In 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour delivered a landslide election victory that provided a roadmap to power for other centre-left parties in Europe. Out of power since 1982,Germany’s main centre-left party, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD), recycled Blair’s ideological outlook as the Neue Mitte (rough translation: the new centre). A new dawn had broken, had it not? It had.
One year after Blair’s landslide, Helmut Kohl and his Conservative-Liberal coalition were booted out of office by German voters, ushering in Rot-Gruen (red-green), the first ever coalition government between the SPD and the Green Party at national level. The then SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder became chancellor and the legendary activist and Green Party politician Joschka Fischer became deputy chancellor and foreign minister.
To make matters worse for the centre right, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the CDU became embroiled in a party funding scandal – the notorious Parteispendenskandal (literally: party donation scandal). Under Kohl, the CDU had accepted eyewatering sums of Deutschmarks in undeclared donations from anonymous donors and hidden them from German authorities in foreign bank accounts. Many-a political commentator wondered aloud whether the CDU would be able to survive, given the prospect of high fines imposed by the courts and parliamentary authorities.
Kohl did little to assist the legal and political investigation into the scandal. He steadfastly refused to provide the names of the donors. His justification was that he had given them his Ehrenwort (cast iron guarantee; sacred promise) that their identities would never be revealed. Kohlfell from grace and largely withdrew from public life until his death in 2017. After the Parteispendenskandal, he mostly appeared in the German media in relation to the very public – and sad – disintegration of his family.
Mrs Merkel, however, spotted an opportunity. In 1998, after the election loss to the SPD, ‘Kohl’s girl’ had become General Secretary of the CDU. Crucially, though, she had not yet become party leader and was thus not the opposition leader in the German parliament. That position was held by Dr Wolfgang Schaeuble who would later gain notoriety as Germany’s iron fisted finance minister during the Euro Crisis.
Kohl had run the CDU via a system of patronage and enforced loyalty, ruthlessly moving aside challengers to his authority or position, especially from the more liberal wing of the party. Kohl, who wore Birkenstocks with socks while on holiday and feasted on cake, wurst, and Saumagen, excelled at making and breaking careers, sometimes with outright, and very public, personal cruelty. In what Germans sometimes call the Haifischbecken (shark tank) of the CDU, you did not want to cross Kohl, the Great White Shark.
This meant that many of the established figures in the CDU owed their careers to Kohl and were therefore compromised by the Parteispendenskandal. Like Icarus, they had flown too close to the sun. Moreover, due to Kohl’s leadership style, there was no obvious successor. Talented politicians that could have posed a threat to Kohl had been disposed of. Dr Schaueble, who was closest to becoming Kohl’s natural successor, had had an acrimonious relationship with Kohl in the 1990s. In short, there was a leadership vacuum at the top of German conservatism. Nature, as the saying goes, abhors vacuum. So does politics.
Merkel’s exposure to the Parteispendenskandal was limited. After all, at the time of the illegal transactions, mainly in the 1980s, she had been the citizen of another state. She wielded the symbolic Machiavellian dagger against her political mentor and twisted it, distancing herself from Kohl (as well as his acolytes) over the Parteispendenskandal, though never dismissing his achievements during reunification. She became, in other words, the Jaime Lannister of German conservatism: ‘the Kingslayer’. Kohl never forgave Merkel for what he perceived as a lack of loyalty and gratitude. Their subsequent relationship remained distant and cold, even as Merkel became the dominating political figure in Berlin.
Perhaps there is a lesson for political scientists here. Why do outsiders rise through the political ranks? Because the established elites are in crisis. Strikingly, the outsider status never left Merkel. The CDU needed her, for sure. She started to prove increasingly popular with voters from the mid-2000s onward. But she was never truly loved by her party. Female, divorced, no children, protestant, East German, and STEM background – was she even a true conservative? Throughout her sixteen years as Chancellor, quite a few CDU figures would have said ‘no’ in hushed voices. Worse still, she had frustrated the careers of many potential Kronprinzen (crown princes) in the CDU. But the lads had bottled it.