Friedrich Merz wears a scarf around his neck late in the evening and his nose is running. The political climate in Israel, where the CDU chairman and head of the opposition held talks until Wednesday, is just as rough as the weather there in March. So Merz has to get on the podium at the third regional conference on Thursday evening, at which the CDU wants to involve the grassroots in the development of the new basic program. And the station in Schkeuditz, Saxony, is particularly delicate.
Because that’s where the members from East Germany come together. The East CDU is seen as own and rebellious in the party. “They just tick differently,” says a Christian Democrat from the party leadership. There are district associations that continue to cling to the highly controversial former head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen. There, Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU) is calling for the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline to be repaired in order to be ready for future business with Russia. And many in the East nod to that.
And at the local level, the CDU sometimes votes together with the AfD, as it did last December in the Bautzen district. So it is not a good starting position to appear in front of this rather critical membership because of your health.
But when the event ends after more than three hours, Merz has won the East for itself. At least that evening, at least in this hall of the exhibition center at Leipzig/Halle Airport. Ironically, the millionaire and private plane owner succeeds. The former chairman of the board of directors of billions, BlackRock Germany, who is seen by many in the West as the prototype of the turbo capitalist. Who is as West German as Lange Eugen in Bonn or the economic miracle – only without the cigar.
But Friedrich Merz not only hits the right note, he quickly clears the critical issues there, Hans-Georg Maassen, AfD and support for Ukraine, and sets the party line. clear edge. That’s what they like in the East. Above all, he has three jokers at his side this evening. One from Saxony-Anhalt, one from Saxony and one from Lower Saxony.
Joker number one is Armin Schuster, the Saxon interior minister. “The Saxons have no ‘political-correct’ filter in front of their mouths. If you want plain text, come to us. Look at the mouth of the Erzgebirge people, they are wonderful people,” Schuster calls into the hall. Unfortunately, some there became extreme themselves due to extreme paternalism. The Erzgebirge is now a stronghold of the AfD. “We have to formulate things more clearly for the Saxon,” says Schuster, and the applause is heavy.
As head of the Federal Office for Disaster Control, he formulated it much more moderately. The fact that Schuster was born in Rhineland-Palatinate and first made his professional career deep in western Germany does not bother anyone on this evening, if you integrate as nicely in the Free State as he does. Joker number two is the chairwoman of the Mittelstands-Union, Gitta Connemann, who asks with a wink whether you belong here as a Lower Saxon in the border region between Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony. Another integration willing. The demands “get rid of the gibberish and gender” and that the local people “must be listened to” because “they are much smarter than we think, especially smarter than the traffic light coalition partners”. That creates a good atmosphere in the hall, where around 600 people from regions that are mainly characterized by medium-sized companies are sitting.
Merz speaks shorter than at the previous regional conferences, makes it clear that Maaßen’s expulsion is correct, as is help for the beleaguered Ukraine and cooperation with the AfD is absolutely impossible. “For the Christian Democratic Union, there will be no parliamentary cooperation with this party anywhere in the Federal Republic of Germany,” says the CDU leader. Otherwise, Merz leaves the stage to his main asset: Reiner Haseloff.
The 69-year-old is not only the longest-serving civil servant in Saxony-Anhalt, but also the longest-serving incumbent prime minister in Germany and has since become a kind of nationwide voice of the East. “We are not an experimental field. Here in the East, we have experienced what it’s like when ideologies try to re-educate people,” says Haseloff in his calm manner – a clear jab at the traffic light’s energy plans, especially against the Greens and their climate protection policy.
“We have special issues here in the east. People have the transformation of the 1990s behind them, they don’t want to have to start all over again,” says Haselhoff. The applause is even louder.
If you follow the reading of the speakers that evening, many East Germans are driven by three concerns: not being taken seriously and, like before the fall of the Wall, being patronized again. “The traffic light’s answer to all challenges is prohibitions. For cars with combustion engines, oil and gas heaters, nuclear power plants,” criticizes the Thuringian CDU leader Mario Voigt. Above all, according to Voigt, many East Germans fear for their standard of living, which is already significantly lower than in the West, in view of the energy transition planned by the traffic lights, the currently expensive energy prices and inflation. “There are fears of a loss of prosperity here,” says Voigt.
Roger Schemmel traveled to the regional conference from the city of Südliches Anhalt, which lies between Halle and Bitterfeld. The 48-year-old has no office in the party and wants to know what answers she has to the problems in the east. He summarizes what probably moves most people that evening: “Many here have an oil heater and a petrol or diesel engine. People need that, how are we supposed to replace that now,” he asks, looking at the plans of the Greens and SPD. “After reunification, our parents had to start from scratch, nobody here has forgotten that, it shapes the people in the East,” says the trained carpenter.
The digital vote, in which the participants used their cell phones to vote for they could enter crucial keywords. In Pforzheim they were: migration, digitization, climate change. In Münster: migration, climate change, cloudiness. And in Schkeuditz: social peace, security, migration.
Concerns in these three areas also play the greatest role when it comes to requests to speak. “Where are the social housing, daycare and school places?” A Christian Democrat from Jena wants to know. “If we continue to allow unregulated migration, we will no longer have the capacity to help those who really need it,” says a party member from Halle. Another asks where the much-vaunted economic competence of the CDU is. Another is worried about the future of the lignite mining area, a Christian Democrat from Thuringia about her pension. She suggests that you don’t have to look at age, but at length of employment.
Finally, Ralf from Riesa asks the decisive question: “How conservative is the CDU actually?” And then Merz says what makes the Sauerland so surprisingly popular in the east. That the CDU is liberal, social and conservative in the sense of preserving the tried and tested. That the AfD cannot be dealt with by pandering. That the CDU did not represent its own position clearly enough in the euro and above all in the refugee crisis. And that as a CDU you don’t need any instructions.
That is the plain text that they want to hear this evening in the Schkeuditzer Halle. And sentences from Merz like this, that he is happy to have used the word Pascha in connection with stubborn children of migrants. “I even used it in the plural and didn’t just talk about one,” teases the CDU leader.
All of this is better received in the East than the performances of Merz’s predecessor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was considered too soft there, or Armin Laschet, who came across as too western for many. And also better than the chancellor, who was known to be East German, but ruled too red-green for many there. The only problem is: Merz cannot speak as much plain language as Schkeuditz in front of the base in the West and even less in front of voters who are less CDU-affine.
In any case, Roger Schemmel goes home satisfied that evening. He is happy that “those up there are talking to us and involving us”.