Fallout: the CDU/CSU after the elections

So what happened when the CDU finally found that concrete abutment it had been seeking since 2017 at least?

Armin Laschet started off by trying to make like nothing had happened on the grounds that it was technically possible to form a conservative/green/liberal coalition, or perhaps even a grand coalition plus the FDP. As pointed out here, he had his reasons – the only way such a thing could happen would be if he was the chancellor, as any other plan would have to get rid of him first, and as long as there was any hope of going into government, he had to be kept around as the formal point of contact with the Greens and FDP. This had the consequence that it was in his interest to spin out the agony. He also tried to put off internal decisions, like the choice of a parliamentary leader, and publicly said he had a claim to govern.

This didn’t go down at all well (here’s an example, asking if Laschet wasn’t at least embarrassed) and a string of his enemies, notably Markus Söder, lined up to take a whack at him. Söder, free as ever of personal ambition, had it made known that he would be willing to serve as chancellor in a new coalition. He himself then had to walk this back and admit that the next chancellor would be Scholz. Meanwhile, Norbert Röttgen came out much more directly to whack both Laschet and Söder, refusing to say he thought Laschet should get it right there on Anne Will, and a succession of embarrassing leaks disrupted what chances there were of a coalition. These were widely seen as coming from Söder as Laschet was still in charge and standing to benefit.

The real driver of events, though, was the progress of the preliminary talks between the SPD, Greens, and FDP. The closer they came to agreement, the less point there was hanging around. First of all, Laschet offered to go but left the talks open. Then a succession of major CDU pols announced that they wouldn’t even serve in parliament in order to bring about a new party leadership. This took people like Annegret Krampff-Karrenbauer and Peter Altmeier off the table and hugely undermined the leadership, such as it was. Altmeier went as far as recommending a “portion Demut” – Demut is humility, so he was saying the party should eat humble pie.

Perhaps the most damning comment of all was from the departing CSU interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who said that as the party had lost 1.4m votes to the SPD, it had clearly failed to do anywhere near enough on jobs, pensions, and housing. This is interesting as Seehofer was the biggest voice for a swing to the right in either the CDU or CSU, going as far as to rename the ministry the Ministry for the Homeland, and going on an extraordinary adventure in trying to have his own Bavarian foreign policy with Sebastian Kurz and Viktor Orban, before becoming the last in the long line of CDU or CSU men who underestimated Angela Merkel. As well as disavowing everything he stood for and in effect saying that the problem with Merkel’s approach was that they didn’t do even more of it, he also stabbed Söder in the front by opining that he wasn’t any more popular.

Someone had to do the clean-up and it fell to the party general secretary, Paul Ziemiak, who pushed the idea of new elections for all the party’s top offices through a stormy committee. As well as the party leadership, Ziemiak’s job is up for grabs, as is the entirety of the presidium and the federal executive committee. Friedrich Merz will certainly try again, as will Röttgen and possibly Jens Spahn, but a frantic search is now on for new candidates who aren’t quite as…CDU-y, to be honest. The former speaker Rita Süssmuth is trying to find women who want to do it, suggesting various state-level prospects.

The big operational question was whether the new leadership would be chosen by a conference of party officials or by a direct vote of the membership, and it turns out they’re going with the members. It looks like some of the party leaders, notably Laschet, are hoping to present the membership with some sort of slate they could sign off rather than have a proper contest. The problem here is that the party obviously should ask its members, but if it does they might well choose Friedrich Merz or indeed Horst Seehofer before Merkel found him a plot in her Männerfriedhof if that was possible, because they’re that kind of people, and the election result made very clear that nobody wants that.

This really excellent piece on their youth wing gets to the point – they may have over 100,000 young Christian Democrats, more than the entire FDP membership, but the problem is that they are the kind of people you’d expect in the youth wing of a long-governing conservative party, dull careerists with a tendency to get into scandals out of cynicism or entitlement. Further, their ideas are shaped by the internal selectorate they’ve spent their lives so far trying to impress. They talk about being business-oriented and pro-market, but Christian Lindner says this with more confidence, and as Horst Seehofer says, if you just lost millions of votes to the SPD and the Greens it’s not obvious that sucking up to big business even more is going to cut it. Nor, really, does having to blow up a massive autobahn bridge that’s been in need of major maintenance since 2009 because it’s in urgent danger of collapsing onto the city waterworks, a main railway line, and the dogs’ home.

As well as candidates, of course, it could also do with ideas, as pointed out here.

