The rocky road of a decision-making process: The CDU/CSU’s chancellor-race
The Union’s damaging showdown
Finding the right candidate is a delicate task, especially when it divides one’s own party. After Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Greens) demonstrated how to do it right by nominating Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for chancellor, the CDU had to act at the end of a nightmarish week marked by heated debates and protracted meetings. In the end, Armin Laschet prevailed, but the decision did not come easy. In recent weeks, the chancellor question had become a damaging public power struggle between CDU party leader Armin Laschet and the leader of the sister party CSU Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder.
Weakness invites mutiny
But how did this happen to Merkel’s party, known for its strong unity and crisis management capabilities? Typically, the CDU, representing 15 of 16 states for the Union, is assumed to nominate the chancellor candidate. However, weak leadership invites challengers in one’s own ranks, and Laschet’s somewhat rocky start into his party leadership created an environment in which “power-hungry” Söder felt confident to make his move for the candidacy.
Laschet already started off in a weak position after he won the competitive battle for leadership against the conservative challenger Friedrich Merz with only 53 percent (see our previous election insight). While Laschet began to secure his position internally, the CDU took a nosedive in the polls from around 35 percent to 27 percent. Setbacks in pandemic crisis management and damaging lobbying and corruption allegations against CDU/CSU MPs led to two devastating losses for the CDU in the federal state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate (see our previous election insight). As party chairman, Armin Laschet was naturally (at least partially) blamed for this. The CDU’s reputation for strong crisis management began to crumble as the government, led by the CDU, was receiving a lot of criticism for their management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Laschet became the face of the problems, especially after Chancellor Angela Merkel scolded him publicly for his poor pandemic handling in North Rhine-Westphalia. Meanwhile, Söder saw his own approval ratings rise and was better at selling his crisis management, allowing him to use this position of strength to make a power move for the candidacy of chancellor and shoring support also within the CDU.
Chaos days in Berlin
During a gruelling week of very public “inner-party” debates and various groupings and party heavyweights speaking out for one or the other, the decision was pushed back further and further. For a short time, Söder seemed to be the clear favourite, but in the end, the CDU managed to pull together for the party’s cause and to try and avert further damage. Armin Laschet received the support from the CDU’s federal executive committee, upon which Söder had to keep his promise to respect the decision and assured Laschet of his support.
A rough start to a difficult election campaign
Chancellor Merkel’s 16 years are tending to an end. Armin Laschet will now have to face tough challenges. After the Corona pandemic was initially used by Laschet and Söder to boost their profiles, Laschet will be judged against his ability to overcome the crisis. He must present a convincing election program, and, most of all, rebuild the party’s trust and credibility. And the sister parties CDU and CSU need to succeed in campaigning together. The resolution of the long-winded chancellor-question is a first step in the right direction. Accordingly, the next few weeks will show whether the Conservatives can finally regain their unity. The race to catch up has begun.
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.