Continuity over change: CDU chooses Armin Laschet as party leader to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Armin Laschet, the new party leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union. Photo: Tagesspiegel

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel set to retire in September this year, delegates of her party Christian Democratic Union (CDU) convened to vote Armin Laschet as their new federal chairman and possible presidential candidate on Saturday. The 59-year-old premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, won 521 votes to CDU rival Friedrich Merz’s 466 in a closely-contested runoff.

During his victory speech, Laschet promised to do everything so that the party would do well in upcoming regional elections and to keep hold of the position of Chancellor. He also thanked his rival candidates and praised them for providing a “fair competition”.

Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic-induced restrictions, close to 1,001 CDU delegates participated virtually in a two-day digital party congress held on January 15 and 16. In the first round of voting, conservative candidate and reported pre-poll favourite Friedrich Merz won 385 votes compared to Laschet’s 380 and Norbert Rottgen’s 224 in an initial three-way contest, but the slim margin of victory necessitated another runoff between the top two.

Merz, a long-time critic of Merkel who had been called the ‘German Donald Trump’ for his pro-business and hardline conservative stance, congratulated Laschet and wished him success as chairman. He said, “We have an important year ahead of us, it will be a extremely challenging time in the next few weeks and months.” Merz had earlier contested the intra-party in December 2018 and lost to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (popularly known as AKK), who is a liberal centrist like Merkel. However, AKK resigned in February 2020 owing to her inability to unite the conservative and moderate factions of her party.

Now with the election of Laschet as leader, the CDU has opted for a strategy one that has served them well with electoral success over four consecutive terms since 2005. In the run-up to the intra-party elections, Laschet had been the firm establishment favourite but had been criticised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as his laissez-faire style of leadership resulted in more severe outbreaks in North Rhine-Westphalia compared to other states.

Moreover, there have been doubts over his readiness to lead Germany on an international level since an incident at a security conference in Munich last year, when he cut an isolated figure speaking in German on an English language panel debate.

However, Laschet’s middle-of-the-ground approach focused on pragmatism, social cohesion, and the trademark German economic model of “social capitalism” (combining elements of a free market economy with that of a welfare state) is expected to appeal to the party’s core voter base, which has been eroded over the past decade due to the emergence of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Moreover, he was the only candidate among the three contenders with any substantial experience of running a government — an advantage he repeatedly emphasised on during his campaign.

His candidacy was helped in no small terms by his alliance with Jens Spahn, the 40-year-old German Health Minister who publicly backed Laschet last year and agreed to be his deputy in a possible race for the position of Chancellor. Spahn, who has been lauded for leading the country’s response to COVID-19 and engineering Germany’s early recovery compared to other European nations, emerged as the country’s most popular politician in a recent poll by German daily Bild, displacing Merkel herself. The duo also launched a 10-point programme called “#Impulse2021” earlier this month, outlining their vision for the party as well as the country.

Angela Merkel has already announced that she would not contest a fifth term. Should Laschet decide to run as the party candidate for Chancellor, he would face Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who belongs to CDU’s junior coalition partner Social Democratic Party, alongside a candidate from the Greens in September.

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Someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.

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