Game face on.

Photographer: Axel Schmidt

In 2017, Watch Merkel Pivot to the Right

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been designated the new leader of the Western world on the strength of her values. Now, watch her lift that mantle for a deft feint to the right.

This week Merkel's Christian Democratic Union re-elected her as its leader by an impressive 89.5 percent. That's higher than the 88.6 percent Shavkat Mirziyoyev received in the Uzbekistan presidential election last Sunday. Yet Merkel has only done worse once in her career as CDU leader, in 2004:

Not Quite a Deity
Support for Angela Merkel as chairman of the CDU, percent
Source: CDU

By its stolid standards, the CDU is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Some of its regional politicians have been defecting to the anti-immigrant, anti-European upstart party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Careers are easier in the newer political force, as former CDU member Alexander Gauland, now AfD's vice chairman, can attest. AfD is on the rise, having shown its strength in a number of regional elections, and it will almost certainly get into parliament after next year's election. But even apart from pragmatic concerns, some CDU members, traditionalist German conservatives, have come to see Merkel as too left-wing after the compromises she's made with the Social Democrats, the CDU's coalition partners, and especially since last year's experiment with opening Germany's doors to refugees. Malte Kaufmann, a local CDU leader in Baden-Wuerttemberg who defected to the AfD in September, explained on Facebook:

I can no longer share the party line on so many subjects, especially family policy, the euro rescue policy, energy policy and refugee policy. But also on other fundamentally important issues, I hardly see any difference between the CDU and the parties on the left of the political spectrum. 

He cited an example. In the state legislature of Baden-Wurttemberg, the CDU has formed a coalition with the Greens -- and accepted a "sexual diversity action plan" proposed by that leftist political force. The CDU, originally a Christian party, has never been an active proponent of gay rights, even though under Merkel it hasn't opposed them, either. Compromises of this kind don't go down well with much of the party base.

So even though, within the CDU, Merkel still gets more votes than a Central Asian dictator, and an 11-minute ovation followed her speech at the party conference in Essen this week, she needs to make some compromises of a different kind. Germany, after all, isn't a presidential republic, so the party as a whole must win the election, not just candidate Merkel. That means the party must present a united front, and even a few right-wing loudmouths can destroy that appearance.

So, in the Essen speech, Merkel opted for the easiest compromise. "The full face covering is not appropriate here," she told the conference to enthusiastic applause. "It should be forbidden where legally possible. It doesn't belong with us."

In terms of optics, this was a big bone to throw to the CDU traditionalists. Julia Kloeckner, one of the party's brightest stars and its deputy chairman, seen as a future contender for CDU leadership, has been campaigning against "burqas" for years. In practical terms, however, it makes little sense. Women in burqas have hardly ever been sighted in Germany, and only between a few hundred and a few thousand women cover their faces with a niqab -- a less strict version of the burqa that doesn't include a veil. Besides, face coverings are already banned in many places. Many of the women who knowingly breach the rules aren't even immigrants but German-born converts to Islam's more fundamentalist strains.

A "burqa ban" is a nice political rattle to play with, but CDU members aren't kids. At the conference, they voted to campaign against another compromise Merkel has made with her leftist coalition partners -- the two-year-old decision to let the children of immigrants retain dual citizenship rather than choose a German or a foreign passport when they come of age. The CDU's conservative youth wing, where Kloeckner's political career started, pushed for the repeal of the dual citizenship position, and it won by a relatively narrow margin. Now, the CDU right wing and some in its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, want to make it a campaign issue, arguing that the situation is different from two years ago: A million more foreigners have arrived in Germany, and events in Turkey have brought Turkish domestic politics to German soil.

This is a significant inconvenience to Merkel: It makes it more difficult for her to form a coalition with any of the leftist parties -- the Social Democrats or the Greens. And Merkel knows that if the CDU wins a plurality, as polls now show likely, it will have to govern in coalition again. The party's poll ratings have slipped to 32 to 37 percent compared with the 41.5 percent it received in the 2013 election. Yet the position can always be renegotiated after the election, and for now, it benefits Merkel more to acquiesce with the party's decision than to allow disunity.

Merkel is a conservative, not a liberal. This part of the German political spectrum, of course, is far to the left of U.S. conservatives, but it still doesn't make Merkel a leftist politician. She believes in balanced budgets, law and order and the assimilation of immigrants rather than multiculturalism. It's not particularly hard for her to run as a conservative candidate in the coming election, just as it's easy for an equally experienced French politician, Francois Fillon, to take a strongly right-wing stance in his country's presidential race.

Many who see Merkel as the new liberal icon will be surprised to see her campaign in 2017. They shouldn't be: Merkel has only ever leaned left for two reasons -- to achieve a compromise and, on matters like refugee and energy policy, out of a deep emotion. In politics, though, Merkel is a tough, pragmatic survivor: She'll do what she can to keep the CDU together and maximize its showing. Next year, that will mean something of a return to the party's roots.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at