Why the CDU hate the word 'opposition'

Dear Reader,

Incredible as it might seem given his party’s dismal election result, CDU chairman Armin Lachet is refusing to give up on his dream of becoming the next Chancellor of Germany. 

In so-called Sondierungsgespräche over the weekend his team attempted to persuade the Free Democrats (FDP) that he could offer them more than Olaf Scholz of the SPD, whose party gained the most votes in the September 26th poll.

On the level of personal ambition, Laschet knows that his days are numbered if he doesn’t manage to sneak his way into the Chancellery.

He has already given up his role as state leader of North Rhine-Westphalia. If he doesn’t pull a rabbit out of the hat now, he will surely also lose the position of CDU chairman and end up on the back benches of the Bundestag.

Most people in Germany seem to think that the only reason the CDU are going into these talks is to fuel Laschet’s deluded ego.

Public broadcaster ARD has compared his actions to those of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. At the current stage in the plot he seems like he might improbably escape his fate. But an antagonist (most likely Bavarian premier Markus Söder) is waiting in the wings ready to pull him down.

Less florally, der Spiegel has diagnosed the five stages of grief in the traumatized CDU leader. Currently in the stage of denial, Laschet is unable to admit that he has lost. 

Spiegel says that party peers need to help him move towards the stage of acceptance. “A periodic stint in the opposition can be extremely helpful for recalibrating and once again finding the pulse of the times,” the magazine advises.

Süddeutsche Zeitung columnist Heribert Prantl admonishes Laschet:

“Wanting to govern at any price is not good. It’s not good for the CDU, it’s not good for the country. That’s why it’s a good thing that after 16 years of Merkel’s rule, the CDU/CSU is now going back to where it belongs - in the opposition.“

But, while highfalutin talk of reconnecting with one's inner self might sound good on paper, it is unlikely to hold much appeal for the CDU hierarchy.

You see, it’s not just Laschet that is desperate to piece together a “Jamaica coalition” with the FDP and the Greens - the large majority of the party board want to do so too.

Why, you might ask, can they not simply accept defeat?

Their current thought process can be encapsulated in one German word. And it’s not Reslitätsverweigerung

The word giving them sleepless nights is der Amtsbonus. And it’s a real reason to be worried.

‘Incumbency advantage’ is a well established bias among voters in many democracies. Unless the office holder has been involved in a headline-grabbing scandal, the familiarity of his face is often enough to get him re-elected. 

Everyone knows mediocre politicians from their home countries who’ve won re-election simply because the question ‘can he or she do the job?’ doesn’t cause as much anxiety as with an unfamiliar newcomer.

But der Amtsbonus seems to be particularly powerful in safety-first Germany.

An analysis done by the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche in 2015 came to the conclusion that there had only been nine true turnovers of power in 87 state-level elections since reunification in 1990.

And on the rare occasion when power does change hands it tends to stay in opposition control for a long time. The example of Rhineland-Pfalz is particularly stark. The CDU won every post-war election there until 1991 when the SPD took over the state. The CDU have been stewing in the opposition ever since.

A textbook example of an Amtsbonus happened nine days ago, when the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern voted for a new parliament.

I happen to be writing this newsletter from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. 

While driving around, I keep seeing the same billboard. A woman in her mid 40s; smart suit jacket; platinum blond hair slicked to the side. “Die Frau für MV” states the text. No mention of a political party. No headline pledge.

The woman is Manuela Schwesig, local leader of the SPD and state premier since 2017.

She was voted back in with 40 percent of the vote, a rare return these days. She is now the state leader with the biggest majority in the country.

There is nothing much wrong with Schwesig. 

She picked a very public fight with Merkel over school closures during the pandemic; she has abolished kindergarten fees; and she used some dubious tricks to ensure Nord Stream 2 - a popular project in the northeast - could be finished. 

At the same time, she’s been blessed by good fortune.

The coronavirus never hit the north of Germany nearly as badly as it did other parts of the country. This is unlikely to have anything to do with particular policies that Schwesig enacted. Neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein, run by the CDU, had similarly low case numbers.

But her general visibility over the past two years was enough to ensure that she easily beat a CDU challenger whom half of voters in the state still didn’t recognize by election day.

At the federal level the story is not all that different. 

Germany is famous for its eternal Chancellors. Konrad Adenauer clung on for 14 years; Helmut Kohl was re-elected three times; and Merkel would in all likelihood have been re-elected for a fourth term if she had chosen to run.

No anecdote describes the magic of the Amtsbonus better than Merkel’s address to voters during a TV debate in 2013. At the end of her duel with SPD candidate Peer Steinbruck she turned to the camera and said simply “Sie kennen mich.” 

Adenauer’s original version of this schtick was the hugely successful 1957 campaign slogan “keine Experimente!”

The CDU knows better than anyone that the German public prefers a face whose lines and wrinkles they’re familiar with.

They don’t need any time in the opposition benches to reflect on who they really are. They know that already: the party of power.

Their bet is, when Germans see Laschet’s rosy cheeks and jolly smile against a backdrop of the country’s highest office, they’ll learn to trust him. That might not sound like much of a plan, but it certainly beats coming up with an original programme while three other parties hog the limelight for the next four years. 

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get a free newsletter every Monday afternoon.