Germany: Laschet elected CDU leader, but Merz and big business still set the agenda

For decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been considered the largest, most-stable and most-influential bourgeois party in Europe. But the CDU is now in crisis and subject to a process of polarisation and emaciation. The election of Armin Laschet as the new party leader does nothing to change this.

At the online CDU party conference last weekend, three men in their 50es and 60es ran for the party chairmanship. They have a great deal in common. All of them come from the Western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), are Catholic and studied law in the 1970s and 1980s at the tradition-rich University of Bonn, where, incidentally, Karl Marx was already enrolled as a law student in the 1830s. All three are conscientious representatives of the interests of capitalist private property and the ruling class. When they argue fiercely at times, it is above all about strategy, tactics and propaganda and the question of how the CDU can assert its dominant and tone-setting role in German domestic politics and best serve the interests of the capitalist class in the election year that has just begun. In 2021, there will be six state elections, several municipal elections and above all the national election to the Bundestag on 26 September.

The voting result in the runoff election was relatively close. Laschet scored 521 votes (53 percent) whereas his main rival Friedrich Merz, got the support of 466 delegates (47 percent). The winner, Laschet, presented himself as a man of the "centre", as "everybody’s darling": the integrator and mediator between the party currents. He showed off with his working-class origins and presented himself as a statesman who has been governing NRW, the most populous state, as Minister President for three and a half years.

In this respect, the continuity of Merkel's line dominated the leadership election. In almost 16 years as Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel has consistently represented the interests of German big business nationally and internationally. But in doing so, unlike Merz and the representatives of the party's right-wing, she has, by and large, refrained from aggressive and polarising rhetoric.

Certainly, on closer inspection, Laschet’s government in NRW is also pursuing a policy that is reactionary and anti-working-class. A new police law is designed to strengthen the repressive state organs. The massive police operations at Hambacher Forst in recent years are unforgotten, where tens of thousands protested against the consequences of open-cast coal mining. At Garzweiler, the energy monopoly RWE continues to have the green light from the Laschet government for open-cast mining. The demolition excavators are in action right now to destroy several villages there.

In NRW, the CDU and FDP, the two traditional bourgeois parties in Germany, have been governing together harmoniously with a majority of just one vote in the regional parliament since 2017. Laschet said in an interview earlier this month that he would like the FDP to be as strong as possible in the coming federal elections.

With his marriage decades ago to a member of a prominent Aachen family and heiress, Laschet established close ties to the local elites in his hometown. At the same time, being an active Catholic since his childhood and a former editor of Catholic church papers, he sometimes uses moralistic slogans to try to create the impression that he had the everyday concerns of working people in mind. In 2019, he was the keynote speaker at a local May Day rally organised by the trade union federation DGB in the city of Bielefeld. In September 2020, he spoke at a union demonstration against plans to shut down the Continental tyre plant in Aachen and criticized “ice-cold capitalism” emanating from the Continental management. Nobody could imagine that such phrase-mongering would ever be voiced by his rival Merz.

But Laschet naturally did not draw any conclusions from his verbal criticism of the plans put forward by the Continental managers and owners that threaten and destroy the livelihoods of the workers affected. According to Article 27 of the North Rhine-Westphalia state constitution, "large-scale enterprises in basic industries and enterprises that are of special importance because of their monopoly-like position" should actually be nationalised. Being a professional lawyer, the Minister President knows this. But as a bourgeois politician, he would not dream of taking the constitutional text seriously and even touching capitalist private property.

For Friedrich Merz, the defeat that he suffered last weekend was already the second defeat in his bid for the CDU party leadership. When he made his first attempt at the Hamburg party congress at the end of 2018, the result was even closer: 517 votes (52 percent) for Merkel's confident Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) and 482 (48 percent) for Merz. However, even after his 10-year absence from parliamentary politics and current lack of any official function or office in the party apparatus, Merz was still able to unite strong inner-party battalions behind himself again for the second time. He was the champion of the organised CDU big business networks around the so-called "Mittelstandsvereinigung" and the "Wirtschaftsrat": reactionary hardliners dominating the party`s youth organisation Junge Union (JU) and of the majority in the East German and Southwest German regional federations. According to reports, Bundestag President, ex-finance minister and party veteran Wolfgang Schäuble, the CDU's éminence grise, specifically encouraged Merz to fight for a "comeback" in 2018.

Where do the conflicts come from?

Merz Image Olaf KosinskyThe conflict between Merz and Laschet embodies a trend of struggle in the camp of the capitalist class and its political representatives over how best to maintain their rule / Image: Olaf Kosinsky

Supporters and fans of Merz in the party rank and file hoped that, as party chairman and chancellor candidate leading the party into the election campaign, Merz could use his snappy conservative, nationalist and neoliberal slogans to recapture renegade voters and former members who have drifted towards the extreme right-wing party AfD in greater numbers in recent years. Laschet's supporters, on the other hand, feared that Merz, as a figurehead, would have polarised the situation too much with his reactionary slogans in the upcoming election campaign, awakened anti-capitalist instincts among millions of working people as a hate figure, and triggered a protest and counter-movement against "Blackrock capitalism." In fact, Merz served a number of years as head of the supervisory board of Blackrock Germany after he left parliament in 2009.