Kuhhandel Is Go!

Probably best to start with the broccoli. Manager magazine reckons the fix is in, and the circle between FDP spießigkeit and Green ambitions is to be squared by hugely increasing the scope of the German government’s development bank KfW’s balance sheet. This organization is owned by the government but is arms-length enough to be “Maastrichtkonform”, although its quite explicit state guarantee means it can raise funds at a hair over bund rates. Of course if you’re genuinely opposed to public debts or state intervention in the economy, this sort of deal-structure trick shouldn’t make any difference, but as it turns out, the letter of the Stability and Growth Pact accounting framework is what the FDP chooses to take its stand on. In that light, this comment of Christian Lindner’s is positively hilarious:

“Dafür braucht man nicht einen Euro höhere Schulden, nicht einen Euro höhere Steuern, sondern es ist nur ein unternehmerisches Agieren des Staates, um Dinge möglich zu machen.”

Not a euro more debt, not a euro more tax, but an enterpreneurial intervention by the state to make things happen. Suddenly the FDP chief sounds like Mariana Mazzucatto has taken over his brain. What are they putting in that delicious fudge? Manager goes on to note that the finance ministry under Scholz has been quietly working on plans to make much more use of the KfW’s balance sheet for some time, and that although the Greens would prefer to amend the constitution and get rid of the balanced budget clause (so-called “debt brake”) they’re also cool with the KfW solution. In fact, their party foundation wonks have done the full Blue Peter “Here’s one I made earlier!”, pulling a proposal they previously worked up out of the oven. And the SPD, for its part, got none other than Jens Sudekum to take a look – for it is he.

Annalena Baerbock makes an excellent fist of selling the plan here, saying that any business would borrow money to replace a failing machine tool, while the Green parliamentary leader notes that the KfW is not the only arms-length capital budget available – there’s also Deutsche Bahn’s own budget and, rather oddly for a Green unless he’s thinking of some truly spicy financial trickery, the Autobahn company. 22 coalition working groups are in place and I note that Kevin Kühnert has been catapulted into real power, as he is chairing the one on construction projects and housing. Construction equipment like lifting swivel eye bolts are needed for construction projects and housing which are also to be considered.

Bada bing, bada boom, even if Adam Tooze points out that rather as with German unity, there are both internal and external aspects to the problem. The KfW might be able to deliver enough fudge to fix the internal ones, but a FDP finance minister is still a worrying proposition for the rest of Europe via his role in ECOFIN and the Eurogroup.

Whether it happens like that or not comes down to the horse-trading – or cattle-dealing, to use the German simile – over jobs in the coalition. With a financial fix in place, this can now get going in deadly earnest.

Albert Funk says that there are certain stylized facts about German coalitions. For example, the Finance and Economic Affairs portfolios don’t usually end up in the hands of the same party – this policy area is too big and too important for a coalition partner to accept being shut out completely, so it has to be split up. On the other hand, the party that gets the Chancellor’s office usually also takes the keys of state power, Interior and Defence, while the other party usually gets Foreign Affairs, although the International Development job is often traded back. When the CDU/CSU is in government, this often means that it goes to the CSU as a way of giving them a share of the diplomatic limelight. Crucially, though, there’s no way of splitting up Finance itself. He argues that if the FDP and the Greens both want to make Finance a veto issue, the SPD could pull its own veto, keep it, and give the Greens an Environment++ super-ministry, with the FDP getting a souped up Economic Affairs++ with special responsibility for the digital agenda, while the Greens also get Foreign Affairs and the FDP – interestingly – Interior, which they might like both for civil libertarian reasons and because it has a lot of power over the civil service.

It’s an idea, but so far the really spicy cattle-dealing has been over the dignified parts of the constitution rather than the executive ministries, things like the speaker of parliament and the federal presidency.

The current president, the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would like to be elected for another term. Meanwhile, his party would also like to elect one of its own as speaker to replace Wolfgang Schäuble. It’s important to note here that the speakership has power over what happens in parliament while the presidency doesn’t really, so the SPD will care more about the speaker than the president, even though it obviously likes owning the formally highest office in the state. The SPD has a candidate, too, its parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich, but if he was to get the speakership the three highest offices would all be held by men. But there’s a problem – the FDP wants to re-elect Steinmeier, and if the presidency became open, the Greens wouldn’t mind having a crack at it, as they are well aware that they’re the only respectable party never to hold it, that their colleagues in Austria got Alexander van der Bellen elected, and it wasn’t that long ago that they weren’t considered respectable. Also, they have a surplus of dignitaries for the likely availability of coalition ministries that they need to get rid of.

