Angela Merkel will step down as leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) next month.
On Thursday evening, the candidates who are hoping to take her spot presented themselves in Lübeck, northern Germany, to around 900 party members at the first of eight regional conferences, reported DPA.
Among the candidates is Union faction leader Friedrich Merz, who said he expected a “fair competition”.
The Local spoke to Stefan Evers, who doubles as CDU’s general secretary in Berlin, and the party's chief whip in Berlin’s state parliament, the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives), to find out how the leaders' debate is affecting members and what the future of the so-called Volspartei or people's parties holds.
We also asked him if the German reaction to the refugee crisis would have been different under another leader and what the perception of Merkel among CDU members and the general population is.
The Local: How would the situation change among each of the candidates if they want to become the CDU leader and possible future Chancellor?
Evers: First of all, I think that each and every chairman of the CDU needs to be suited to become chancellor. Therefore on the one hand they need to be suited for the party head and on the other hand they need to be able to assist the reigning chancellor (Angela Merkel) in her endeavour to enable this very administration that hopefully persists until 2021 to succeed.
There certainly will be changes that each respective candidate brings to the table; each and every candidate will set priorities. They will show what kind of priorities they will be setting during the course of three weeks in internal party elections. But I do think that the party’s course will not change. As a Volkspartei der Mitte (catch-all-party of the political centre), we cover all bases.
The Local: What is the atmosphere like at the moment?
Evers: Well, my perception is that the party debate is very lively and that this is indeed a special moment for us, it is historically unique that we have such a variety of candidates for the party chair to choose from.
And we have a situation where someone new is not about to become chancellor immediately or is not about to run for chancellor, but we get to organize the appointment of a successor while the administration is still in power. For many party members, this is very, very exciting, and I have experienced a lot of debates these days that I had not experienced in such a way in a long time.
Stefan Evers. Photo: Dirk Reitze/CDU Berlin
The Local: What is the general perception of Merkel at the moment?
Evers: Among the population, she is still more popular than any of the candidates. Of course, this has to do with the function she has as chancellor. She also is appreciated by a clear majority of CDU voters and this rings true for the CDU in her entirety.
One certainly senses everywhere that a – and this is only understandable after 18 years as party head, this is an incredible amount of time – desire for change, for renewal – but not for revolution. And this is what characterizes the CDU, I think: That we do not indulge in self-doubt but think about priorities we need to set and not knock everything on the head.
The Local: And how do you think the future of the CDU will be with shrinking popular parties? Can votes be won back?
Evers: Well, I am convinced that Germany needs a strong catch-all-party and I am a party member of CDU exactly for the reason that we are a diverse catch-all-party, a party that emphasizes what connects us over what separates us, unlike many other political parties that tend to polarize, that tend to emphasize particular interests and topics.
CDU was never about that but about stability, a balance of interests, pragmatism, a lack of ideologies. And I think that this concept of a political centre has a future.
The Local: In your opinion, is the situation in Berlin different than in the rest of Germany?
Evers: We are and always were a liberal-minded metropolis party, and this is want to remain and will remain. This does not mean though that – regarding the question of a successor – we as CDU Berlin would explicitly say: “This guy or another has to take the reins”. There will be no pre-selection, we want our delegates and members to decide freely and I think this is the right way to do it.
The BILD wrote that if Merz or anyone other than Merkel had been in power, the AFD would not have become so strong or even emerged because the immigration policy would not have been the same. Do you agree?
Evers: I doubt that a chancellor who acts responsibly, whoever he or she would have been, could have decided differently than to unburden Hungary back then in 2015 and to welcome those refugees an economically strong country that can cope with that. There are structural problems that we take on and that go way deeper and that are much older. And those challenges would not have been smaller for any other chancellor.
It is a mistake to think that Angela Merkel tore down the wall, opened the gates and invited refugees to Germany that were not already on their way to Europe. That is nonsense. Angela Merkel displayed solidarity with Hungary – a solidarity in Europe’s best sense – and other neighbouring countries that were immensely affected by the 2015 migration. And I don’t think that a different CDU chancellor could have decided differently since we are pro-European party first and foremost.