Germany’s Christian Democrats Are on a Comeback Mission

The future of governance in the country looks very much like a conservative-green alliance.

By , a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
(From right to left) Daniel Günther, minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein; Friedrich Merz, federal chairman of the Christian Democratic Union; and Hendrik Wüst, minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, stand together in Berlin on May 9.
(From right to left) Daniel Günther, minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein; Friedrich Merz, federal chairman of the Christian Democratic Union; and Hendrik Wüst, minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, stand together in Berlin on May 9.
(From right to left) Daniel Günther, minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein; Friedrich Merz, federal chairman of the Christian Democratic Union; and Hendrik Wüst, minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, stand together in Berlin on May 9. Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Better-than-expected results for Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in two state elections this month may have Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) wondering about the future viability of his governing coalition.

Relegated to the opposition after a narrow loss to the SPD in last year’s federal election, the CDU has now gotten a boost by winning back-to-back state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. The party already led both states’ governing coalitions, but its margins of victory over the SPD this month were much higher than after the last state elections in 2017. These wins serve as a warning for Scholz’s SPD and its “traffic light” coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and progressive Greens (so called because the official colors of each party—red, yellow, and green, respectively—together resemble a traffic light).

Russia’s war in Ukraine prevented the SPD and its coalition partners from having a honeymoon period after they took office last December. Instead, in response to the crisis, Scholz’s favorability ratings are sinking. Only a third of Germans think he has leadership strength, and the FDP and Greens are trying to keep frustration with the chancellor within their ranks at bay. Meanwhile, instead of being on the back foot, the CDU has recalibrated and is showing its ability to lead effective coalitions on the state level.

Better-than-expected results for Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in two state elections this month may have Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) wondering about the future viability of his governing coalition.

Relegated to the opposition after a narrow loss to the SPD in last year’s federal election, the CDU has now gotten a boost by winning back-to-back state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. The party already led both states’ governing coalitions, but its margins of victory over the SPD this month were much higher than after the last state elections in 2017. These wins serve as a warning for Scholz’s SPD and its “traffic light” coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and progressive Greens (so called because the official colors of each party—red, yellow, and green, respectively—together resemble a traffic light).

Russia’s war in Ukraine prevented the SPD and its coalition partners from having a honeymoon period after they took office last December. Instead, in response to the crisis, Scholz’s favorability ratings are sinking. Only a third of Germans think he has leadership strength, and the FDP and Greens are trying to keep frustration with the chancellor within their ranks at bay. Meanwhile, instead of being on the back foot, the CDU has recalibrated and is showing its ability to lead effective coalitions on the state level.

Few expected the SPD to win last year’s federal election until a series of faux pas by CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet derailed his campaign. Most analysts had assumed the CDU would form a coalition with the Greens, and, if needed, tack on the FDP to form a “Jamaica” coalition (so called because the official colors of each party—black, green, and yellow—are those of the Jamaican flag). But after 16 years of the CDU’s Angela Merkel as chancellor, the 2021 election saw the party’s worst result of the postwar era. The party lost over 4 million voters to traffic light parties, and approximately 1 million of its voters stayed home. Overall, the CDU earned just 24.1 percent of the vote, with the SPD winning 25.7 percent. Unlikely winner Scholz was able to form his coalition while the CDU searched for new leadership. Laschet, then minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, relinquished the reins of the CDU and settled in as a backbencher in the new parliament.

Without the respected Merkel as its guiding persona, the CDU realized it needed a reboot. In January, the party decided to return to its roots and chose uber-conservative Friedrich Merz to steer it back to power. Merz had been out of politics for over a decade—having clashed with a rising centrist Merkel—but managed to finally take the helm of his party after two previous failed attempts. Although chided for being a man of the past, this time Merz, 66, appealed to party members’ nostalgia for the heyday of German conservatism under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The CDU has filled its leadership vacuum.

Nearly six months later, the CDU’s electoral performance in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia shows it didn’t need a long spell in the opposition to find itself. The CDU has filled its leadership vacuum and capitalized on growing incongruence within Berlin’s traffic light coalition, where the Greens and FDP are growing impatient with Scholz’s stilted communication style and hesitancy to lend military support to Ukraine. The CDU has also benefited from the weakening of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia also reaffirmed the Greens’ ascent as a big-tent party. The protest movement-turned-party’s support reached an all-time high, earning over 18 percent of the vote in both states. Likely CDU-Green governance in both states will be a reminder of what could have been in Berlin—and serve as a blueprint for a possible new federal constellation in the 2025 federal election cycle.

Incumbent CDU ministers-president Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein and Hendrik Wüst in North Rhine-Westphalia are now positioned to be the next generation of CDU leadership. Günther, 48, is firmly in the liberal wing of the CDU and is admired for his pragmatic, no-nonsense style. Wüst, 46, is known for his tough talk on crime but also concern for climate protection and LGBTQ+ rights. He has charted a course between Merz and Günther to give the CDU a broad array of potential chancellor candidates in 2025.