After various thuds and screams from the parliamentary offices, the SPD faction chose a woman instead, Bärbel Bas, which would make it possible for Steinmeier to run again, but this has knock-on effects as the Greens are still, somewhat uncharacteristically, in the cattle market, Mützenich now needs to be placed, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the CDU is struggling to place its sudden glut of hasbeens in suitably dignified jobs, as it’s now been reduced to filling jobs like deputy speaker.

It’s all a bit gamey but, on the other hand, it’s an absolute model of democracy compared to yet another round of byzantine intrigue, gross corruption, and authoritarian scheming in Austria. The two political cultures are different worlds.

When The Red Light Turns Green

The so-called soundings between the SPD, Greens, and FDP have been a success and the three parties are ready to start formal coalition talks, subject to a Green elected officials’ conference today and an FDP executive committee meeting tomorrow. They will kick off from a heads-of-agreement paper that Der Tagesspiegel published here.

The content of this twelve-point plan is not particularly surprising especially in the light of this Handelsblatt op-ed, published the day after the election, by economist Jens Sudekum. Sudekum argued first of all that a traffic light coalition was unavoidable because neither the Greens or the SPD nor really anyone else would agree to a government led by Armin Laschet or Friedrich Merz, and given that, the only remaining option with a majority was the traffic light.

The major barrier to it, something everyone has been talking about for months, is the FDP’s insistence on keeping the kinda-sorta balanced budget amendment and no new taxes, and having the finance ministry to make sure they get it. This is both difficult for the SPD’s social policy goals, and maybe even more difficult for the Greens, whose very purpose requires far-reaching changes that must be expressed in terms of infrastructure. The wider, global shift of emphasis in climate policy from cap-and-trade or tax-and-rebate options to infrastructure-based change makes this conflict even more jarring. Further, sheer personal power is at stake – implementing the Greens’ vision would require a powerful ministry with a large discretionary budget to push the projects through, and giving that to the Greens implies that the FDP must get something comparable.

Sudekum pointed out that there was a potential fix. The FDP likes the idea of the pension system investing in assets, like a sovereign wealth fund. This implies capitalizing the fund up-front, and hence the government borrowing money. The party squares the circle by excluding this from the deficit target on the grounds that the state is acquiring an equivalent amount of assets, ones that could be expected to grow, and therefore its net indebtedness hasn’t increased. As sauce for the goose could be sauce for the gander, perhaps the capital programme could be treated the same way? Further, although the FDP had been promising tax cuts all round for businesses, they had also shown willingness to accept more generous capital allowances instead of basic rate cuts.

Yesterday’s document looks a lot like the fix is in. The fund is in there, as are the capital allowances. So is the return to budget balance, although pushed off another year into the future under the emergency pandemic exemption. The Green, or green, investment programme is there, as is a big slug of public housing investment, the €12/hour minimum wage, and sweeping changes to the welfare state. As everyone has already noticed, this pretty much requires a lot of fudge in the financing, with things like new income under the global minimum tax regime, unspecified involvement of private investors, cuts to subsidies, and a crackdown on fraud and error (now there’s an old classic), as well as the expected post-pandemic revival of growth all chipping in.

This piece points out that the document promises to guarantee the necessary investments in climate policy, digital, education, research, and infrastructure, within the framework of the balanced budget amendment, and that this would cover anything from an investment carve-out, providing the lawyers could come up with a form of words to deal with the predictable appeal to Karlsruhe, or just using the whole of the emergency authorisation for 2022-2023 to pre-fund the programme, something which in itself could go as high as €100bn.

Robert Habeck, interestingly, gave an interview in which he said that the talks were more advanced on the financing issue in private than the heads-of-agreement reflected, perhaps a signal that he has a surprise up his sleeve. Perhaps the proposed sovereign wealth fund could even invest in the projects itself?

Germany: The Results in Data

So the results are in. The Base didn’t get 30 per cent and the Independent Voters didn’t get 20 per cent, and the Economist‘s prediction that the CDU would win because it always wins didn’t work out so well either. The SPD’s lead over the CDU did tighten a couple of points over the margin of error in the final week of the campaign, but not enough to flip the result or to keep the CDU/CSU from getting the worst beating in its history. Here’s a map of the winners on the party-list, proportional section of the vote, from Der Tagesspiegel‘s interactive.

