On the 16th of January Germany’s Christian Democratic Union elected its new leader, the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet. Having led democratic Germany’s federal government for 52 of the past 72 years, the CDU is Germany’s strongest political force. For the past decade-and-a-half, it has been dominated by Angela Merkel, who announced her intentions to stand down as Chancellor after the September 2021 elections. Germany’s conservatives, then, are on the hunt for a replacement for the woman who has bought them so much electoral success.
In the party leadership election, Laschet faced a strong challenge from right-wing lawyer and former Budestag deputy, Friedrich Merz. Having been forced out of a leadership position in the Bundestag when Merkel rose to power, Merz was seen by many as the candidate for the reactionary right of the party, with his demands for lower tax rates, and opposition to Merkel’s position on refugees. Merz’ campaign was essentially pitched towards the CDU members who feel their party drifted too far to the center under Merkel, and fear the rise of the AfD on their right flank. Also in the race was Norbert Röttgen, a moderate, most of whom’s support went to Laschet after he was eliminated in the first round of voting.
In contrast, Laschet was seen as the continuity candidate. He followed Merkel’s shifting line on refugees after 2015, and is generally thought of as a grounded, risk-averse pragmatist like the current Chancellor. However, Laschet has spoken out in favour of further EU integration, a topic Merkel has sometimes avoided, arguing that Germany had made a mistake by not working with French President Macron to strengthen EU institutions. It is also reported that he keeps a bust of Charlemagne in his office, such is his support for European integration. There are also important personal differences between the two. Laschet is a devout Catholic with an outwardly jovial personality and he has promised to work as a “first among equals”, in contrast to Merkel’s at times aloof leadership. Despite his position on the moderate wing of the CDU, it would be wrong to view Laschet as “left wing”, as he is, after all, a member of the conservative party. In particular, while he has acknowledged the need for climate action, he has been reluctant to support policies which could hamper Germany’s coal and steel industries, which play a major role in Westphalia’s economy. While this was not a concern for the CDU’s membership, it may hinder his ability to form a governing coalition with the ascendent Green Party after September’s election. In the end though the 1,000 CDU delegates chose Laschet over Merz, perhaps following Laschet’s warning that voters have been supporting Merkel, rather than the CDU itself and would therefore desire continuity.
Despite winning the leadership, Laschet will not automatically become the CDU’s candidate for Chancellor, a position which will be decided later in the spring. In particular he faces a strong challenge from Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which runs on a joint ticket with the CDU. As leader of the Bavarian government, Söder has seen his stock rise following a successful handling of the Covid pandemic, whereas Laschet was criticised for attempting to lift restrictions in his state too early. While Söder has so far stated he has no interest in politics outside of Bavaria, he is performing best in the polls and would prove to be a formidable challenger to Laschet if he threw his hat in the ring. The health minister, Jens Spahn, is also a contender for nomination but at present is polling behind Laschet and Söder. It is widely felt that the CDU’s performance in two upcoming state elections, in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurtemberg, will play a big role in the eventual nomination. If Laschet’s party falls short in these elections, his prospects as a candidate will surely shrink.
Of course, democracies can always provide shock results, and it is not written in the stars that the CDU/CSU alliance will once again win in September, but if the polls are anything to go by it may as well be. Germany’s traditional second party, the Social Democrats, are unlikely to enter another unpopular “grand coalition” with the CDU, but are polling at only around 15%. Therefore Laschet’s leadership represents a win for those seeking continuity with the Merkel era, but significant challenges still remain until he can enter the Federal Chancellery.