Thus, the conflict between Merz and Laschet ultimately embodies a trend that can be observed internationally in the camp of the capitalist class and its political representatives, in the context of the deep crisis of capitalism and inevitable social explosions looming: a crisis of political rule and tendencies towards division over the question of how best to maintain this rule. A deep malaise and fears about the future are spreading in middle-class layers and the petty bourgeoisie, who for decades formed the loyal rank and file of the bourgeois parties, and are now increasingly doubtful and questioning their loyalty.

The CDU, however, can still claim to be the largest, most-influential and most-intact bourgeois party in Europe. It continues to get the biggest morsels of the donations that corporations, banks and business associations transfer year after year to the system-supporting major parties (CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP, Greens), according to official figures. The CDU still has around 420,000 members, and its Bavarian Union sister party CSU counts some 120,000 members. In NRW, which was traditionally the heartlands of heavy industry and considered an SPD stronghold for half a century, the former has now slipped below 100,000 members, while the CDU, with 120,000 members, still has deeper roots there. In its 75 years of existence, the CDU, along with its Bavarian sister CSU, has won 16 out of 19 federal elections. It has governed and provided chancellors in 52 of 72 years of the Federal Republic. Big business leaders know how essential the CDU is for their rule. Over many decades, the party apparatus has managed more or less to secure its mass and voter base among the petty bourgeoisie, church and rural milieus, the older generation and politically backward workers. The interests of big business have been well served in Angela Merkel's almost 16 years as chancellor. But on the right wing of the CDU/CSU, Merkel has been repeatedly labelled a "social democrat".

Yet, from the perspective of the ruling class, it is definitely a "merit" of Merkel's that she plunged the SPD into an existential crisis by including the Social Democrats in her government from 2005 to 2009, and again since 2013. In the 2005 federal election that led to the formation of the first "grand coalition" under Merkel, the SPD still won 34.2 percent. In 2017, it plummeted to 20.5 percent. Current national opinion polls put the Social Democrats at 15 to 17 percent.

But in recent years, even the CDU has not been able to escape a considerable decline. Young people increasingly ran away from it, and its strongest reservoir is among seniors over 60. In the 2017 federal election, the CDU/CSU recorded their worst nationwide result since 1949, with only 32.9 percent of the votes cast. The decline continued. In October 2018, the CSU in Bavaria slumped to 37.2 percent and the CDU in Hesse to 27 percent. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, however, the CDU and CSU, being the leading government parties have recovered, and are currently posting better poll numbers. This is a feature which we have seen in many countries. Yet it remains to be seen whether this will continue until the federal elections.

Big business and CDU

Even though the CDU-Wirtschaftsrat (Economic Council), a big business lobby and pressure group, is not an official party organisation, it exerts a decisive influence on party policy at all levels. Merz is its vice president. Another mouthpiece of capitalists and an official part of the party structure is the "Mittelstands und Wirtschaftsunion" (MIT). Its parliamentary arm, the "Parlamentskreis Mittelstand" (PKM), comprises 161 of the current 237 MPs of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag. The MIT federal chairman and CDU MP Carsten Linnemann had bet on a victory for Merz and immediately after the announcement of the election result at the party conference last Saturday in a live interview on TV openly expressed his disappointment at the defeat. "Friedrich Merz was the candidate of the rank and file", he said.

Linnemann urged Merz to stay on and stand for the party presidium, the inner circle leadership. But Merz did not listen to his crony. He refused to be bound by the discipline of party committees and refrained from running for the presidium. Instead, before the end of the party conference, Merz tweeted to the rest of the world demanding that Laschet immediately give him the post of economics minister in Merkel's incumbent cabinet. This behaviour after the election defeat also irritated some of his own fans and indicates that the unrest and polarisation in the party will continue. Tilman Kuban, the right-wing JU chairman and an enthusiastic Merz fan, complained that a number of disappointed Merz supporters in the JU ranks wanted to leave the CDU and that he, Kuban, had to do his utmost to prevent them from doing so.

Merz had already been called the "German Trump" in some media outlets in recent weeks. As chancellor he would "get along with Trump", he told reporters of the yellow press newspaper BILD last autumn. Of course, any comparison has its limits and can be misleading. While being primarily a direct mouthpiece of the monopolies, banks and finance capital, a small element of Trump's unpredictability is also embodied by Merz. Like the vast majority of careerists in the CDU and other bourgeois parties, he is a lawyer serving big business. As a strapping right-wing demagogue, he quickly fought his way up the ranks and into the European Parliament and Bundestag in the 1990s. In the turmoil of the party funding scandal, which completely discredited former chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2000, Merz took over the leadership of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, which was in opposition then after a major electoral defeat in 1998. When the new party leader Angela Merkel claimed the chair of the parliamentary group in 2002 and there was no ministerial portfolio available for him in the "grand coalition" of CDU/CSU and SPD formed in 2005, Merz, unlike many "party soldiers", no longer felt the need to remain in the Bundestag as a "backbencher" for a "measly" income of 10,000 euros a month. He accumulated a fortune in the millions as a business lawyer, a member of the supervisory board of Blackrock Germany and other well-known corporations, and as a highly remunerated consultant and supervisory board member appointed by North Rhine-Westphalian CDU state governments. In the capitalist class and big business circles, he is well connected and popular.