The salient point here is that the usual split along the former intra-German border is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the much older north-south divide has reasserted itself, with an SPD hegemony across what used to be Prussia, a contested zone in the Rheinland (a territory that joined Prussia very late and remained in a special status), a Christian Democratic power base in Baden-Württemberg and a Christian-Social one in Bavaria, while the far-right has become a Saxon regional party, although unlike the CSU, one that hasn’t been able to win the regional elections that would actually give it power.

Although the map breaks along lines with a lot of historical depth, going back as far as the Thirty Years’ War, it’s important to remember that it also strongly resembles the electoral maps of 1998 or 2002, when the SPD broke through in the former DDR and were therefore able to form a government. The CDU seemed hegemonic in the east in the 90s and again in the Merkel years, but there was nothing god-given about this – it might be more accurate to say that the former DDR has been the swing voting bloc in Germany since reunification. This excellent piece points out that 76 per cent of the SPD’s lead in the national popular vote is accounted for by winning big in the East. It was, after all, a Superwahltag because there were regionals in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the same day, and the SPD did reasonably well in the first and absolutely triumphed with nearly 40 per cent in the second.

The obvious point here is that the CDU’s results in the east were boosted by Angela Merkel’s personal popularity and status as the first easterner in politics even more than anywhere else, and with that gone, all the cards were up in the air. The SPD’s focus on bread-and-butter social policy was a good call – the minimum wage hike, for example, would personally benefit 40 per cent of workers in the former DDR. The CDU doesn’t seem to have noticed any threat at all.

In a great twitter thread here, Dominik Haitz breaks down the correlates of the vote. Not remotely surprisingly, the rich voted for the FDP, the poor for the SPD, the young for the Greens, and the suburbs for the CDU. The extreme right’s popularity was strongly predicted by age, although interestingly, there’s a very different relationship between the percentage of old people and the AfD vote – strong, and linear – than between the percentage of young people and the AfD vote, which splits into two clusters. Ageing and emigration seem to have very different effects.

The Left party, meanwhile, does well either in post-industrial constituencies with high unemployment or else in Berlin kieze where everyone has a cargo bike but there are enough retired apparatchiks to keep the Greens from winning.

Age was an interesting split. There wasn’t a “boomers vs millennials” clean break, instead, different age groups agreed the CDU/CSU should go but chose different opposition options, with the Greens and the FDP both doing much better with the young and the SPD better with the old:

My bet is that the 18-34 market isn’t very interested in the politics of care – their parents are still working, they’re young, they don’t have kids yet – and that’s the SPD’s Mastermind specialist subject. Looking at the data with more granularity, though, it turns out to be more accurate to say that the SPD did well with the old and acceptably with the young, while the Greens and the FDP did sensationally with the young and poorly with the old.

As well as the young, the Greens won the cities, nicely shown by this Tagesspiegel graphic from the Berlin city elections:

Rather than an East-West divide, Berlin now has a divide running around the S-Bahn ring route with the SPD and CDU competing outside it and the Greens dominating within. (The referendum on whether or not to nationalise Deutsche Wohnen AG followed a similar pattern, with a two-thirds majority inside the ring and a narrow majority outside it.)

In terms of social class, it’s probably most telling that the SPD was No.1 among industrial workers (“Arbeiter”) and also among private-sector, white collar employees (“Angestellte”), and maybe also interesting that the Greens did best among civil servants (“Beamte”):

(From here)

Sans Merkel, the CDU/CSU lead among women evaporated.

Wählerwanderung data from the exit poll shows the magnitude of the CDU/CSU catastrophe very clearly. They lost voters, in size, in almost every direction except for a few, baffling, pickups from the extremes:

Also, a million of their voters from last time have simply died without being replaced.

The SPD gained from everyone, including 1.3m over the middle from the CDU, 590k from the Left, and 320k from increased turnout, but lost 320k back to the Greens.

The Greens net-gained from everyone:

The other winner of the day, the FDP, picked up votes from the right and lost them to the left:

This one is probably significant as the FDP now has to make a deal with the Greens before it can talk to anyone else, and you know, it picked up 400k votes from the Right and another 100k from the Left party. Hipsters who landed in a higher tax bracket or taxphobic old Prussians from the east? Meanwhile, the Left party got absolutely spanked in every direction and the far right lost to everyone but did pick up 110k round the horseshoe from the Left, something its left-twitter fanbase outside Germany should probably have a think about.

