Superwahljahr: K-Frage

Whatever else happens, there’s going to be a federal election in September, and there will be a CDU/CSU joint candidate for the chancellorship. The question, of course, is who – the K-Frage. Germany had a preview of this with the CDU’s leadership election earlier this year, where the party of consensus, compromise, and continuity achieved the first two by compromising between the continuity-Merkel candidate, Norbert Röttgen, and the tax-cut conservative Friedrich Merz, by picking the compromise candidate’s compromise candidate, Armin Laschet, the Nordrhein-Westfalen minister president. The key contradiction, really, was between the way Merkel transformed the CDU electorate – Christian Odendahl’s thread points out that not only did she mobilise women, she made the party the leading choice among immigrants – and the degree to which the party remained the same. Perhaps the most telling point is that the three candidates for the CDU leadership were not just all men, all native-born, all West Germans, and all Roman Catholics, they hailed from a fairly small geographic slice of NRW. There was no-one from east of Dortmund, north of the Ruhr, or much south of Bonn. All three are lawyers. Laschet’s offer was a compromise between the Merkel legacy and this rather dated party apparatus.

As the virus bounce receded, the contradiction began to bite again, and the CDU/CSU’s polls collapsed, there’s been a sort of phony war as CSU leader Markus Söder has repeatedly refused to say if he’s a candidate while sure acting like one. Enter Ralph Brinkhaus, the CDU/CSU parliamentary leader, who has very brusquely demanded that Laschet and Söder make their minds up, setting a two-week deadline. Brinkhaus’ influence should not be underestimated. In 2018, it was his surprise election to the job that precipitated Merkel’s announcement that she wouldn’t be a candidate again – see this AFOE post, including a profile of him. Brinkhaus was supported in this by fifty members who signed a statement demanding that they be consulted, plus some important state-level CDU politicians.

In the meantime, new, terrible polling dropped, showing Laschet’s state CDU sinking fast, within 2 points of the Greens hitting the lead. It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the Greens taking the lead in NRW, the richest and most populous state and the home of all things coal-fired and stereotypically masculine. This is of course hugely sapping for Laschet. Federal-level polls look marginally better for the CDU than a week ago although this is probably just noise.

Events are now moving fast. Handelsblatt reports that Söder is finally off the fence. In his own words, apparently he couldn’t bring himself to hide from the responsibility. What a guy! Laschet and Söder are both now officially candidates, having announced this to the parliamentary group and therefore implicitly conceded that it’s likely to choose between them. So many MPs have now signed Brinkhaus’ statement that they likely make up a blocking minority in the case Laschet wants to ignore them and Söder and just go for it.

Everyone is now taking sides. The former Merz supporters are rallying to Söder and so is Röttgen (did we say they like compromises?), although apparently some people think Brinkhaus himself should run or threaten to run, perhaps just as a way of forcing Laschet and Söder to come to an arrangement. The CDU and CSU top leaders are meeting tomorrow – Söder says he doesn’t expect a decision but Laschet says he expects a “recommendation”. Either way the question is going to be answered.

That of course leaves the other K-frage – which of the Greens’ co-leaders, or perhaps someone else, gets to be the candidate, as there can only be one.

Fin De Régne: An Outbreak of Small and Medium-Sized Scandals

In a previous Superwahljahr post I said that the Wechselstimmung – the sense that it’s time for a change – Markus Söder felt in Germany might just be an ambiance de fin de régne. The German, or indeed English, phrase has positive, springlike connotations even if you’re on the wrong end of it, a sense of revival and necessary housecleaning. The French, though, implies an atmosphere of sinister intrigue and suddenly unburied secrets. Even if you welcome the prospect of a new reign, the transition is likely to be sordid and dangerous.

This spring has seen the country of the small and medium-sized business’s small and medium-sized political parties hit by a wave of small and medium-sized scandals. Like a good small-town machine-tool manufacturer, this Mittelstand of scandal promises to punch above its weight and deliver more political impact than you’d expect. Scandals are interesting because they obey their own rules; the secrets disclosed are usually not all that secret or that surprising, the impact of the scandal is rarely proportional to its seriousness on any objective test, and there is a critically important distinction between the kind that burns out and the kind that snowballs and brings more skeletons clattering out of their cupboards.

