At the CDU talks, participants were keen to not be seen as reaching some sort of compromise with the chancellor, nor shifting the party to the right. But the headline of the highly circulated, right-leaning newspaper Bild described it as exactly that: “Refugee policy: CDU settles with Merkel.”
Things went similarly for the SPD when it introduced the concept of a “new welfare state.” Party leader Andrea Nahles emphasized that there was no need to apologize for anything, although she repeated that the party was “putting Hartz IV behind us.”
The SPD came under fire for introducing the controversial Hartz IV social welfare system. Critics said it was a sign the party was showing less solidarity for the unemployed. Now the SPD is claiming that its new concept actually has more humanity. However, this view was not shared by the influential left-leaning newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose headline read: “The SPD tears up Hartz IV.”
In terms of substance, the SPD presented more new ideas than the CDU, but the conservatives can combine their new beginning with the fresh face of newly-elected party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Both parties may manage to keep their internal and external critics at bay for the meantime. They want to show they can make a clean break from their less popular policies of the last several years and return to their roots. The political calculation behind these moves is the hope that voters will now know again what the CDU and SPD stand for, which perhaps was the problem last time.
Refining without arguing
If this calculated message reaches the German electorate, their soul-searching may have worked. While the two major parties governed together through years of compromise, they became more similar and consequently lost voters to the more clearly defined values of parties on further towards the fringe of Germany’s political spectrum: the Left and AfD.