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The German political scene in movement 
A new CDU with Angela Merkel, Friedrich Merz and Ruprecht Polenz
The formerly communist PDS soon without Gregor Gysi and Lothar Bisky

Article added on May 2000
 

After months of hesitation and chaos, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) used the crisis regarding its former Chairman and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the system of secret party funds for a substantial renewal. The CDU seems to have overcome its spate of impopularity and - on a low level - is beginning to regain voters' confidence.
 
The CDU/CSU's new leader of the parliamentary coalition is Friedrich Merz. Born in 1955, he is - by friends and foes - considered a down-to-earth, sober technocrat, capable of achieving consensus with the political adversary. In 1989, the lawyer Friedrich Merz became a member of the European and, in 1994 of the German Parliament. In his second term in the Bundestag, he had already risen to the position of vice-leader of the parliamentary coalition. In November 1998 he was elected a member of the CDU's Presidency. His move up to the position of leader of the parliamentary coalition came as no surprise. It marks the party's wish for renewal without being a step into unknown territory.
 
Similar things can be said about the CDU's new party chairman. In recent opinion polls, Angela Merkel is already way ahead of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social-Democrats (SPD). She even is the most popular German politician. Despite initial opposition against her, coming from the leading CSU-politicians Stoiber and Glos (the CSU is the CDU's sister-organization and only exists in Bavaria, where the CDU is not present), Merkel managed to become party chairman. The balance changed in her favor after Friedrich Merz spoke publicly on her behalf for her on March 8. Ten days later, the party presidency voted unanimously for her as new leader of the CDU. Merkel will remember Merz' important move in her favor, and that is likely to create a positive atmosphere in the party - at least until next year when the fight for whom will stand for candidate for the position of Chancellor begins.
 
Angela Merkel, 45, is said to be "liberal" in the context of the CDU. But as her predecessor, Wolfgang Schäuble, she has the confidence of all party wings - despite the fact that she was one of the first to distance herself from Helmut Kohl. Merkel is a pragmatic politician and avoids sharp ideological positions. At the moment, this is exactly what the CDU needs, a personality with mediator-qualities. The era of dominating personalities (Adenauer, Kohl) seems to be over. A lack of sharpness regarding the program is - for the moment - an integrating factor and no sign of weakness. All "movements" within the party can identify with Angel Merkel who is not considered to be a populist who turns with the tide - that is what distinguishes her from Chancellor Schröder's public image.
 
Will Angela Merkel became the decisive figure with the CDU and its future candidate for the position of Chancellor? That is less certain. Merkel is more considered a sympathy carrier with a sense for tactics than a leader and a contributor of program ideas. Her rise to power was only possible in the particular circumstances of the "legitimate heir" to Kohl, Wolfgang Schäuble, being discredited as well as regional CDU-leader Koch. No other candidate was available - only party elders that could have overtaken the position for a limited time only. But Merkel has one key quality needed in politics: the survival instinct. She is one of the rare politicians of the collapsing GDR surviving on the top-CDU level. She may well surprise us as well as potential rivals who still do not take her seriously.
 
Born in 1954, Angela Merkel is the daughter of a pastor in Brandenburg. From 1978 to 1989, Merkel, a physicist, worked as a scientific collaborator at the Central Institute for physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in East-Berlin. Only with the end of the GDR, did she get involved in politics. At the first free elections for the East German Parliament some ten years ago, she was a member of the Democratic Forum, a movement that distanced itself from the East-CDU, a party that had served as a pseudo-democratic fig leaf for the Communists. Despite the electoral disaster for the Democratic Forum, the then 35-year-old Merkel became vice-governmental-speaker and a member of the East German coalition led by Lothar de Maizière. She already had a sense for the reality. At the same time her reliability - as a politician and as a source for journalists - made Helmut Kohl chose her in 1991 as a vice-president of the CDU of reunited Germany. In Kohl's government she first served as Minister for Women and Youth and, in 1994, she became Minister for Environment, Protection of Nature and Nuclear Reactor Security.
 
After the CDU lost power in 1998, Merkel was elected General Secretary of the CDU in November of the same year. She was one of the lonely voices preaching a substantial renewal of the CDU. A year later, as the financial scandals within the CDU broke, she was again one of the first to speak up. In both cases, her position was not greeted with cheers by the party's majority. Only in retrospect, is she now considered a far-sighted politician. At the same time, she had never been part of the "Young Wild" (Junge Wilde) within the party that spoke up against Kohl when he was still in power. On the contrary, she owed her career to Kohl. It is more Merkel's style that symbolizes a break with the past. And of course, she is not only a woman, but a "career-woman" without children, divorced and married again. She comes from the former East Germany. Each and every of these elements alone is unusual within the CDU, put together, it is quite a revolution for the Christian Democrats. Therefore, Merkel could well attract more women and people from the East of Germany as well as from the political center.
 
But until today, Angela Merkel has lacked a power base within the party. If she makes mistakes as a leader, she could soon become very lonely at the top of the CDU. Her choice of the 54 year old lawyer Ruprecht Polenz from Münster (Member of Parliament since 1994) as General Secretary was widely considered a clever move since this back-bencher will be no threat to her. Friedrich Merz howewer, the leader of the parliamentary coalition, represents the by far most important regional CDU: North Rhine-Westphalia. And he is a man with ambitions. Time will soon tell whether Angela Merkel can survive not only in the internal power struggles, but also in the political battle with Gerhard Schröder, a man who knows all the tricks.
 
In the shadow of the CDU's awakening, important changes in Germany's political landscape were announced within the PDS, the successor organization of the former Communist party of East Germany. Gregor Gysi, 52, the leader of the PDS' parliamentary party, as well as Lothar Bisky, the party chairman, announced after a defeat of a minor reform project at this years party congress, that they will step down in Autumn. The end of Bisky's career had been expected for some time already. Nobody outside the PDS will regret this step. But within the party, he was important as a mediator between the old hardliners and the more moderate wing. On a different level of importance is Gregor Gysi's announced resignation. He belongs to the handful of brilliant rhetoricians in the Bundestag. He is a moderate within the PDS. If he had made an opportunistic move and become a member of the Social Democrats, he could have risen to the highest functions within the German state. Gysi is the leading figure of the PDS - the only personality of the party who is known and - to a certain degree - appreciated throughout the whole country.
 
Gysi will leave his high function within the PDS at the moment the party reaches its peak of (East Germany's) voters' confidence. This could well mean the end of the PDS - which has no base of support in the West. With Gysi, the party would lose its only charismatic figure. The PDS could well become a temporary phenomenon of reunited Germany - as was the BHE in the Adenauer-era (The BHE was the party of the Germans that had to leave their homes in Eastern Europe and the part of East Germany which is part of Poland today). The PDS could soon become a sectarian party of a few nostalgic people who want East Germany back. In that case, the Social Democrats would lose a rival in the East of Germany and therefore get a boost. The CDU could no longer warn of the danger of a possible coalition of the Social Democrats with the former Communists. But as long as the unemployment rate is still around 15-20%, sometimes even 30% in regions of the former GDR, the PDS is not likely to disappear from the political scene.

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