least some movement on this front. Peter Tauber, Ms. Merkel’s new general secretary of the CDU, is traveling to the district associations to root out problems in the party. And a newly formed commission on reform is meant to help modernize the party. The 40-year-old Mr. Tauber represents the new generation that can one day succeed the Merkel team.
Meanwhile, ahead of this week's conference an issue flared up that revealed tensions within the party: calls to reform bracket creep in the tax system.
Currently workers can be pushed into a higher tax brackets when their wages rise due to inflation, which in effect reduces their purchasing power.
In particular, groups within the party that represent employees and the Mittelstand (small and medium-sized businesses), have been calling for change to what is commonly referred to as “cold progression.” However, the chancellor had been opposed to any tax breaks ahead of the 2017 federal elections.
And that threatened to turn into a row at the conference.
On Monday night, however, a compromise was reached. Now a new motion will go before the conference stating that the party wants to “create the financial opportunity within this legislative period, to relieve citizens in a first step when it comes to the cold progression.”
However, any changes have to be in line with the government’s commitment to a balanced budget.
The deal means that the conference will not be blighted by any bitter in-fighting and the 1,000 delegates can concentrate on celebrating the chancellor and her party leadership.
Ms. Merkel will govern no matter what until 2017. She remains mum about what will happen after that. She said once during an election campaign that she had learned from Helmut Kohl how to think “in very long terms.”