German conservatives are struggling to counter far-right pressure

Friedrich Merz, Leader of the German oppositionYou are facing an enormous dilemma. Your party is going on Unable to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the government coalition Led by Olaf Schultz, it sank in the polls. Instead, the formation of the far right, which is under surveillance on suspicion of being unconstitutional, is gathering more and more support week by week and will be the second force in the event of an election. The latest poll, this Sunday, showed the Alternative for Germany (AfD) with 22% of voting intentions, just four points behind Merz’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Perhaps the talk of panic is exaggerated, but undoubtedly the alarm spreads among the entire political class.

If the time has come for the rest of the parties to reflect and try to understand why the far-right is at its historic peak in popularity, the challenge in the CDU and CSU (Bavaria’s sister party) is almost a vital issue. Merz campaigned as a potential leader promising to win back the Conservative vote courting the AfD. He has gone so far as to say he will return to the fold half of those voters seduced by the far right. Instead, the AfD’s vote share doubled. At the crossroads, the interrogation of Merz as a leader begins. Pressure Is Maximum: What Strategy Should Christian Democrats Take? Go to the right and embrace extremist themes and frameworks? Or stay firmly in the center?

“The truth is they don’t know what they’re doing,” says political scientist Wolfgang Merkel, professor emeritus at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). “The CDU is divided,” he explains in a phone conversation with EL PAÍS. Facing a faction that wants to fully engage with far-right issues, especially immigration and the environmental transition, another faction, led by former Chancellor Angela Merkel, warns of a shift to the right that would scare away moderate and centrist voters. For now, it turns out Merz, Merkel’s sworn enemy and hugely right-winger, has been quiet More moderate than he appeared when he was elected leader in January 2022states the political scientist.

Recently, Merz has had some more frequent interventions in the AfD rally than a moderate conservative leader, as he did a few months ago. Ukrainian refugees accused of “social tourism”or when, after the riots in the streets last New Year’s Eve, he referred to Young people of immigrant origin, “the little pasha”. This week he surprised his affiliates when he said the CDU should be an “alternative to Germany in content,” an odd choice of words — because it coincides with the name of the AfD — that quickly went viral on social media.

Nor was the liberal wing of his party pleased when he invited Claudia Pechstein, a police officer and former Olympic skier, to give a speech a few weeks ago. At first he spoke out about sports and volunteering, but ended up advocating the speedy deportation of rejected asylum seekers, accusing immigrants of being unsafe on public transportation, glorifying the traditional “mom and pop” family and criticizing gender-neutral language. Also, they wear uniforms. In the end, some of those present applauded her, while others did not. Mears, who did so, with apparent convictionHe later described his speech as “brilliant”. Some have also interpreted the change in general secretary – from the moderate Mario Zaga to the more steadfast Carsten Linenemann – as an attempt to increase the party’s aggressiveness in relation to Schulze’s coalition.

What remained unbreakable until the end of this week was the complete cordon against the formation of the far-right. Merz reaffirmed his commitment in a meeting with reporters a few days ago: “In my party we really have a strategic dilemma, but the distance and the incompatibility of cooperation [con AfD] It is clear and non-negotiable.” The CDU will not cooperate with the AfD at any level, neither at the federal level nor at the state level, as Merz has repeated on numerous occasions. However, in an interview on Sunday on public television, the conservative leader raised some doubts by not ruling out cooperation with this formation at the municipal level. “Local parliaments must find ways to form the city and the region,” he stressed, referring to the local elections that the AfD has already won because those municipalities or districts already have a mayor or a far-right official.

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“I did not give up, but we are obliged to recognize democratic elections,” he added. His words immediately drew criticism from the Social Democratic Party. His deputy in the Bundestag group, Dirk Wiese, accused him of Southgerman newspaper “To bring down the foundations of the Union Firewall [el grupo que forman CDU y CSU] against the right.”

He also tried to explain to foreign journalists why a few days ago he called the Greens “the main enemy”, although he rules in alliance with them in six states out of 16. Given the confusion caused by this comment, he made it clear that the rivalry with the Greens falls within the realm of a normal democratic debate, which the AfD does not. “A large part of this party is outside the scope of our constitutional order. They are enemies of our democracy,” he stressed.

Next year, three eastern federal states, where far-right voting intention exceeds 30%, will hold elections: Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg. In the first, AfD He won his first victory last month gives him power in a rural area, Sonneberg’s. “The CDU remains firm in its refusal to cooperate with the far right, but voices are emerging among local leaders in Saxony and Thuringia who are not convinced by the guidelines that are coming from Berlin,” notes political scientist Merkel.

From left to right, Bjorn Hook, AfD leader in Thuringia; Robert Sesselmann, winner of the Sonneberg election, and Tino Shrupala, national co-leader of the far-right party, in Sonneberg (Thuringia).Martin Robles (AFP)

The Leader of the Opposition wanted, Chancellor Schultz did, too, downplayed the rise of the AfD and noted that a large part of this vote is not out of conviction, but “in two-thirds, protest”. He also noted that at the height of the refugee crisis, in 2017, training received 18% in opinion polls (in 2021 it received 10.3% of the vote). In his opinion, post-war refugee management in Ukraine is the main fuel that fuels the fire of the far-right. He said, “This issue will continue to be one of the main topics of conversation in our society in the coming weeks, months or years. I think we should try to resolve it as soon as possible, because when it is resolved, the variant numbers for Germany will drop again.”

If Mears does not have enough of the task of leading the strategy against the far right, the bells of internal rivalry begin to question his leadership in the medium term. The German press began to see Hendrik Füst, the prime minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (population 18 million), as a potential CDU-CSU candidate for chancellor in the next federal election. Despite the fact that there are still two and a half years to go, the hype is getting louder. Wüst himself apparently feeds it, appearing every few days in interviews, regional caucuses, and even in publication. Opinion articles In prestigious newspapers such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Merz is not very popular. He is undoubtedly eloquent, but in an arrogant way, unlike Angela Merkel.” Although it is too early to talk about leadership, Wüst is well positioned and highly visible as Prime Minister in Land He adds that it is too crowded. If Merz fails to change the perception voters have of him, it cannot be ruled out that the conservative bloc will send this politician, 20 years younger than the current leader, moderate and known for being open-minded and conciliatory, to the next federal contest.

No doubt Mears considers him a competitor. This is the only way to explain why he dared to criticize him publicly in an interview on ZDF public television. He said, to the surprise of many in his party, that dissatisfaction with the Wüst government was “almost on the same level as the federal government”. He was referring to the establishment of the far right in the region controlled by Fust: “If there were elections in North Rhine-Westphalia today, the AfD would be as strong there as it is at the national level,” he added. Merz’s nervousness can be understood given his political resume. Sidelined by Merkel in the early 2000s, he left politics to BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, where he made it rich. He returned when the former chancellor announced his retirement in 2018. On the third attempt, he managed to take over the party presidency. It remains to be seen if he will also fulfill his dream of being a candidate for chancellor.

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