* Merkel's U-turn on gay rights upsets conservatives
* Risky CDU shifts on conscription, nuclear power, minimum
* German leader robs opposition of campaign issues
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Feb 26 Germany's Christian Democrats
used to joke that even a drunken supporter woken from a deep
slumber could leap to attention and rattle off the party's
But Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed her centre-right
party so far from its bedrock conservative roots in the run-up
to September's election that even sober CDU voters are having a
hard time remembering what their party stands for these days.
The CDU's apparent U-turn this week on rights for gay
couples is just the latest example of conservative doctrine
being jettisoned in the name of political advantage.
Yet analysts warn the drift left could backfire on Merkel,
who is in a tight battle to win a third term in a Sept. 22
election, if she ventures so far to the centre that it alienates
core voters on the right.
She has already persuaded her party to sacrifice
long-standing conservative tenets such as conscription, nuclear
power and university tuition fees.
She now wants the CDU to introduce a minimum wage and over
the weekend one of her closest allies signalled the party may
also be ready to abandon its opposition giving gay couples the
same preferential tax treatment as married heterosexuals.
"The CDU isn't what it used to be," said Gerd Langguth, a
political scientist at Bonn University. "It's sacrificing more
and more of its conservative core values. That may turn off some
of conservative voters but could help Merkel win the election."
The left-leaning weekly Die Zeit noted wryly that the old
adage about conservatives knowing party positions by heart
because they rarely changed might not fit anymore.
"Before any CDU politician woken at 4 a.m. would know what
the party stood for," Die Zeit wrote. But not anymore. "The CDU
is angering conservatives by abandoning its old doctrines."
Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister
party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are leading the
centre-left opposition Social Democrats (SPD) by a comfortable
double-digit margin in most polls. But the CDU/CSU's coalition
partners, the Free Democrats (FDP) have slumped below 5 percent
in polls and may not even win enough votes to stay in
parliament, let alone preserve the centre-right coalition.
That could open the path for the centre-left Social
Democrats (SPD) and Greens to form a ruling coalition even if
they both end up behind the CDU/CSU on election day. A more
likely scenario is a right-left "grand coalition" between
Merkel's conservatives and the SPD.
URBAN LOSING STREAK
Many of the positions the CDU has taken are issues that the
SPD and Greens have held and analysts say they are designed to
rob the centre-left of important campaign issues.
Analysts also note the centre-left now controls the upper
house, the Bundesrat, and Merkel is pragmatically switching
direction voluntarily before being forced into changing.
"Merkel is taking all the issues away from her opponents so
that they won't have any topics to mobilise their own voters
with," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne
University. "She knows her own supporters will grudgingly
swallow all that, the end of conscription and nuclear power, the
introduction of a minimum wage and even rights for gay couples."
Jaeger said Merkel is trying to modernise the CDU after it
resisted reforming positions in the past. Its long losing streak
in urban centres has underscored the need for action. The CDU is
no longer in power in any of Germany's 10 largest cities after
losing control of seven in the last three years including
Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne and Duisburg.
The CDU's shift on taxes for gay couples is particularly
striking. The party had rejected a change of position on the
issue as recently as December.
"The CDU sees itself above all as a club to keep their
chancellor candidate in power, a 'Kanzlerwahlverein'," said
Jaeger. "With the push into the centre, the CDU has decided to
sacrifice its positions to hold on to the chancellery."
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Noah Barkin)