This multi-million-Euro fortune gave him a certain independence from the party apparatus and the bureaucracy in the CDU headquarters, the Konrad Adenauer-Haus. In a fit of Trumpist phrasemongering, in late 2020 Merz openly deplored in a TV interview that "the party establishment does everything they can to prevent my election as party leader". Many people suspect that, in addition to his die-hard reactionary views, Merz has a deep-seated hatred of Merkel. So it's no surprise that, after the major setback of the CDU in the Hesse election and Merkel's sudden announcement to give up the party chair in October 2018, Merz appeared in Berlin the day after and publicly announced his challenge and ambition to take over the party leadership.

What next?

Laschet is now pondering how to involve and satisfy Merz and his supporters. The new CDU leader is under huge pressure from big business. Rainer Dulger, head of the major employers' association BDA, immediately demanded that Laschet should work towards "framework conditions for a rapid upswing", a "sustainable social policy", a "de-bureaucratisation of the country" and a "moratorium on burdens for the economy". Behind this verbiage lies the demand for a reduction in wages and social benefits, longer working hours, cuts in social spending, raising the retirement age to 70, tax cuts for capitalists and privatisations in favour of big business. Merz and his capitalist cronies want to further erode the state pension system. They want to force the masses to buy shares instead. "We now have to work more intensively on the issues that Friedrich Merz has always hammered home: the economy, competitiveness – all the issues to be taken up after the pandemic", Laschet promised at the end of the party conference, signalling that the agenda of Merz and the BDA is ultimately also his agenda. Thus, even after Angela Merkel's departure and the formation of a new federal government next autumn, "ice-cold capitalism" will continue to prevail, and increasingly so.

Markus Söder Image Mueller MSCSöder is no-less-reactionary and pro-big-business than Laschet and Merz, but he and the CSU understand how to tactically respond to critical moods / Image: Mueller MSC

With Laschet's election as CDU leader, the question of the CDU/CSU's common candidate for chancellor has not yet been decided. If the CDU should fail to win by a clear margin in the South Western state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on 14 March, Laschet would have a hard time staking his claim. The defeated Merz camp already seems to be banging the drum for CSU leader and Bavarian premier Markus Söder. Indeed, Söder, who has been following the discord in the sister party from afar, could be the "laughing third" in the race and lead the future government.

Söder is no-less-reactionary and pro-big-business than Laschet and Merz. But he and the CSU in their "Free State of Bavaria" have repeatedly understood how to tactically respond to critical moods and seemingly incorporate them. In 2019, for example, Söder took up a highly successful petition for a referendum on "Save the Bees", initiated by conservative ecologists. Despite the opposition from his coalition partner, the Free Voters, and from parts of his own party and the agricultural lobby, he pushed the bee petition through in the regional parliament as a law of the state government. Back in 2013 – when Söder was already a cabinet minister in Bavaria – the CSU skillfully took up a successful petition for a referendum against tuition fees in Bavaria. Shortly before, the CSU had introduced tuition fees in Bavaria. Yet, under the pressure of this massively popular campaign against the opposition of their then coalition partner, the liberal FDP, the CSU leaders performed a sharp u-turn, pushing through the abolition of tuition fees in the state parliament. This was a clever move to avoid a humiliating defeat in a state-wide referendum. Thus in the 2014 election, the CSU was strengthened and the liberal FDP lost all their seats in the Munich state parliament.

Söder and Laschet are now preparing for a possible future coalition government with the Greens nationally. The former ecologist party has moved to the right and, as a modern 21st-century representative of liberalism, is striving to enter the federal government. In such a government, with or without Friedrich Merz as a cabinet minister, the demands put forward by Merz and BDA leader Dulger will be on the order of the day. But before the federal election, Laschet, Söder and the Greens will try to hide their intentions and promise everything to everybody to cobble together as many votes as possible.

A number of trade unionists and parts of the DGB federation are now delighted that Merz has not become CDU leader after all, and keep fomenting illusions in Laschet, and his alleged "social partnership" and class-collaborationist attitude. The trade unions should instead prepare their members and broader sections of the working class for harder times after the Bundestag elections, and mobilise the entire working class for resistance and class struggle. And the Left Party (DIE LINKE) should dump any illusions in obtaining ministerial portfolios in a "red-green-red" coalition government with the Greens and SPD. We must stand up against bourgeois demagogues like Merz, Laschet, Söder and the profit-greedy ruling class, and put forward a bold revolutionary socialist programme to combat the capitalist crisis, which is undermining living standards and the quality of life for the working class and youth.