Merkel’s Departure Signals CDU’s Farewell to Leftist Migration Policy

Earlier this year, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel handpicked Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) as the general secretary of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she must have wanted to protect her political legacy after her exit of German politics. As Merkel stepped down as the chairwoman of the CDU after 18-year service, the triumph of AKK in the highly-contested campaign to succeed Merkel as the party chief and thus becoming the chancellor-in-waiting may be interpreted as the party’s embrace of continuity rather than change. However, Merkel’s exit might symbolize the beginning of the conservative party’s farewell to leftist migration policy.

Firstly, to understand whether Merkel’s political exit may forebode the adjustment of CDU’s migration policy, we have to understand what caused Angela Merkel’s decision to step down as party chief. In the six months since the swearing-in, the grand coalition experienced multiple crises over migration, and amongst others, the scandal arising from mishandled grant of asylum status in Bremen agency of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in May, and the Merkel-Seehofer spat over set-up of transit centers that nearly brought down the alliance in June-July. Merkel’s Chancellorship outlived these crises, but October local elections in Bavaria and Hessen came as a hard lesson for her, spelling out stunning defeats to Volksparteien (mainstream parties) including governing CDU, Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD).

In Bavaria election, CDU’s sister party CSU lost 16 seats, SPD lost 20 seats in state parliament while far-right AfD got 22 seats from no seats. Likewise, the Hessen election results show that CDU and SPD lost 7 and 8 seats, representing drop in popular votes of 11.3% and 10.9%, respectively, while the right populist clinched 19 seats with surge popular votes of 9.0%. It’s the string of poor results in local elections that forced Merkel to take responsibility, give up bid for party leadership and announce that she would not seek another term as Chancellor.

Secondly, as AKK wouldn’t be happy being dubbed as “mini-Merkel”, “Merkel 2.0” or “Kanzlerin II” (Chancellor the Second), she has to do something to distance herself from her mentor’s toxic political legacy (divided German society and resurgent populism) and reunite a deeply-divided party. She beat Friedrich Merz, the favorite of CDU’s conservative-wing led by Wolfgang Schäuble, the party’s veteran politician and Bundestagspräsident (equivalent to parliamentary speaker), with only a narrow margin (of 51.75% to 48.52%) in a runoff.

In the following two days after her victory in the leadership contest, AKK sent a quick signal of breaking away from Merkel on immigration policy by announcing her plan to organize a “Werkstattsgespräch” (workshop discussion) on migration and security issues to make concrete improvements in an interview with Bild am Sonntag. Her position on migration isn’t without history. In a previous interview when she was prime minister in Saarland, she made it clear that for migrants, “the first and major language, that should be learned, is German”. However, during the contest, she concealed criticism over her mentor’s immigration policy very carefully, in a sharp contrast to other Merkel-critical challengers, Merz and the federal health minister Jens Spahn.

Nonetheless, regardless of whether AKK is determined to improve migration policy or it is only her apparent posture in an attempt to mend the splits within her party, either way poses risks. Therefore, she has to be very cautious because repercussions of her review of migration policy may lead to the collapse of coalition government, fresh election and premature exit of Angela Merkel as Chancellor.

On the one hand, if AKK’s planned review of migration policy would lead to radical policy change, it may enrage the center-leftist social democrats, which, in extreme scenario, may pull out of already fragile and fractious coalition government. The direct consequence of coalition breakup is fresh election and disruption of Merkel’s fourth-term chancellorship. Even if CDU is fortunate enough to secure its position as the largest party in parliament, selection of coalition partner will be definitely difficult. In case of successful formation of coalition, it’s highly likely that AKK, instead of Angela Merkel, would serve as chancellor.

The social democrats, punished by voters in Bavarian and Hessen elections for tie-up with center-right party, have been extremely impatient and disaffected with their troubling coalition partner. Lars Klingbeil, the general secretary of SPD, urged AKK not to side with the right-wing within the party and rein in the month-long quarrel over migration policy. Thus, the further spat within CDU may spill over into coalition, straining CDU-SPD relations, which might be the final straw to collapse the government.

On the other hand, if AKK’s announcement of migration policy review is only a half-hearted posture to appease the right-wing party-members, a policy choice favored by the social democrats, she may ensure the seemingly stability of coalition government, but she may risk widening the intra-party division and alienating the remaining nearly 50% conservative-wing members who may move further right towards the far-right populists who have always been covetous of forming a government.

It’s a longstanding question since the 2017 federal parliamentary election whether CDU may form coalition with AfD someday. Whereas Angela Merkel and many party members “categorically” ruled out the possibility, some in CDU are reluctant to leave the door closed. Christian Hartmann, the Saxony faction leader in state parliament, is one of those when he was asked in an interview with MDR Sachsen. Although Hartmann drew a barrage of harsh criticism when he believed that “it depends on the voters to take sensible decisions”, given the current intra-party left-right division and the marginalized and silenced right-wing members, it’s premature to say there’s no room for CDU-AfD coalition.

In European history, the coalition between center-right and far-right parties isn’t unprecedented. The latest case is Austria, where the 2017 election produced coalition of exactly this kind. The center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) formed coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Austria’s ÖVP might set an example for their German neighbor in engaging, rather than isolating the far-right populism. At least on some fronts, Austria-model is effective in successfully transforming the EU-skeptical FPÖ into a pro-EU party.

It’s obvious that mainstream German politicians have been shunning right-leaning policies for decades out of “political correctness” and burdensome historical memory, but most of them neglected that it is their leftist policies that made the comeback of far-right populism possible. As conservative CDU in Germany shares the similar voter demographics with ÖVP in Austria, the shifting opinions among the voters, rather than the wishes of politicians, might be the better gauge for the possibility of coalition.

Merkel’s era is coming to an end, but her legacy would be more characterized by a divided party, polarized German society, failed leftist liberalism and revived far-right populism than by lower unemployment and fiscal surplus. The road ahead for AKK will be bumpy and eventful, given a series of incoming state elections in 2019 that might profoundly change the political landscape in Germany.

Header Image: Creative Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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