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  1. German Election 2021
16 January 2021

No experiments: Armin Laschet is elected leader of Germany’s CDU

The moderate Rhinelander is now front-runner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

“Keine Experimente” (no experiments) ran the political slogan of Konrad Adenauer. The co-founder and first leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the postwar Federal Republic of Germany’s first chancellor was a Catholic moderate from the Rhineland who conceived of his party’s role as bridging divides between different segments of society and offering stability, consensus and restraint. The formula has served the party well: it has governed the federal republic for 51 of its 71 years.

So it should not come as a huge surprise that the party this morning elected Armin Laschet, a Catholic, moderate, consensus-oriented, no-experiments Rhinelander, as its new leader. The state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous federal state, secured victory over the moderniser Norbert Röttgen and the right-wing veteran Friedrich Merz in the (online) vote of party delegates, defeating Merz by 521 to 466 votes in the second, runoff round of voting. Today’s result makes him the frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor at Germany’s general election on 26 September.

The vacancy had been created in February 2020 when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, another western moderate, resigned just over a year after she had secured the post vacated by Angela Merkel in December 2018. Covid-19 forced the cancellation of two planned in-person election conferences, so the party finally switched to the digital one that began yesterday and concluded this morning. To be legally binding, the election result will be confirmed in an up-down postal ballot next week, though that is not expected to deliver an upset.

It was Röttgen who, at the conference today, offered the most compelling account of the party’s challenges; arguing for it to become more female, digital and younger. Though third-placed, his solid showing is impressive from a long-shot candidate few thought had a chance. Merz, a right-wing sparring partner of Merkel’s from the early 2000s, offered free-market economics and dog-whistling overtures supposedly capable of winning back voters from the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland. His poor, rambling speech before the vote helped confirm his defeat.

Laschet, by contrast, stood for reassuring continuity. In the strongest of the three speeches, he wove from his father’s work as a miner a folksy narrative about reliability, trust and unity: “when you’re down a mine it doesn’t matter where your colleagues come from”. In a thinly vailed dig at Merz he also pointed to the recent violence in the US as an illustration of the dangers of mistrust, “the poison, that he [Trump] has dripped into [America’s] soul”. “We must talk in plain terms, but not polarise”, he insisted. Laschet finished by producing from his trouser pocket the identification tag that his father had worn in the mines, an emblem of what he claimed was the crucial question before the party: “whom do you trust?”

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Laschet’s win marks a victory for the CDU’s establishment. Merkel did not endorse a candidate but statements by the chancellor and those close to her emphasising the importance of governing experience and teamwork read as nods to his candidacy. No experiments, in other words.

Economically, the CDU’s incoming leader sits firmly within his party’s centrist-corporatist tradition. Socially he is moderately conservative; he opposed gay marriage but supported the admission and integration of large numbers of refugees under Merkel. He is, in other words, a typical Christian democrat.

Where he differs from the chancellor is mostly on matters rooted in his geographic roots in Germany’s far west. Aachen-born Laschet’s paternalistic demeanour – he claims to be related to Charlemagne – is steeped in jovial Rhineland carnival culture and he is instinctively closer to France than to the Anglo-Saxon world. At a meeting in Paris in September, Emmanuel Macron indicated his approval for Laschet’s candidacy. 

The new CDU leader’s concluding question –  whom do you trust? –  was doubly apt as it is also the one that his party, and its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CSU), now face as they mull their joint chancellor candidate. As CDU leader, Laschet is front-runner for the candidacy. But do the two parties trust him to win and hold the office of Adenauer, Kohl and, for over 15 years now, Merkel?

Some have their doubts. Laschet fumbled his initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, setting himself up as the voice for milder lockdown policies before it became clear that tough restrictions were needed. Voices on the CDU’s left fret that he has recently drifted rightwards, on economics and law-and-order, under the influence of his right-liberal Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners in North Rhine-Westphalia. His proximity to big business, especially the heavy industries of the Rhine and Ruhr valleys, invites scepticism about his environmental credentials. His foreign policy instincts, which are dovish on Russia and China, alarm some. But more than any of that, the more fundamental question swirls as to whether Laschet – a natural regional or state politician with no experience of elected office at federal level – really is “kanzlertauglich” (fit to be chancellor).


So, close attention will be paid to the opinion polls, how Laschet handles the political twists of the next few weeks (bound to be dominated by the pandemic) and how the CDU does in two important state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg in March. Today’s vote was relatively narrow – Laschet won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, a result that may resonate with British readers – and uniting the different tendencies in the party, from Röttgenite modernisers to the Merzite right, will not be easy. If the new leader and his party struggle, minds may turn to the two obvious alternatives.

One is Jens Spahn. Germany’s young health minister has seen his popularity rise during the pandemic. He backed Laschet as a de facto running mate in the leadership election, even raising eyebrows by using his slot in a supposedly neutral Q&A session before the vote today to deliver a one-sided ad for the eventual winner. But he is also reported to have taken soundings about making his own bid to be chancellor.

The other is Markus Söder, the CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria. Only twice in the history of the CDU/CSU alliance has the joint chancellor candidate been drawn from the smaller, Bavarian party; on neither occasion, 1980 or 2002, did that candidate win. But Söder, a versatile politician who has been a voice of tough Covid-19 lockdowns, overwhelmingly tops polls of figures German voters would most like to see lead the CDU/CSU ticket.

Spahn and Söder both cut across divides in the party, combining modernising notes (on the environment and social policy) with distance from the Merkel project (both criticised the chancellor over refugees but have since positioned themselves as more centrist voices). They are younger, more agile politicians than Laschet. Both are intensely ambitious.

Then there is the external competition. In Olaf Scholz, the stolidly Merkel-ish finance minister, the Social Democrats (SPD) have already picked a chancellor candidate with similar appeal to Laschet – and arguably, fewer of his drawbacks. The buoyant Greens, firmly established as Germany’s second party in national polling, look set to pick Annalena Baerbock. As a younger, more dynamic figure, and a woman, she might benefit from the comparison with Laschet and Scholz, particularly in the competition for centrist, floating “Merkel voters” whose support for the CDU may expire with the chancellor’s departure.

Still, Laschet’s selection as leader makes the already most-likely outcome of this year’s German federal election slightly more likely still: a CDU/CSU-Green coalition. Where putting Merz in the chancellory would have been anathema to the Green Party’s leftist grass roots, Laschet benefits from his moderate reputation. He could work with, say, Baerbock. In a time of shifting political tectonics his relative inoffensiveness, to some a weakness, may ultimately prove his biggest strength. 

[See also: With Germany’s political future in the balance, “Merkel voters” will be crucial]