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15 January 2021

The Franco-German election season begins

How the candidates racing to lead the CDU could shape Germany's unusally competitive federal election campaign.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Tomorrow morning (16 January), 1,001 delegates from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will log in from around the country to watch three men in Berlin give speeches and subsequently to elect one of them as the party’s new leader. The winner will probably, but not automatically, be the party’s candidate to succeed Angela Merkel at the general election scheduled for 26 September.

It was not meant to be this way. Merkel announced in October 2018 that she was standing down as CDU leader. The party had just suffered poor state election results and this timing would give a successor time to settle into the post ahead of the 2021 election (the chancellor having ruled out running for a fifth term of office). Two months later the ensuing leadership election was won by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed a “mini Merkel” for her moderate politics and unflashy, understated style.

Yet AKK, as she is known, resigned in February 2020 after a difficult year in the job and in the immediate aftermath of a scandal involving tacit cooperation between CDU politicians and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the eastern state of Thuringia. The election of her replacement has since been delayed twice by the ensuing pandemic and is only going ahead now as an online conference; with the winner to be confirmed by postal vote next week.

Three names are on the ballot tomorrow. Friedrich Merz, narrowly defeated by AKK two years ago, is a veteran right-winger who sparred with Angela Merkel in opposition in the early 2000s and combines free-market economics with a sideline in reactionary dog-whistling. Armin Laschet is the affable state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and a moderate who backed Merkel’s refugee policies and is dovish (alarmingly so for some) on Russia and China. Norbert Röttgen is a former federal environment minister and head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee who pledges to make the CDU younger, more female and more digital.

Various factors unite and divide the three men. All three are Catholic lawyers from North Rhine-Westphalia (and so a contrast with Merkel, a Protestant scientist from the former East Germany). Laschet and Röttgen both offer continuity with the outgoing chancellor’s centrist electoral strategy. Röttgen and Merz share Atlanticist foreign-policy instincts and both offer some sort of break with her politics: the former arguing for a more modernising and liberal direction, the latter for a rightwards turn to win back voters from the AfD. Laschet and Merz share a wariness about environmentalist policies they deem risky to Germany’s heavy industries. There is little love lost between the three.

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

What to expect? The delegates are made up of elected officials and membership representatives and are numerically proportional to their states. The largest contingent comes from North Rhine-Westphalia and will probably lean towards Laschet, who also has the backing of much of the party establishment. But overall Merz is strongest among the membership (which is 77 per cent male and 73 per cent over 50) and is expected to come first but not win an absolute majority in the first round of voting. The question then is whether Röttgen, whose energetic campaign has taken him from being a long-shot to a contender, can beat Laschet to second place and then the run-off vote. Then, it’s a question of whether whichever of Röttgen or Laschet makes it to the run-off against Merz inherits enough of the other’s votes to win.

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After that, the next issue is whether the new CDU leader will go on, as is convention but not a fixed rule, to be the party’s candidate for chancellor. Two important state elections, in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, in March will be major tests. So too will national opinion polls, in which Merkel’s well-regarded Covid-19 response has put the party in the 35-40 per cent range and far ahead of the competition since early last year. Should it fall to 30 per cent or lower, questions will be asked about alternatives.

Of these there are only really two: Jens Spahn, the health minister, and Markus Söder, the state premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party with which it presents a joint candidate for the chancellery. Both are younger, more popular and newer faces in federal politics, have criticised Merkel from the right in the past, and have recast themselves as more centrist figures since. Both have gained popularity by advocating tough pandemic response measures. Both are publicly coy about their ambitions but privately mulling their options in the event that the new CDU leader struggles in the weeks before the CDU and CSU pick their joint chancellor candidate in the late spring.

All of which will help define what is shaping up to be an unusually open and competitive federal election campaign. Germany’s centre-left Greens have had a good few years and are in second place in polls; this year, for the first time, they are putting up a single candidate for chancellor rather than a joint ticket. The party’s co-leader Annalena Baerbock is the front-runner when the party chooses in late spring. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), currently in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU under Merkel, has already chosen Olaf Scholz, the popular and Merkel-ish finance minister, as its candidate. Both parties, as I write in my New Statesman column this week, hope that Merkel’s departure will enable them to pick off centrist voters from the CDU; all the more so if Merz wins and steers the party to the right.

A CDU/CSU-led coalition with the Greens (the like of which already governs Austria) is the most likely outcome, though that deal would be harder to make with Merz as the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate. But several other outcomes are thinkable: a decent showing for the Greens and/or SPD could result in a government of the two parties with the socialist Left Party or the right-liberal Free Democrats. Some even speculate about a Green-led coalition with the CDU/CSU, though that is more far-fetched.

The consequences for Europe will of course be significant. The difference between a government in Berlin led by flinty Merz and a “green-red-red” government of the left has implications for ongoing EU-wide debates about the eurozone, defence, migration and the transatlantic relationship. With Merkel’s departure from the stage the union will in any case lose its most experienced and powerful compromise-broker. That will tilt power in Europe towards Paris and Emmanuel Macron, almost certainly making him Europe’s pre-eminent leader. But there too, only a little farther off, elections are on the horizon. The first round of France’s next presidential election will take place in April next year.

So the CDU leadership election fires the starting gun on a period of about 16 months during which the Franco-German political classes (often at odds but still crucial to driving agreements and progress in the EU) will be distracted by domestic politics. Tomorrow marks the start of “election season” in the continent’s two most important countries. Who knows what the world, and Europe, will look like when they emerge.

[See also: The rupture between Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors lives on in Brexit]