Finally, 55 per cent of Germans wanted the SPD to lead the coalition, compared to 36 per cent for the CDU.

There’s been a lot of comment about Germans wanting change but not voting for it, but the simplest explanation might be that their definition of change included changing which party would lead the government.

Geschlossenheit

So we blogged about the CDU’s successful blitz on the Greens, and Armin Laschet’s subsequent no good very bad campaign. We talked about Laschet’s team for the future, now with added Friedrich Merz, and what was becoming of the political constituency Angela Merkel put together. It’s probably time to deal with the Social Democrats and their sudden surge into the lead. After all, even if the 2017 Martin Schulz spike reversed very quickly and the Green rocket came back down like the proverbial stick, the SPD is holding a lead of between three and six points into the final week, so if anything’s going to reverse it better do it sharpish.

A lot of commentary about the SPD uses the concept of “PASOKification”, the idea that Western social democratic parties are all doomed due to their compromises with neoliberalism. You can see where they’re coming from – at least you could when they weren’t No.1 – but the concept is a huge stretch. To state the glaringly obvious, Germany’s experience across the Merkel era was not very much like Greece’s. The comparison is positively offensive. And the SPD was in government for quite a lot of it. The party’s membership has halved since 1990, but it’s worth noting that it lost almost as many members in opposition as it did in government, and the count has levelled off since 2015 around 400,000, a little more than the CDU. In terms of its share of vote, the thesis holds up a bit better – the first grand coalition, 2005-2009, hurt much more than anything else. This ignores the regional level entirely, though. Throughout this period the party has routinely led state governments and realized shares of the vote as high as 40%. They’re not back because they never went away.

The bigger problem with this argument is the decline of the CDU and indeed the CSU. Germany, the country of the small and medium-sized business, has developed a system of small and medium-sized parties. The CDU/CSU polled 40% as recently as 2015, came close to that during its pandemic bounce, but is now struggling to keep above the 20% mark while the Greens try to establish themselves over it. The CSU’s own special powerbase in Bavaria is again under serious threat.

This is the kind of party landscape you might expect in a country with a strongly federal, parliamentary, and proportional constitution reflecting strong particularist local traditions, and of course, those things are all true of Germany, being major features of the 1949 constitution (constitutions, thinking of the states) and really of its deeper history. Politics as it is practised, though, often doesn’t look much like that. Instead, in most German campaigns until now, there were two big parties of which it was expected one would win, quite possibly taking over 40 per cent of the vote, just like Conservatives and Labour or Democrats and Republicans. Coalitions were common, but they either took the form of a dominant party plus a small party, or else of a grand coalition of the big two. Campaigns focused on the party leaders as if they were electing a president, although only the relatively few voters in each party leader’s patch would actually have them on the ballot.

This phenomenon is common in parliamentary systems – the practicalities of mass communication and campaigning tend to make for a presidential style, and so does the brute fact that the point of the election is to choose who rules – but the contradiction is more marked given how far the founders of 1949 went to design anything but a presidential two-party system. A lot of this is related to the way political techniques like opinion polling, TV interviews, and public relations spin-doctoring were introduced from the West in the post-war years in parallel with the construction of the formal institutions. So one way of looking at the German political scene is that voter, and party, behaviour is converging with the way the constitution works. A top-three party share of 60% sounds a lot more like you’d expect in a country with Germany’s constitution than a top-two share of 80%.

A party that aims to poll over 40% must be a broad coalition in itself. At 20%, though, faction is an unaffordable luxury. This shift is likely to put a premium on internal unity, and to shift the coalition-making process from within the major parties to the post-election phase. Ironically, the need to turn out the party base in order to have a chance at the No.1 slot and hence to lead the post-election phase is likely to make the parties try harder to emphasize their distinctive identities and hence their differences, which is then likely to make the coalition phase harder or at least more dramatic. (I think this is what Adam Tooze is driving at here?)

The SPD’s strength here is that it has managed to be much more compact and united – geschlossen in German – behind Olaf Scholz than any of the other parties. Here’s a poll of preferences for chancellor by party identification:

Not only would a third of conservatives and half the Left take Scholz, more FDP voters would take him than their own candidate. Meanwhile, 84 per cent of SPD voters are sticking with their guy. And the secret is pretty simple, if not easy to implement. Although Scholz is literally Merkel’s finance minister, his response to losing an internal party election to the enragé left was to stick with the style (as someone quoted here says, Scholz may have the charm of a paperclip, but in Germany that can be a good thing) but load up the policy agenda.