There was the whole business with Azerbaijan, for example. This oil-rich autocracy seems to have celebrated its triumph over Armenia by taking a startlingly close interest in the politics of southern Thüringen, where it has been regularly buying advertising in a CDU MP’s self-published local newspaper. The sums are comically trivial, but an important feature of a good scandal is very often just that. If you think you’re hardened enough to expect that everyone has their price, after all, finding out that it’s €16,000 might be more disturbing rather than less. And as it turned out, Mark Hauptmann wasn’t the only one. Not only were there a whole gaggle of CDU politicians in the pay of Baku, there was a TV station in Berlin, run by none other than Peter Brinkmann, the journalist famous for cajoling the East German information minister Günter Schabowski into accidentally announcing the end of the Berlin Wall. Also, one of them, Karin Schenz, has unexpectedly died on an airliner heading from Cuba back to Germany while under investigation, the sort of thing that will always raise questions. Their Green coalition partners in Stuttgart seem to have noticed or suspected something, as they nicknamed them the Baku-Württemberg party.

(The same Azeri lobbying campaign, incidentally, seems to have recruited the disgraced Liam Fox MP, or “Foks” as his surname is spelled on the cover of the suspiciously large edition of his book they ordered.)

Then there was federal health minister Jens Spahn. Spahn didn’t help himself by going to bizarre legal lengths to conceal the price of the luxurious villa he and his husband the publisher of celebrity magazines bought. Such information is available in the land registry as a matter of routine, but Spahn both tried to lean on the local authority through administrative channels and then threatened Der Tagesspiegel with his lawyers. None of it worked; turns out the seller was later given an important job in the ministry’s gift. Spahn’s husband’s firm, meanwhile, turned out to have sold the ministry a large quantity of masks despite being, you know, a magazine holding company that probably hadn’t sewn them itself – or maybe it did, as most of them never turned up and they’re still arguing about it.

The mask thing just kept on going. A succession of CDU and CSU MPs all seem to have discovered they had masks to sell last spring, and proceeded to push them on the federal government, mostly via Spahn’s ministry. To begin with they were all individual cases and hadn’t made any profit out of it, no, sir. As the story developed there were more of them, the CSU was involved as well as the CDU, and the cases were evidently connected. Not only did they receive fees for their services as lawyers, they got a percentage commission, and the money was paid to a firm controlled by one guy’s children and its Luxembourg bank account. The transfer caused the sender’s bank to raise a suspicious-activity report, which turns out to have brought the whole thing down despite the usual last minute promises to let one’s offices ruhen or literally rest for a while and to give the money to a (suspiciously) local charity. This eventually reached Alfred Sauter, a hugely important CSU figure, who further turned out to have been paid to lobby for a brand of rapid lateral-flow tests with Markus Söder’s office.

Sauter resigned rather than become the first person to be expelled from the CSU parliamentary party, but there was more. His day job outside politics is a law firm he runs with fellow CSU MP Peter Gauweiler, for it is he. Gauweiler managed to trump the mask business by being exposed for accepting €11 million in fees from 91 year old billionaire ice-cream tycoon August von Finck. Von Finck’s grandfather was a co-founder of Allianz and Münchner Re, his dad acquired the German Rothschild bank during the Nazi era in the way you’d expect, and younger von Finck probably made more money from real estate, but I can’t help stressing that his family owns Mövenpick, because the whole idea that European history was bent out of shape by the sinister influence of Big Sundae is too grimly hilarious. At least it’s an improvement on Krupp and Thyssen – butter rather than guns, even if his politics are seriously weird.

What von Finck wanted from him was a constant stream of lawsuits against the European Central Bank, and, well, that’s what he got. If you read this blog through the Eurozone crisis you probably remember Gauweiler as the most intransigent opponent of anything like a transfer union or really any action at all. After all the complicated theorising about the Freiburg school, ordo-liberalism, the importance of returning to the final settlement of trade transactions, well, it was von Finck’s euros or more likely undeclared Swiss francs at work. The same goes for all the arguing about the inner workings of TARGET-2, as it further turns out Gauweiler paid Hans-Werner Sinn for his expert testimony out of the ice-cream money. Hey, and you could read this blog for nothing!

Well, that was fun. But scandal theory tells us something important. It’s all dropping now for a reason. That might be because nobody fears the people involved any more, or nobody expects to get anything from them in exchange for continued silence. It might be because a news story about important people isn’t news if they’re not important people any more. It might be because change is coming, and the question is now what and who that change will be. In that light, the scandal outbreak implies there’s going to be a new government, and plenty of people have it in for Söder. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the von Finck/Söder link described here, as another important question in any scandal is who’s protected and who isn’t.

