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20 April 2021updated 28 Aug 2021 9:24pm

Can Armin Laschet guide Germany’s fractured Christian Democrats to victory?

As the German Greens surge, Angela Merkel’s putative successor faces a formidable election test.

By Jeremy Cliffe

It is hard to overstate the longevity of the debate on Germany’s centre-right over who and what should come after Angela Merkel. Prospective successor after prospective successor has come and gone. Friedrich Merz quit the Bundestag for a business career in 2009. Christian Wulff was shuffled off into the largely symbolic job of German president in 2010. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned over a plagiarism scandal in 2011. Norbert Röttgen fumbled his bid to become state president of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012. Thomas de Maizière got bogged down in polarising battles over migration and security around 2016. Ursula von der Leyen stumbled over defence reforms and left for Brussels in 2019 to lead the European Commission. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2018 but flopped and announced her resignation in February 2020.

In turn she was succeeded by Armin Laschet, the minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, when in January this year he defeated Merz and Röttgen (both back for another run at the succession) after a campaign delayed by almost a year by the pandemic. That made Laschet, an avuncular if plodding moderate, the frontrunner to be the joint chancellor candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), at the federal election on 26 September. But there was one more hurdle: the CSU’s own leader, the endlessly opportunistic Markus Söder, put himself forward on 11 April. Nine days of seemingly endless meetings, press conferences and briefings later, Söder withdrew his candidacy on 20 April. That finally leaves the way clear for Laschet to be the CDU/CSU candidate. 

Whether the “after Merkel, what?” question is finally settled, even now, remains open to debate. Polls show that Laschet is much less popular than Söder. Only 15 per cent of Germans consider him the most suitable chancellor candidate compared with 44 per cent for his CSU counterpart. Even in Laschet’s home state, 69 per cent of respondents disapprove of him. That the battle for the CDU/CSU candidacy was so drawn out was a product of worries, including in significant parts of Laschet’s own CDU, that Laschet is more a provincial politician than chancellor material and might lead the party to election defeat. But there was also an ideological dimension to the contest, one of several political fault lines left unresolved after the long Merkel years.

Laschet is a classic Christian Democrat; close to industry (his state is home to the Ruhr and Rhine valleys) but also to trade unions (his father was a coal miner); keenly pro-European (he grew up close to the Belgian border, speaks French and was a member of the European Parliament); and concerned with consensus and social harmony (he is known for having good relations with German-Turks and other migrant-background communities). He has done himself few favours over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic – he was even explicitly criticised by Merkel in a recent TV interview – by dragging his feet on lockdowns.

By contrast, Söder is a spikier and more heterodox figure. Unlike Laschet, he was critical of Merkel’s liberal response to the 2015 refugee crisis and sought to emulate the populist-lite style of the conservative Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. But following a disappointing Bavarian election result for the CSU in 2018 he has pivoted to the centre, reinventing himself as an environmentalist and more recently a voice for tough Covid-19 measures. He is currently far more popular in the country at large and within parts of the CDU, especially in Germany’s more conservative eastern states. 

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In his concession statement, given in Munich, Söder said he had congratulated Laschet and wished him well in the election campaign. But he left little doubt that he considered it a bad decision. “The die is cast,” he observed, saturnine; ostensibly referring to the contest over the candidacy, he might also have been referring to the election. In his own statement, Laschet acknowledged the proverbial blood on the carpet: “we didn’t make it easy for ourselves”, he admitted, but said it had been a “very intensive, very transparent, very open debate”.

The ensuing mood in the CSU and in the parts of the CDU that had supported Söder was close to one of mourning. Markus Blume, the CSU’s general secretary, paid tribute to him as “the candidate of hearts”. The CDU/CSU’s youth organisation issued a statement, referring to the unseemly and heavily leaked bickering in a CDU board meeting that produced a final vote for Laschet, saying: “The picture that emerged yesterday evening was not one of an election winner and we can’t go into the election campaign like this.” To say that the CDU/CSU’s chancellor candidate will have a job of work uniting his political alliance going into the campaign, and then proving himself as its figurehead, would be an understatement.

A measure of the task facing him out in the country came this evening with the results of a Forsa telephone poll, released on 20 April, showing the Greens surging past the CDU/CSU and opening up a seven-point lead. The numbers are likely to settle down, but the election is clearly wide open.

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The line-up of conceivable successors to Merkel as Germany’s chancellor is now complete. Laschet is the presumptive frontrunner. For now, the most likely outcome is a CDU/CSU-led coalition with the Greens (though his preferred partners would be the right-liberal Free Democrats). His main challenger is Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate whom I recently profiled. The third contender is Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s stolid but unflashy vice-chancellor and finance minister. 

 

If the CDU/CSU under Laschet perform as poorly as some Söder supporters fear and the latest Forsa poll suggests, Baerbock could potentially become chancellor at the head of a centre-left coalition. Less likely, but also conceivable, is that dependable Scholz picks up centrist Merkel voters unimpressed by Laschet but unwilling to take a gamble on Baerbock. In other words, it will be a competitive race. 

What sort of chancellor would Laschet make? In domestic policy, a rather similar one to Merkel, bridging some of the same divides: liberalism and conservatism, state and market, modernity and tradition. His proximity to heavy industry, including the coal mining industries, could cause conflict with potential Green coalition partners and does not inspire optimism about Germany’s role in the battle against climate change. 

Also of concern, particularly to some of Germany’s neighbours and allies, are Laschet’s instincts on foreign policy. He is notably dovish on Russia (in 2018 expressing doubt that Moscow was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England), China (dismissing concerns about the state-telecoms giant Huawei as a supplier of 5G technology) and even Syria (criticising the anti-Assad rebels in the country’s civil war). Political allies brush these aside and say he essentially shares Merkel’s instincts. A Green foreign minister (perhaps Baerbock) would be more hawkish on such topics. But in today’s Berlin, the real engine room of foreign policy is the chancellery.

One would need to factor into expectations of a Laschet chancellorship that his own party and its CSU allies are not, for now at least, a very happy family. Merkel has been a leading player in the CDU/CSU for almost three decades, and chancellor for almost 16 years. Her great strength – some would say also her weakness – is that she has trodden a delicate, carefully calibrated path between different tendencies within her political family while responding to gradual shifts in the wider German electorate. It is an approach that has led to bad and good policies. But it has kept the CDU/CSU in power and sustained her remarkably robust popularity among voters. 

That no clear, strong, obvious successor has emerged is a testament to her skill but also her peculiar array of traits. Laschet, her ultimate successor presumptive, is a more conventional politician who may struggle to pull off that balancing act. The CDU/CSU and Germany will get something different now. The question is: what?