Germany: So Far, Merkel Can't Revive The Christian Democrats

Seven months ago, Angela Merkel took on the toughest job in German politics: leading the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) out of the abyss of a campaign-finance scandal. Today, the unpretentious Merkel is still groping for the exit. She's in danger of becoming a transitional figure unless she can get control of squabbling comrades and find a message that will restore the party's standing in the polls.

At stake are Merkel's chances of challenging Gerhard Schroder for Chancellor in the country's 2002 national elections. But so far, she hasn't been able to get other party leaders to agree on a program to lure voters from Schroder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has moved firmly to the political middle. Even business has abandoned the center-right CDU and defected to Schroder's coalition with the Greens. If national elections were held now, Schroder would trounce Merkel 47% to 30%, according to a recent poll by Berlin's Forsa Institute. "The CDU totally lacks orientation," says political scientist Gero Neugebauer of the Free University of Berlin.

BLINDSIDED. Merkel, 46, isn't getting much help from her party colleagues. Recently, for example, she was blindsided when Friedrich Merz, a conservative rival who heads the CDU delegation in Parliament, told a newspaper that foreigners in Germany should accept the idea of a Leitkultur, or "guiding culture." Merz was playing to German fears that the country is about to be overrun by East European job-seekers who will trample German sensibilities. But the comment seemed crass against a background of rising right-wing violence against Auslander. And it played into Schroder's hand by allowing his allies to paint the CDU as intolerant nationalists.

The immigration flap was just the latest sign that Merkel can't keep the party in line. She also faces resentment from the CDU old guard, which remains loyal to ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. And Merkel is likely to face more trouble as the 2002 elections draw nearer. As party chairman, she has no automatic claim to the candidacy, while others are discreetly positioning themselves. One is the 45-year-old Merz, who is likely to look for more hot-button issues while portraying himself as a small-business advocate. Another is Edmund Stoiber, 59, Prime Minister of Bavaria, whose platform mixes social conservatism with generous social-welfare benefits.

None of the candidates stands much of a chance unless they bring business back to the Christian Democrats' fold. That will be tough. Schroder has pushed through more economic reform in two years than the CDU managed in 16 years under Kohl. Besides cutting taxes, Schroder is cleaning up the pension system and putting the country on course for a balanced budget. But he may be leaving Merkel one opening: Business is frustrated at the Chancellor's refusal to reform Germany's inflexible work rules. "That would be an issue where the CDU could win stature," says Ulrich Schroder, a senior economist with Deutsche Bank.

Will Merkel grab the opportunity? She seems to be thinking about it. On Nov. 18, she published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper urging Germany to "examine the competitiveness of national regulations that affect the cost of production, especially the cost of labor." Championing labor reform would be politically risky. But by taking a bold stance, Merkel could boost her economic credentials and puncture Schroder's aura of modernizer. Says Wolfgang Schauble, Merkel's predecessor: "The CDU must convince people that our program is the only one in an era of globalization." Right now, that's a tall order.