Meanwhile, the chancellor and the provinces are at daggers drawn having managed – uniquely – to decide on an Easter lockdown and then realize the additional public holiday involved was illegal. Fin de régne, indeed.

Reset The Reset: Superwahljahr Blogging

Just before the pandemic I was mostly blogging here about the political crisis in Thüringen, a consequence of Angela Merkel’s exit, which was itself a consequence of the Green breakthrough across Germany. Then, other matters demanded our attention, such as masks and queuing for toilet paper.

That was roughly what happened in German politics, too – in the face of the crisis, Merkel’s authority shone through and the CDU surged forward in the polls, reversing the losses to the Greens, while the far-right cut itself down to size – from pushing 20% to a steady 10% – with a succession of increasingly ridiculous acts of street theatre, culminating with a faith-healing drummer in unlikely dreadlocks trying to storm the Bundestag. It was as if a reset button had been pressed. Outside Germany this was usually ascribed to Merkel herself, while inside Germany the boast was that “die CDU kann Krise”, obviously a more useful argument for her potential successors.

Today, with Germany having made a start on its Superwahljahr or mega-election year, the political scene looks remarkably like it did immediately pre-pandemic. Back in the winter of 2018, when the original Green surge was on, I estimated that the Greens were gaining votes at a rate of half a million a week. This was the phenomenon that reversed in the spring of 2020, but coming back to Merkel was clearly a very weakly held opinion – the very speed with which the reversal happened might have been a clue. Current polling puts the combined CDU/CSU between 25 and 27 per cent and the Greens between 21 and 23 per cent. In mid-January, the CDU/CSU was on 36 per cent.

It’s crucial to remember here that the structural CSU bonus in Bavaria means that the gap between the CDU as such and its rivals is much smaller in the rest of Germany – we are back at the kind of levels where the Greens can reasonably hope to overtake the CDU as such. With Bavaria accounting for 15% of the electorate and the CSU on 40%, a CDU/CSU score of 27% means the CDU is on 21% of the vote in the rest of Germany, 3 points ahead on the same basis. I’ve used the latest poll here, a YouGov survey; Kantar’s poll issued on the 27th March had the CDU/CSU on 25% and the Greens on 23%. At those levels, it’s happened – the Greens would be ahead.

Not surprisingly this has given risen to feverish political activity. Although the CDU has settled on a party leader it still needs to pick a candidate for chancellor, as in fact do the Greens. One of the most likely options, Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Markus Söder, said about the Kantar poll that he fears a Wechselstimmung im Lande, an atmosphere of change.

So far, we’ve had two of the major elections planned for this year, in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. The calendar is here; we’ve got Sachsen-Anhalt to come in June and some local council elections before the big bang on the 26th of September, when there are state elections in Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Thüringen as well as the federal general election.

Ironically, neither election led to any change but both confirmed that change is indeed coming. In B-W, the Green minister-president Winfried Kretschmann was re-elected with 33 per cent of the vote, a record for any Green and something of a surprise in a country that has small and medium-sized political parties as well as small and medium-sized businesses, making his CDU coalition partners very much the junior partner in the coalition. In Rheinland-Pfalz, SPD minister-president Malu Dreyer’s so-called traffic light coalition of social democrats, liberals, and greens was re-elected fairly comfortably. Any good news is welcome for the SPD at the moment, but this is mostly interesting because the current state of the polls suggests that such a coalition could be a majority at the federal level. That would require the FDP to walk back its march towards populism for rich people, but it’s important to note that FDP principles are rarely particularly robust and also that they have been cooperating with the state-level SPD in R-P for years, both in Dreyer’s government and in Kurt Beck’s.

Very interestingly indeed, polling evidence suggests that both Kretschmann and Dreyer won big with the over-60s, breaking through an important generational firewall. As I’ve pointed out before, Kretschmann especially has succeeded by addressing the dense network of clubs and associations that is such a feature of German society, and this effect is likely a pay-off from this. Médiapart has a very good interview (in French) with Der Tagesspiegel‘s Ulrich Schultze on how Kretschmann did it. The key point, really, is that nothing really stands in the way of a Green-CDU coalition – except whether or not the CDU will have anything to offer.

The hope, from the CDU’s point of view, is that picking a candidate like Markus Söder who might inject some energy into the campaign and at least looks generally modern will keep them far enough ahead of the Greens to claim the leadership of such a coalition. But another way of saying Wechselstimmung is fin de régne, and there are plenty of things that might yet wreck this plan.