The expected and the unexpected – Armin Laschet is to lead the CDU into the post-Merkel era
In the end it was a surprisingly close race for the new party leadership of the German Christian Democrats (CDU). The three candidates had to compete in an extended campaign after the party conference and the vote had been postponed twice, and due to COVID restrictions were limited to online formats to win their supporters. This weekend, the 1,001 party delegates elected Armin Laschet as new party chair, current Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia who most clearly stands for a continuation of the Merkel course positioning the CDU broadly and at the center. The result of the online vote needs to be confirmed by a written vote for legal reasons, and the official confirmation is to be announced on Friday, 22 January.
Most recent polls had shown Armin Laschet and Norbert Roettgen, MP in Bundestag, almost on a par. Friedrich Merz, once faction head of the CDU in Bundestag but currently without mandate and the only one of the three offering a notable shift to more conservatism, was still in the lead, but nowhere near the necessary 50 % majority.
What makes a speech
First up at the conference, Armin Laschet gave a passionate speech that was focused on trust and inclusiveness at the center of society. He referred to the events at the US Capitol as well in front of the German Reichstag to stress the need for trust and unity, to fight polarization and think policy from the middle. And he seemed to hit a nerve when, at the very end of his speech, he presented his father’s identification tag from his time as a coal miner, a symbol of trust and for good luck.
Friedrich Merz came across less passionate, in parts almost distant, and somewhat business-like. He failed to ignite and communicate his vision for the party, and a comment on the role of women appeared fallen out of time: “If I had a problem with women my daughters would have shown me the yellow card, and my wife not married me fourty years ago.”
A slight majority in a divided party
So, when it came to vote, Merz won the first round with 385 votes, but only marginally ahead of Laschet (380), and Roettgen gained a respectable third place with 224 votes. In the final run-off between Laschet and Merz, Roettgen’s supporters probably made the difference and secured Laschet a win of 521 votes over Merz with 466: A majority, but not a victory. The result illustrated once again that the party is currently divided into two almost equally strong camps. And it is Laschet’s most imminent task to reunite them. So, right after his election he offered the defeated Roettgen and Merz roles in the CDU’s leadership bodies. Merz declined and would not be involved – not a good sign. On the contrary, he went on twitter and claimed the ministry of economic affairs in the current cabinet. Probably intended as a test of Laschet’s standing with the chancellor, his rash move was not much appreciated and turned down by Merkel almost immediately: “The chancellor does not plan to change her Cabinet.” But despite this mishap, Merz remains a powerful figure at the party base.
Super election year 2021
Of course, Laschet’s real challenge only starts now as he leads the party through a “super election year” with six state elections and the federal elections on 26 September. He needs to unite the two sides and earn the trust of the conservative Merz supporters, especially in the Eastern states. But Laschet has often been underestimated, and he has proven his ability to win elections when he took over the SPD’s home turf in North-Rhine Westphalia, where he has since been leading a coalition government with the pro-business liberal FDP.
But Laschet is clever enough not to get drawn into talking about potential partners yet. He sees the Greens as the main competitor and has formulated clear positions on energy policy and internal security, where he wants his CDU to “show a clear edge”, both of which are contentious topics with the Greens.
Choosing a candidate for chancellor
While a CDU leader would be the natural chancellor candidate of the CDU/CSU Union in the federal elections, the smaller sister party CSU is involved in this decision, and CSU-leader Markus Soeder has become a people’s favorite for his crisis management in the COVID-19 pandemic. And Soeder wants to wait until the new CDU leader has been put to a first test. The upcoming state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg (currently a coalition led by the Greens, and CDU) and Rhineland-Palatinate (currently governed by a coalition of SPD, FDP, Greens) on 14 March will serve as this gage, and so the two party leaders have agreed that the chancellor candidacy will only be decided around Easter.
How did we get here? Why Merkel backed down
The election of a new party chair became necessary after former chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced in February 2020 that she would step down. She no longer had enough support in her own ranks. Prior to this, in autumn 2018, Angela Merkel had declared her own withdrawal from the party leadership and declared she would not stand again as chancellor in the next election. Merkel had lost control of her own parliamentary group in Bundestag, and on top of this the party suffered significant losses in the state elections in Hesse in October that year. Merkel backed down because she was afraid of being chased out. She was politically battered and organised an orderly retreat. However, she was able to earn high recognition again by steering Germany successfully during the COVID crisis and significant achievements during her European Council Presidency in the second half of last year. In her party, however, the leadership change is seen as overdue.
Germany’s “Super Election Year 2021” – Key Dates
|Date||Parliamentary body||Term of legislature|
|14 March||State parliament Baden-Wuerttemberg||5 years|
|14 March||State parliament Rhineland Palatinate||5 years|
|6 June||State parliament Saxony-Anhalt||5 years|
|26 September||Federal parliament, Bundestag||4 years|
|26 September||State parliament (Senate) Berlin||5 years|
|26 September||State parliament Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania||4 years|
|26 September||State parliament of Thuringia||4 years|
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