Union in opposition: What strategy is Merz pursuing?


As of: February 17, 2024 1:44 p.m

The course of the CDU and CSU in the opposition seems contradictory in many places. This is mainly due to CDU leader Merz. Even within his own party, some are skeptical of him.

It just didn’t fit together: the words of Union parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz in the general debate in the Bundestag were barely heard, with which he loudly and clearly rejected Chancellor Olaf Scholz when it came to future cooperation. Ten days later, his letter to Scholz became public, in which he made suggestions for reforms to support the economy. At the same time, the Union is currently blocking the “Growth Opportunities Act” designed by the traffic light coalition for the economy in the Federal Council.

Even some Union members find it difficult to discover a real strategy amid this change. The political scientist Ursula Münch also finds the course of the largest opposition party in the Bundestag “not always entirely stringent”; it fluctuates between cooperative and competitive.

But this is “not necessarily a sign of weak leadership or a strategic deficit on Merz’s part,” Münch said in an interview tagesschau.de. Ultimately, the Union has the same fate as the traffic light parties of being confronted with a variety of current problems, from farmers’ protests to inflation – and trying to react to them. Views and assessments also differed within the parties.

There is another aspect, especially with an opposition party, says Münch: “For Merz, the fundamental question also arises as to how cooperative the Union can be when a destructive force like the AfD sits in the Bundestag at the same time.”

What does that oblige? state political Responsibility?

In fact, this seems to be a dilemma for the Union – it traditionally attaches great importance to state political responsibility, which speaks more in favor of cooperation with the traffic light coalition on constitutional issues. This requires a democratic two-thirds majority.

After Putin’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Merz was appropriately statesmanlike, praising the Chancellor and voting for a special Bundeswehr fund. But the more cooperation, even if only on fundamental issues, the more likely the AfD will claim that all other Bundestag parties are indistinguishable and are working together.

This may be why Merz rather loudly emphasizes in his Bundestag appearances what separates him from the Scholz government – and from the Chancellor, whom he described as the “plumber of power”. And yet there are questions such as strengthening the Federal Constitutional Court, for which a two-thirds majority with the Union is needed – which also signals cooperation here, in the Bundestag as well as in the state ministries of justice.

And whether the Union will really be able to maintain its apodictic rejection of debt brake reform until the end of the legislative period remains an open question. Especially if, in the event of a Trump election victory, even greater support is required for Ukraine and the defense budget is increased again. Because the Union is clearly on course to follow the traffic light government.

For the debt brake – and a higher defense budget

But when it comes to finances in particular, the Union is once again appearing completely contradictory: On the one hand, the Union defense politicians are also demanding significantly more money for the Bundeswehr in the medium term. On the other hand, Merz has decided not to touch the debt brake. The CDU/CSU budget holders also do not see a new so-called special fund for this purpose – that would be a separate debt pot without affecting the debt brake.

When it comes to supporting the currently weakening economy, things are similarly confusing: Green Economics Minister Robert Habeck recently received no applause from the Union in the Bundestag for his proposal to set up a new special fund to structurally strengthen companies. Although economists like Clemens Fuest from the Ifo Institute, who the Union also likes to listen to, praise him for it.

No cooperation on the federal budget

Before the delayed adoption of the 2024 federal budget, the Union MPs in the Budget Committee did not make any suggestions for changes – an unusual occurrence for a self-confident opposition party. Merz justified this in the Bundestag as follows: They have a completely different opinion than Scholz, “and not in detail, but in principle, in principle!”

Such a clear demarcation is well received by the eastern regional associations currently in the state election campaign: “That is the task of the CDU. It must make it clear: There is opposition to this federal government, which is historically unpopular with the people,” says Brandenburg’s CDU -Top candidate Jan Redmann in conversation with ARD capital studio.

The party must be an offer for dissatisfied voters, said Redmann. “To show you that there is also a party in the democratic, serious, decent spectrum that shares criticism of the traffic light issue and has different political ideas, that is very important, especially in East Germany.”

Sharper attacks against AfD

For CDU leader Merz, the three East German state elections in the fall are important for various reasons. From his point of view, Thuringia is even about Germany’s reputation: “The whole of Europe is looking at this country on September 1st.”

The AfD could get the most votes there. “That would be a shame for Thuringia, but above all a shame for Germany,” Merz shouted into the beer tent in Apolda, Thuringia, on political Ash Wednesday. And warned of a “reminder election against ‘those from Berlin’.” He’s one of them too.

It is also about his future as the CDU candidate for chancellor. He is currently in third place in terms of satisfaction with politicians after Boris Pistorius and Annalena Baerbock – and well ahead of the Chancellor.

Merz made his way to the top of the Union after the end of the Merkel era, but he doesn’t really reach the soul of the party. He has his real fans in the business wing of the parliamentary group. His professional management style is appreciated there.

His critics give him credit for making the group capable of opposition and for getting the seemingly endless process of a new basic program under control. Even his critics within the party are more sober in their assessment that, as they see it as a natural candidate for chancellor, he will not let the opportunity be taken away from him.

“That’s how it is, Friedrich”

Critical voices complain that he is sometimes too uncontrolled and too emotional, including in his communication style. A certain changeability also applies to his political messages. While he identified the Greens as the main enemy in the government some time ago, he recently noted in number 187 of his self-written party newsletter “MerzMail” that a coalition with the Greens must be conceivable.

The Junge Union immediately objected. Bad timing, it wasn’t needed now, even his fans grumble: “But that’s how it is, Friedrich.”

With information from Vera Wolfskämpf, ARD capital studio.

More on the topic on Sunday, February 18th, 2024 at 6 p.m. in the ARD program Report from Berlin. Friedrich Merz, among others, will also be a guest there.

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