Zukunftsteam: the future of the Merkel coalition

Under increasing pressure from his own party and his own terrible campaign, CDU candidate Armin Laschet decided to include more faces in his campaign and present a “team for the future”. Not surprisingly, the execution wasn’t great.

The mise en scéne left him standing alone on stage for long, awkward gaps between each one, the status of the team is completely unclear, and its composition included an odd combination of apparently promising second line politicians from the states and, ah, Friedrich Merz. This points to deeper, structural issues. For a start, if the idea was to show that the CDU has a deep bench of talent, what was 66-year old Merz who’s been a politician since Dad was a lad doing there? Is it just that his notoriously enormous ego won’t let him pass up publicity of any kind? If so, is it just that Laschet is too weak to say no to him?

If they’re meant to be a shadow cabinet, there are other problems. For a start, Laschet is only going to make it as part of a coalition, and probably a three-party coalition, so he can’t really promise individual jobs. And there are, of course, perfectly good CDU federal ministers currently in office. Promoting anyone for a specific job that’s already held by a CDU minister amounts to promising to fire the incumbent and disavow everything they did.

Here’s the rub. The biggest issue for the CDU at this election has been whether to own the Merkel legacy or distance the party from it. The choice of candidate revolved around whether to go with a wholehearted candidate of continuity (Norbert Röttgen, or perhaps the post-2017 version of Markus Söder) or a clean break (Merz). The party of compromise decided to compromise and that’s how we got here.

The problem, really, is that Merkel created a new political coalition, on which her success is founded.

This coalition runs diagonally, as the Germans say, across politics including a chunk of the SPD’s traditional voting bloc and mobilizing women, immigrants, and non-Catholics, groups with whom the CDU usually struggles. I wrote about this here, arguing among other things that the coalition’s organizing principle was that it set its own European or global outlook against nationalists or even local particularists. Diagonal coalitions in Germany go back to Bismarck, and the importance of particularism much earlier, but despite this transformation of the CDU electorate, there was no such transformation of the CDU as a party. The three candidates for the succession, all men, all Catholics, and all lawyers, all came from a 90km triangle in in the northern Rheinland.

Keeping this coalition together requires owning the Merkel legacy, which shouldn’t be that hard. Albert Funk writes that the team showed the CDU as Merkel left it – more liberal, more diverse, and more open to the world. The problem, though, is that the party is unwilling to fully own this even though it remains popular. To take the limiting case and the one Merkel initiative everyone asks you about, 62% of Germans think the country will cope just fine with another wave of refugees:

Statistik: Wenn wieder deutlich mehr Flüchtlinge kommen: Kann Deutschland das verkraften? (Anteil der Zustimmenden; nach Parteipräferenz) | Statista
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And if you’re in the Merkel coalition, there’s an obvious choice. The SPD was often criticised for being too close to the coalition, but with Merkel gone and the CDU unclear about whether it really believes in what it’s been doing since 2005, that logic now cuts both ways. The coalition exists, and you can run towards it!

Sommerloch ade: what happened in Germany since our last episode

We left the German election campaign with the Greens in the lead under Annalena Baerbock, an outbreak of small and medium-sized scandals, and Armin Laschet ambiguously triumphant as CDU/CSU candidate. Over the silly season, the so-called Sommerloch, stuff happened.

Here’s some polling for the last 7 years from Der Tagesspiegel‘s aggregator. You can see the slow decline of both major parties, the SPD’s 2017 false dawn, the rise of the Greens, and the pandemic reset. You can also see the CDU/CSU’s crisis in the spring as the pandemic boost wore off and the Greens spiked, and then its reset.

A sommerloch is defined by the absence of serious content, and that was how it started. The CDU/CSU campaign management responded to the Green breakthrough by shaking out everything they had in their opposition research file. That turned out to mean getting very angry about Annalena Baerbock’s CV, which was inaccurate in places on trivialities, and claiming that not all of her insta-book (a campaign essential, one of the American tropes imported into German political practice) was wholly original. Some of this was risible – one of the quotes in question was a list of the EU’s member states, not the sort of thing where originality is usually prized, while a lot turned on insinuating that a master’s degree from LSE was somehow not real – and some of it wasn’t, but the main point was that it was at least something. Following politics in a foreign language can provide a kind of Verfremdungseffekt where the half-truths are more glaring and the vacuity of the talking points more obvious, and it was very clear that the CDU management had an option set up to do a bit of dirty and now they were pressing the button.

