From the outside In: Angela Merkel as Opposition Leader, 2000-2005

By Clemens, Clay | German Politics and Society, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview
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From the outside In: Angela Merkel as Opposition Leader, 2000-2005


Clemens, Clay, German Politics and Society


As chair of the CDU in 2000, and of its joint Bundestag caucus with the CSU in 2002, Angela Merkel was the first woman and first easterner to head a major German party; she had risen as a protege of Helmut Kohl, but breaking with him over his financial improprieties vaulted her into power. These features of her biography made her leadership unconventional. So too did her style, characterized by interpersonal reserve and lack of charisma. Merkel's views on cultural issues and economic policy--in particular, reform of the welfare state--were more liberal than those of her Union's mainstream. Finally, her resources within the CDU/CSU were limited to a loose network of younger outsiders, who helped sustain her against rivals at the Land level. While Merkel survived a poor CDU/CSU election in 2005 to become chancellor, her time as opposition leader suggested that she would struggle in that role too, yet also served as a caution against underrating her.

Keywords: Christian Democratic Union; Christian Social Union; union parties; Angela Merkel; political parties; reform; Edmund Stoiber

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Angela Merkel made headlines for being the first woman and first citizen of formerly communist East Germany to head a major political party in the Federal Republic. Yet, her leadership was path-breaking not only for who she was, but also for what she sought to do: run the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) seemingly without many of the assets deemed vital for that job. Even one of Merkel's key strengths--"the capacity to radically call into question trusted systems"--seemed more likely to hurt than help in a party noted for, at most, incremental change. (1) Still, by 2006, she had been chair longer than all but two of her CDU's six predecessors--its postwar founder Konrad Adenauer and the eternal Helmut Kohl--as well as seven straight Social Democratic (SPD) counterparts. As head of the opposition, she had pushed her party to adopt major programmatic change, and, in spite of a disappointing election, was elected chancellor in late 2005. Merkel had worked her way from the outside in, despite, and partly thanks to being an agent of change.

Admittedly, at first glance, there might have appeared to be harder tasks than heading the pragmatic, middle-class CDU, with its long record of electoral success. (2) Yet, despite the integrative forces of Cold War anticommunism and social-market economics, it had long been an unwieldy alliance of clashing political traditions: Christian socialism, liberalism and conservatism. It was rooted in Germany's Catholic milieu, but had strong Protestant and secular admixtures, as well as an appeal that crossed regional and class lines. This "polyarchy" of rival power centers--autonomous Land-level party associations, vocal interest group affiliates, an assertive Bundestag caucus-defied attempts at streamlining, even after modern extra-parliamentary structures evolved. (3) In this "complicated coalition," differences could be resolved only by reliance on consensual means: observing the norm of proportionality, assigning divisions of labor, respecting discrete policy domains, seeking lowest common denominator solutions, and "satisficing." As a result, leaders (even Adenauer) often were limited to the role of power broker. (4) Yet, due to its own self-image as Germany's natural party of government, the CDU also paradoxically demanded that its chair wield a strong hand and come across as a credible chancellor, so as to help the party gain or retain power. By contrast, the rival SPD placed a higher premium on chairs who could provide guidance with regard to policy substance and convey a sense that it stood for lofty principles. (5)

Given the CDU's pragmatic preoccupation with power, its leaders had the best chance of success while also holding high elective office, but that was no guarantee. Serving simultaneously as chancellor had not helped two chairs, Ludwig Erhard (1966-67) and Kurt Georg Kiesinger (1967-71).

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From the outside In: Angela Merkel as Opposition Leader, 2000-2005
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