Günther led the CDU to capture 43.4 percent of the vote, its best result in Schleswig-Holstein since 1983. In his first term beginning in 2017, Günther governed within a Jamaica coalition. With their strong result in this month’s elections, the Greens are keen to build a two-party coalition with the CDU, which they would prefer over a return to Jamaica. A second term working with the Greens would lend Günther the bona fides to govern with them on a federal level.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Wüst increased CDU electoral support by nearly 3 percentage points since 2017, to 35.7 percent this year. His state, Germany’s most populous, is a bellwether for national politics, and issues such as inflation, climate, energy, and the war in Ukraine were top of mind for voters. Although Scholz invested time in the SPD’s campaign there, his party reached a historic low point with 26.7 percent of the vote. The CDU-FDP government in North-Rhine Westphalia is a remnant of Laschet’s time at the state’s helm. Wüst inherited the arrangement after the federal election and now has the support to chart a new course. In a recent poll, 40 percent of the public in North-Rhine Westphalia said they desired a CDU-Green government.

Though they might appear to be on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the CDU and the Greens have been speaking the same language when it comes to the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the war response has been a public relations disaster for the SPD. Scholz has faced criticism for his wavering on Germany’s role vis-à-vis the conflict and has been haunted by the legacy of the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who is infamous for his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, formerly Schröder’s right-hand man, even received a red light from Kyiv for a planned visit in mid-April. The opposition leader Merz, meanwhile, traveled to Ukraine in May to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, paving the way for Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to become the first German government representative to visit Kyiv since the start of the war.

Back home, the CDU has also benefited from a weakened AfD. Since its founding in 2013, the far-right party has been a major thorn in the CDU’s side. In the 2017 federal election, the CDU lost a little over a million voters to the AfD, which subsequently became the largest opposition group in the parliament. The AfD’s visibility also served as a drag on the CDU’s conservative credentials during the centrist Merkel years.

Merz was seen as the CDU antidote to the AfD, but he hasn’t had to do much of his own work to dampen the party’s appeal. The AfD has been on a downward trajectory since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it lost momentum as a single-issue party focused on curbing immigration. Beset by infighting, the AfD lost 2 percentage points as well as its spot as the main opposition party after last year’s federal election. The state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia cemented its decline. In Schleswig-Holstein, the AfD could not muster the 5 percent threshold to gain seats in the legislature; in North Rhine-Westphalia, it scraped by with only 5.4 percent of the vote. In 2017, the AfD earned 5.9 and 7.4 percent of the vote in these states, respectively.

The AfD is not the only small party that had a rough time during the Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia state elections. Although it is a member of the current coalitions in both states, the FDP lost around half its support in the former and barely reached the 5 percent threshold in the latter, a telling sign of voter dissatisfaction with the party’s profile in Berlin.

Christian Lindner, the chairman of the FDP, took a chance last year and let his party play kingmaker in the traffic light coalition that gave the SPD the chancellery. He then took the post of finance minister. Even before the war in Ukraine, there were doubts about the FDP’s ability to maintain Lindner’s sought-after fiscal discipline within a mostly left-leaning government.

The Greens have secured the role of kingmaker in German politics.

After the shock of war did hit, Lindner announced that Germany would take on nearly 40 billion euros of new debt, around $42 billion, to finance a relief package aimed at combating higher energy costs. In contrast to Scholz’s call for increased military spending, the consumer relief package has received criticism for not targeting enough vulnerable groups, such as older Germans, and not foreseeing the costs of a protracted conflict. The FDP is reluctant to do more because it doesn’t want to lose its reputation as a party of fiscal hawks, and the recent state election losses were a message to Lindner that he is caving to his coalition partners’ penchant for spending.

Punishing numbers in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia may have Lindner thinking he should have followed his own advice from 2017 that “it’s better not to govern than to govern badly” before wading into a coalition with two center-left parties. After almost six months in office, it’s clear that the members of the traffic light coalition are on unequal footing. The Greens have profited the most from the arrangement, holding cabinet posts that allow them to pursue their party platforms of a value-based foreign policy and a carbon-free economy. Moreover, thanks in part to their communication talents, Baerbock and Economics and Environment Minister Robert Habeck are the most popular politicians in the country.

The 2025 federal elections are a long way off, but it’s safe to say that the Greens have secured the role of kingmaker in German politics. A CDU comeback that year will likely require the support of the Greens, cooperation that would have been unimaginable a decade ago but is now mainstream. The two parties already govern together in approximately a third of German states and are ideologically aligned in their uninhibited support of Ukraine.

For now, however, the traffic light is still in power. The coalition is a first for Germany and, if recent state elections are any indication, could also end up being the country’s only one-term government since the 1960s. Though it started with great fanfare, the traffic light may be just an accidental constellation that is merely a placeholder for a CDU and Green government waiting in the wings.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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