There was some blowback – it turned out Armin Laschet’s own campaign book wasn’t any better – but the CDU also had a big ad drop set up complaining about “Anna and the 10 Bans” (Verbote – similar to Gebote or commandments) and its outriders were ready to start complaining about cargo bikes (this is a culture war thing for some reason). Some people speculated about swapping Robert Habeck back in as candidate (see this savage TAZ piece), but the Greens chose to tough it out. The CDU’s blitz worked, up to a point, knocking the Greens back to around 18 per cent and briefly reversing the CDU’s descent.

And then there were events.

Germany experienced a major flood disaster – mostly around areas with old mine workings that could fill up and fail, a telling reminder of the country’s relationship with coal – the Taliban conquered Kabul, and there were some more small and medium-sized scandals. Laschet, meanwhile, launched an astonishing series of campaigning disasters. First up, he was caught on camera laughing uncontrollably as President Steinmeier conveyed the nation’s condolences to the flooded. Then he spoke to one of them, in pouring rain, as a underling held an umbrella over Laschet’s head but pointedly not the flood victim’s. Going for the hat-trick, Laschet then delivered a major speech in front of a gigantic and unavoidably symbolic pile of rubbish. Not satisfied with that, he challenged his rivals to an “inhaltliches Wahlkampf”, a campaign over content, and followed up by announcing a three point plan for Germany’s future consisting of digital, less bureaucracy, and…what was the other one? The whole performance was powerfully reminiscent of Theresa May’s 2017 party conference speech with its coughing fit, irrepressible heckler, and that sign that lost a letter until it announced a country that orked for everyone. It’s probably worth taking a moment to appreciate the visual side of this, as it was precisely the visual quality of the thing that bit so hard. Images are from the round-up here.

So, the laugh:

The brolly (is it even possible to use one with dignity?):

The rubbish (if it wasn’t everywhere):

The three-point plan:

You might object that this is mere froth, but then that’s what a sommerloch is like. Further, if Laschet wanted a campaign about content, he could have damn well come up with some. In a genuinely important sense, the campaign has been dominated by CDU/CSU internal backstabbing, whether or not MLA or APA citation rules apply to a general-audience book, and Laschet’s inability to carry out a simple photocall without humiliating himself precisely because he’s offered so little either in terms of policy or personality.

And even the consummately well-executed blitz campaign against the Greens should be seen as part of the same phenomenon. Raking out the bottom of the oppo-research drawer won the CDU some political space and headed off the immediate crisis, but at the end of the day it was far from the worst allegation an oppo-research team has ever come up with and Laschet did nothing to follow up. Further, the smear dump could be done once, and once only. You can’t unring a bell, but neither can you redrop a bomb, and once the bomb bay was empty there were still three months to go until polling day. In hindsight, it looks like they acted out of panic and wasted a move better used in the last week before the polls closed, which doesn’t say anything good about Laschet.

Although, neither does that time he taught a course at the Rhein-Westfalen Technical University, lost the grades, made them up, made up more grades than he had students, and lied about it repeatedly to the university’s increasingly sarcastic administrators. Maybe German politicians should just keep away from universities.

Superwahljahr: Green Leader

So Markus Söder says the Greens are the most intellectually interesting party, and that they’re the CDU/CSU’s main competitor while the AfD is its enemy, a somewhat ambiguous statement. They’re the leading political party in Germany, going by the current polling. And they had to pick a candidate, too!

Essentially everyone commented on the contrast between the drama consuming German conservatism and the absolutely unremarkable nature of the Greens’ choice. So will I. Co-leader Robert Habeck agreed to step aside, their federal executive signed off, Annalena Baerbock is the candidate, something they literally announced while the CDU and CSU presidia were busy eviscerating themselves. Baerbock signalled, and as far as I know everyone assumes, that Habeck has been promised a major ministry, possibly finance. That was that.

The new candidate’s personal polling is pretty great, and the party is experiencing a wave of new members, while even a poll of 1500 business people put here first (or possibly second after “don’t know”). The CDU tends to be very attached to its status as a “Volkspartei”, even the last one in Western Europe, compared to the small and medium-sized parties around it, but at 28 per cent and going higher there’s absolutely no reason why the Greens can’t clear whatever arbitrary hurdle defines this.

