The following article is from our September 2005 issue.

What Does Angela Merkel's CDU Want? The chancellor candidate banks on a radical market philosophy. By Sven Gösmann

Germany's conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), have parted company with their traditional programs and are instead focusing on today's dominant economic liberalism. Urgent questions are still waiting for answers. What Angela Merkel does with the power she will probably win remains unclear.

Wolfgang Schäuble ranks among the smartest of Germany's conservatives. When Schäuble recently visited President Bush in the White House, the U.S. president welcomed his guest with considerably more respect than he exhibits when members of the still-governing, leftist, anti-Iraq-war coalition of SPD and Greens come calling.

It's really great that the conservative party in Germany is heading toward a sure victory, the president said. But then he asked Schäuble why "the
CDU/CSU opened the campaign by announcing a tax hike. That's really interesting. I'll be watching closely what happens."

Schäuble, who is not only a smart man, but a reserved one as well, quietly told this story at home in Berlin. Two factors permitted his indiscretion: First, it demonstrated his importance. Second, with his anecdote, he innocuously showed how helpless he is in terms of understanding his party, the CDU. The other side of the Atlantic wasn't the only place where raising sales tax by 2 percent was all that people knew about the conservatives' political program. And of interior policy, foreign policy or social policy? Not even a hint.

Seven years after losing power and three weeks before a practically certain return to government, Germany's conservatives are a determined but confused bunch. They will probably regain power but don't exactly know what to do with it yet. This programmatic hole is symptomatic of how hollow the conservative camp actually is.

Like their sister parties in Great Britain (three-time losers against Tony Blair) and Italy (vanished behind Berlusconi's populist one-man product), Germany's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian siblings the Christian Social Union have yet to find their way into the 21st century.

That's why they are fighting the current campaign almost exclusively with rhetoric from the radical economic reform that's currently in fashion. The campaign slogan "Right of Way for Work" is a perfect example. The party that, during the 1950s and 1960s, masterminded Germany's economic miracle and social re-awakening after the Nazi dictatorship, is massively "under-philosophized," as the respected Hamburg newsweekly Die Zeit recently wrote.

The current election platform is crawling with isolated measures for remodelling the social welfare state which, actually, add up to a dismantling of it. In place of shared values, Merkel and her entourage have inserted the idea of freedom.

In doing so, the CDU has left itself in an intellectual dilemma that it will hardly be able to resolve in Germany's consensus-oriented society. The Union is an artificial amalgam of Germany's conservative constituencies based in Catholicism, strict market economy, and national orientation to social fairness.

The candidate's closest advisers have been gushing about the "garden of freedom" into which they want to lead the German people. Small wonder that the conservative's likeliest coalition party, the liberal FDP, has neither air to breathe nor voters to attract.

The conservatives are taking this new direction at a great risk. The CDU in Germany has long been the party of the less educated. Sixty-one percent of all Germans who leave school with the minimum diploma voted for the CDU in 2002. This is the only way the party can still garner a majority, and it tempts politicians to favor simple-minded slogans where complex policy problems demand subtle responses.

Jürgen Rüttgers, who in May toppled the SPD fortress of North Rhine-Westphalia after 39 years, recently said with some justification, "I am the chairman of the party of labor in North Rhine-Westphalia." He's right. Yet will this insight result in keeping those newly won voters in the conservative camp? Hardly.

In its quest for a majority, the CDU has cut plenty of bridges to its traditional party base, for example to devout Christians. The Union's election platform, a 39-page document, devotes three and a half lines to Christianity.

Merkel is not a figure suited to giving people orientation. Her biography is too unusual: Born in Hamburg, West Germany; raised as a Protestant minister's daughter in East Germany; member of the Communist youth organization but not, later, of the party itself; a quiet citizen, not a dissident; later German environment minister and general secretary of Helmut Kohl's CDU. Though possessing an instinct for power, she is oddly shy and makes a decidedly apolitical impression. Leadership actually looks different. Yet that is precisely her biggest asset among voters: Because she doesn't look like a politician, people are more apt to trust her.

That's also what her party is counting on, where a sufficient number of leaders have never managed to remove her from power. All of which means that the CDU/CSU follows a risky course. Public frustration at the failure of the SPD-Green government will propel her party into the chancellery - so much seems assured. Afterward, however, there will be no honeymoon for Germany's first woman chancellor. She will quickly need to be successful with regards to the labor market.

Many of the officially five, but actually eight, million jobless Germans will have to have work soon. Otherwise conservatism's barren intellectual landscape and the lack of charismatic leaders in the party will quickly become apparent, and the CDU's renaissance could be short-lived. Merkel has put herself and her party completely in the hands of the economy. That might be the right move during an election campaign, but could be a mistake politically.

In the interest of the country, I hope I'm wrong.

- Sven Gösmann is an editor in chief at the newspaper Rheinische Post.