The lack of public unity from leaders within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been an unwelcome distraction for local politicians campaigning in Brandenburg and Saxony. They say the intraparty squabbling in Berlin has made life difficult for CDU minutemen on the ground trying to speak directly to voters’ concerns ahead of regional elections in the two states on September 1.
“I can safely say that it does not help us in the local election campaign,” Michael Schierack, a member of Brandenburg’s parliament and the CDU’s former leader in the state, told DW. “If this image continues to be conveyed, then we have a problem.”
Read more: Merkel’s government delivers on promises, but voters aren’t convinced
That problem: Voters fed up with the CDU could deliver the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) significant state election gains, the repercussions of which would surely be felt in Berlin.
After losing over 1 million votes to the environmentalist Green Party in May’s European Parliament elections, CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer steered her party to the left, calling for a national consensus on climate change and categorically ruling out any form of political cooperation with the AfD on the national or regional level.
But politicians from the right-most flank of the party, known as the “Values Union” (Werteunion), plotted a different course for the party.
Werteunion member and disgraced former spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen — who was ousted from his position after downplaying video footage showing far-right protesters chasing migrants through the streets of Chemnitz last summer — continued to disavow Chancellor Merkel’s controversial 2015 decision to keep Germany’s borders open to waves of asylum-seekers. He also kept open the possibility of the CDU one day working with the AfD.
In response, Kramp-Karrenbauer hinted at ousting Maassen from the party, telling Germany’s Funke Media earlier this month that she refused to let the CDU become radicalized by fringe members.
Read more: Germany’s conservatives divided on how to cope with far-right AfD
“There’s good reason why there’s a high hurdle in getting someone excluded from a party. But in Mr. Maassen I see no stance which really links him to the CDU,” she told Funke.
She later downplayed the remarks, telling German news agency dpa that “the CDU is a party with more than 400,000 members. The fact that each one has a different opinion is what makes us interesting.”
Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) — the domestic intelligence service — has often drawn fire for his remarks and actions. Calls for him to step down have been a constant throughout his long career.
Maassen gained notoriety in 2002 while working for the German Interior Ministry and arguing that Murat Kurnaz, a German resident held in the US prison at Guantanamo for five years before being released, could not return to Germany because his residency had lapsed. Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who was justice minister at the time, called Maassen’s argument, “false, appalling and inhumane.”
In 2012, Maassen was tapped to lead Germany’s top spy agency. He promised to restore faith in the BfV, which was embroiled in controversy over its entanglement in the right-wing extremist scene and his predecessor’s decision to destroy files related to the neo-Nazi NSU murders.
Maassen has been accused of having “a troubled relationship with basic democratic principles” for his pursuit of bloggers on grounds of treason and trying to suppress negative stories on the BfV. In January 2017, he told parliament reports the BfV had undercover agents in the Islamist scene connected to the Berlin Christmas market attack were false. Records showing it did became public in 2018.
Before Maassen made headlines by questioning the veracity of videos of right-wing protesters chasing foreigners through the streets of Chemnitz, he was under fire for advising right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) on how to avoid scrutiny from his agency. He has also been accused of sharing confidential documents with the AfD before presenting them to the public.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (r.) continued to support Maassen even after his controversial remarks over Chemnitz. Seehofer even took the ex-spy chief into the Interior Ministry in what was essentially a promotion. But that compromise has not been seen favorably by many in Germany, and failed to calm troubled waters within the ruling coalition over the affair.
But following controversial remarks made by Maassen in a farewell speech, in which he attacked the ruling coalition for “weak” policies on refugees and security, even having friends in high places seems not to be enough. Maassen still has those who take his part, however: The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party says it would welcome him with open arms.
The back-and-forth has only emboldened Werteunion members, who called Kramp-Karrenbauer’s statements a “slap in the face” and accused her of not taking theirs and voters’ concerns seriously. Migration and asylum is the third-most important topic for voters in Brandenburg, and the most important topic for voters in Saxony, according to a Civey survey conducted by Spiegel Online.
But voters in Cottbus — a city of 100,000 nestled in an isolated network of wetlands in Brandenburg known as the Spreewald — contend that intraparty conflict on the national level only poisons voters’ trust in the CDU and strengthens the AfD.
Read more: Worries on the horizon for Angela Merkel
“I’ve seen this discourse at the federal level and it’s not very pretty,” Andreas Berger, 48, who works at a youth center 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) outside of Cottbus, told DW. Brain drain from the rural regions surrounding the city, a lack digital infrastructure and the need for better education drive voters here, not “personal power struggles,” he said.
German Minister of Health Jens Spahn also recognizes voters’ fatigue with the highest echelons of his party. “They don’t care who is leader of the party,” he told DW while in Cottbus for a campaign event. “They want that we make a difference in the day-to-day.”
“That we talk about topics and not just about personnel questions,” he continued. “And if that succeeds, then we’ll be successful. And if that doesn’t succeed, then we’ll be less successful.”
For his part, Spahn has previously stated that the CDU needs conservative factions like the Werteunion in order to make the AfD “superfluous.”
Spahn’s straight-talk on the campaign trail has reassured some CDU voters in eastern Germany.
Echoes in Berlin
Spahn’s confidence, straight-talk about the issues plaguing his party and productive track record — he’s introduced over a dozen new health laws during his 17 months in office and is currently Germany’s third-most popular politician, according to a recent poll by Infratest Dimap — are a comforting contrast to what CDU voter Angela Kerstan has seen as of late in the party, the 53-year-old pharmacist from Cottbus told DW.
Read more: Germany’s populist AfD appeals to Saxony’s ‘bourgeois’ small-town voters. Here’s why.
But that doesn’t minimize the fact that the party faces a difficult election on Sunday. The CDU in Brandenburg is only polling at 18%, compared to the AfD at 22%. The center-left Social Democrats, who lead Brandenburg’s government and are junior coalition partners to the CDU at the national level, are also polling at a relatively anemic 22%.
“[Germany’s establishment parties] need to band together, stop concerning themselves with one another, and rise up together against the AfD,” Angela said. “Maybe this is the chance to do so.”