Habeck spoke about his emotions in standing down and confirmed incidentally that the Greens were determined to have a woman as the candidate. If there’s a good argument against Baerbock it’s unquestionably that, unlike Habeck, she has never had ministerial or executive responsibility for anything. An interesting point here is that the Baerbock/Habeck era at the Greens has often been marked by dealing with one of the party’s identity conflicts by being more ambitious on the others – for example, trying to transcend the realo/fundi split by running to the left on social and economic policy and arguing for the exclusion of capital investment from the so-called debt-brake – and picking Baerbock could be understood in this light.

In a cynical electioneering sense, the best counterargument to the point about experience might be this extraordinary SZ interview conducted through the medium of mime, which hits off exactly that tone, of being new and young and exciting but just conventional enough to come off slightly cringey to those of us with a twitter-jaded palate, that the most infuriatingly successful politicians master.

Superwahljahr: the K-Frage is definitely maybe resolved

In the last thrilling instalment we left Germany waiting for a meeting of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group that was going to “recommend” a candidate for chancellor. What happened next was an astonishing week of extremely public in-fighting, as part of the CDU tried to find a way to pick the CSU’s Markus Söder as candidate, more of the CDU tried to block them, and quite a few tried to get Söder picked without letting on that was what they were doing.

A major part of the problem was precisely that the “CDU/CSU” doesn’t really exist. There are two separate political parties in a form of permanent coalition, but they have their own identities, organizational structures, and legal personalities. The decision was one that could only be taken separately. The CSU, obviously enough, supported its own guy, but the only way he could prevail would be for the CDU leader, Armin Laschet, either to step aside voluntarily or be forced into it by his own side. Söder’s supporters in the CDU pointed to his polling – he’s considerably more popular than Laschet, whose poll numbers are positively terrible – while his opponents countered that the CDU membership had voted and their opinion must be respected. After all, they had elected Laschet, and were being asked to see him pushed aside at the behest of top leaders in favour of someone who wasn’t even a member of the party. They could also respond that Bavarian politicians rarely do well outside Bavaria, and that the CDU base offered more of a foundation of democratic legitimacy.

To begin with, the CDU leadership offered a “recommendation” for Laschet, which satisfied nobody. Söder responded by saying that he would be willing to run, or to stand down, if a “broad” majority wanted him to, leaving the definition conveniently vague. This led to a week of frantic canvassing down to the district level. Söder upped the ante by denouncing “backroom manoeuvres”. This Tagesspiegel ticktock fills in much of the detail – although, for example, the party chief in Rheinland-Pfalz, Julia Klöckner (another person who used to be a Merkel successor) apparently called all her district chairs and very few wanted Laschet, when it came down to it, 9 out of the 31 members of the federal executive committee were willing to vote for Söder.

This may be down to Wolfgang Schäuble, for it is he, who was the penultimate speaker and the first to demand a roll-call. Schäuble apparently feared an even more divisive solution in which the joint parliamentary group – the only institution that binds the two parties in a formal sense – would pick a candidate, probably stacking up a whole lot of side-deals in the process. The only other option, really, would be to ask the membership to vote – although everyone claimed to know the members’ minds, as pointed out here, nobody wanted to risk consulting them.

With the decision made, this SZ piece argues, the best thing Söder could do would be to seize the brief remaining window of opportunity to be a team player and step back with both good grace and the promise of a major federal ministry. Astonishingly, though, he’s continuing to rock the boat. Having promised that he would support the winner without making a fuss (“ohne Groll”), he’s giving newspaper interviews saying that the party doesn’t need a “Helmut Kohl 2.0 from the 1990s”, while also setting a target of 35% of the vote, ruling out a three-party coalition, and declaring that the Greens are the most intellectually interesting competitor.

What Söder is up to isn’t clear. It’s possible he still hopes Laschet, or the regional barons on the executive committee, will crack and give in and he’ll eventually get it. Or he may be positioning for the blamestorming exercise after a bruising defeat. Or perhaps he’s effectively running as a spoiler candidate out of spite. Both parties are making noises about recruiting members in each other’s territory, the nuclear option in their relationship, and Söder has gone so far as to drum up custom on Twitter.

If it’s a spoiler it’s quite the spoiler. The whole drama is doing the CDU incalculable damage. A first polling shock landed with Forsa’s survey on the 20th of April, putting the Greens in first place on 28 per cent and the joint CDU/CSU on 27 per cent. The much respected pollsters from the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen responded by saying that this was unrealistic, whereupon it promptly happened again in Kantar/Worldpanel’s survey. As I keep saying, given the CSU’s special powerbase in Bavaria, this implies frankly horrific numbers for the CDU in the rest of Germany.

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.