German politics: the delicate process of electing new party leaders | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

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Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has decided to allow its members to elect the next party chairman directly after chancellor candidate Armin Laschet led the party to its worst result in September’s national elections.

Laschet was selected as party chairman in January and as chancellor candidate in April, both times in close races against powerful rivals, and both times in the traditional CDU fashion: by delegates nominated by the 400 000 party members, rather than directly through these members.

Many observers believe his bullish rival Friedrich Merz would have become party leader if the vote had been direct, and Laschet’s poor election campaign led to a rift between the CDU leadership and his disgruntled base.

But in recent decades – both inside and outside Germany – allowing members to directly elect the party leader has backfired on election day.

In January 2021, Armin Laschet (left) defeated Friedrich Merz (at m) and Norbert Röttgen to become president of the CDU.

Internal functioning of the CDU

Personalities of the CDU are perfectly aware of the tensions. “There is a dissociation between the federal party congresses and the members. The decisions of the committees were taken in part against a large part of the base,” Hamburg CDU chairman Christoph Ploss told the network. media. RND in October.

The CDU leadership had to reject accusations that the party paid a heavy electoral price for losing contact with its base. “When looking for explanations after a poor performance, there is a tendency to see the party leadership as out of touch with the grassroots and too intellectual,” explains Martin Emmer, professor of communications at the Free University of Berlin.

There had been reluctance against opening the vote for fear it would fuel conflict within the party and not leave enough time to restore unity before next year’s three national elections. But now the procedure is complete and the candidates can present themselves.

From December 4-16, CDU members will be invited to vote online or by mail and the winner will then be officially elected to power at a federal party conference in Hanover on January 21-22.

SPD Conference in Mannheim 1995

In 1995, Social Democrat Rudolf Scharping (left) was chosen as chancellor candidate, before being finally replaced by Gerhard Schröder (right), who won his election in 1998

The SPD experience

The direct election of the party leader has more often been done by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – although this has brought its own problems. The SPD first allowed members to vote directly for the party leader in 1993. They chose Rudolf Scharping, then prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, over Gerhard Schröder, who later turned out to be an activist gifted who would become chancellor.

Scharping became the candidate for chancellor of the SPD in 1995 and proved unable to overthrow incumbent Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Subsequently, the SPD also lost several state elections.

By the time of the next party conference in 1995, Scharping’s star was sinking. He was supposed to be re-elected to the unopposed party leadership, but after delivering a lackluster speech he faced a rebellion and lost the leadership to left-wing high roller Oskar Lafontaine.

More recently, the SPD has learned that popularity with the grassroots does not necessarily translate into popularity with the electorate. The SPD again opened voting to all party members in 2019, when party leadership tickets consisted of teams of one man and one woman. Former North Rhine-Westphalia Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans and Bundestag Member Saskia Esken won the competition with 53% of the vote. Among their defeated opponents was Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who two years later won the German election and now appears to be the next Chancellor.

After years of stagnation as part of a grand coalition with the CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Walter-Borjans and Esken have shifted the party to the left, in part to revitalize the base. But – wisely, as it turned out – when it came to selecting a chancellor candidate for the 2021 election, they both deferred to Scholz’s candidacy rather than trying to land the nomination. themselves. Scholz has proven to be a major electoral trump card, with polls positioning him as the most popular chancellor candidate and, above all, more popular than the party itself. In the 2021 elections, he led the SPD to overtake the CDU, winning 25.7% of the vote against 24.1%.

Scholz’s choice was widely seen as the choice of broad appeal rather than a preference within the party. “It has been shown in many parties that the feelings within the party and the preferences of party members do not necessarily represent what the electorate wants.” said Emmer.

When Norbert Walter-Borjans announced his intention to step down, the SPD impressed observers with a quick plan for his succession: Lars Klingbeil, 43, current party secretary and ally of Scholz, is expected to be elected co-chair of Saskia Esken. at a party conference in December.

Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken smiling

Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken set to become new SPD co-chairs

Not just Germany

German Social Democrats noted that in 2015 in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labor Party with almost 60% of the vote. The election was open to all party members who had paid £ 3 ($ 4.60) to join, and his leftist stances resulted in increased support from young voters and an increase in party membership.

Corbyn failed to lead Labor to victory in 2017, despite making moderate gains. Then, in the 2019 general election, Labor suffered a devastating loss to the Tories, who, led by Boris Johnson, won 48 seats and won 43.6% of the vote cast, the highest percentage of any party. since 1979.

A report on the defeat of a group of MPs, union leaders, officials and activists called Labor Together identified Corbyn’s low popularity among the general electoral population as a major cause of the loss. According to the report, 67% of voters disliked Corbyn strongly, and only 12% liked him. The report cited Corbyn’s previous support for radical left-wing groups and accusations of anti-Semitism in the party during his tenure as reasons for his low numbers.

This is an updated version of an article first published in October 2021.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW’s editors take stock of what’s going on in German politics and society. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here, to stay abreast of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.


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