The Union and Armin Laschet – the new (old) front runner
Armin Laschet (CDU/CSU) on the rise, Annalena Baerbock (Greens) in decline and Olaf Scholz (SPD) lingering somewhere in between – perhaps unlike any other German election, this year’s federal election is attracting numerous pollsters examining approval ratings for the parties as well as their chancellor candidates. Despite the – by now well-established – uncertainties surrounding such opinion surveys, a look back over the past weeks of polls suggests that the CDU/CSU (Union) is consolidating its position as the frontrunner for this year’s election, while the Greens, even briefly in the lead from late April to mid-May, have taken some painful hits to their campaign in recent weeks. Hence, following a plunge in ratings, sub-par performance in the state elections back in March first state elections (see e.g. our insight here) and corruption allegations against CDU/CSU politicians concerning face mask procurement, the Union has recovered its standing and the likelihood of Armin Laschet taking the office of chancellor after the September elections is increasing. Recent surveys directly assessing the popularity of the chancellor candidates have confirmed this trend: Currently, 34 percent would like to see Laschet as chancellor, while only 26 percent are in favour of Olaf Scholz, and Annalena Baerbock is lagging behind with 24 percent. With the Union and Armin Laschet currently dominating the race, a look ahead is thus warranted: What is to be expected of a potential Chancellor Laschet?
Armin Laschet’s election program – old ideas in a new dress?
As Angela Merkel’s farewell from politics is looming, her party has visibly been struggling to appoint her successor (see our previous insights here and here) and to (re-)define its course after the Merkel era. With the choice of Armin Laschet as new chairman and chancellor candidate, the party has however opted for continuity with the “Merkel course”. Similar to Merkel, the current State Premier of North-Rhine Westphalia is often touted as a “left/liberal” representative of his party – particularly referring to his rather liberal positions on social policy – and is expected to continue on a centrist path if indeed elected Chancellor. Also, in his somewhat clumsy style and almost stoic resilience in times of crisis he may be compared to the parting Chancellor.
Nevertheless, while the Union had long been holding back details on its election program, expectations for Laschet to provide new input and policy proposals – especially in view of the large challenges that would await the new government – were not low, to say the least. These expectations were however dampened when the Union finally presented its election program in late June. Though the program, titled “For Stability and Renewal – Together for a Modern Germany”, promises a “modernization boost”, it rather reverts to some of the evergreens of Union policy. For example, to overcome the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Union promises to “unleash” economic growth through de-bureaucratization, acceleration of administrative processes, pushing digitalization and maintaining fiscal discipline while refraining from tax rises as well as advocating for a “competitive corporate tax”. Fittingly, as State Premier of NRW, Laschet had already presented a list of proposals to achieve de-bureaucratization and administrative acceleration on federal level in the fall of 2020. In the past, Laschet has also repeatedly voiced preferences for fiscal caution over high public spending and opposed additional taxes, such as wealth or financial transaction taxes.
Furthermore, particularly the Union’s approaches to climate actions were keenly anticipated by observers and potential coalition partners alike. However, while the Union postulates to make Germany a global leader in climate action through innovation and new technologies to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045 and maintaining the country’s industrial core at the same time, the program is surprisingly short on detail as to how to achieve this goal. Overall, the Union pursues a market-based approach to climate action, for example through European emissions trading, but to that end fails to specify a CO2 price. Nevertheless, CSU Chairman Markus Söder manifested during the presentation of the program that it is possible to do “green politics without the Greens”. Also, Laschet has been known to favor a rather industry-friendly approach to climate policy: Though the son of a coal miner has recognized the need for climate action and as State Premier of NRW has been central to getting the German coal phase-out off the ground, he has been adamant that any such efforts must not come at the expense of Germany’s large industrial sector. Recent decisions by his state cabinet, for example its passing of a new minimum distance rule of 1,000 meters to settlements for wind turbines have further triggered strong criticism, underlining that Laschet and the Union are hardly seen as a leader in climate action by those advocating for a more ambitious course.
Last but not least, the Union’s program picks up two themes close to its chancellor candidate’s heart: Firstly, it advocates for social cohesion and reiterates Laschet’s promise of advancement through education, regardless of a child’s background – a remnant of his time as integration minister in NRW (2005-2010). Secondly, it starts out with two comprehensive chapters on Europe and international politics, declaring the ambition to make Germany and the EU “capable of world politics”, to seek comprehensive transatlantic cooperation, to strengthen rule-based global trade (including ratification of the controversial CETA and Mercosur trade agreements) and to “develop the European Green Deal into a genuine growth strategy” through “market-based instruments rather than bans”, among others. Hence, by relying on staples such as de-bureaucratization, rejection of tax rises and industry-friendly climate policy, the election program not only fits the candidate Laschet well, it may also reassure those anxious about too much upheaval after the elections.
One never governs alone
With a clearer view on the Union’s policy outlook, the question of possible implications for (new) coalitions following the election begs itself. As such, the Union’s program met with sharp criticism by the SPD and the Greens, particularly with the latter arguing the program was despondent and would not bring about urgently needed changes. The FDP on the other hand was generally favorable to the Union’s proposals, while also not missing the chance to note that the Union had often failed to deliver on its announcements after elections.
Indeed, the program’s vagueness and its “a little bit of everything, but not too concrete”-approach may be understood as a strategic decision to leave the door open for various coalition options. On closer inspection, however, the program can also be understood as a clear tendency towards a coalition with the Liberal Party FDP, Laschet’s coalition partner in NRW, over a coalition with the Greens. Especially in their approaches to climate, economic and fiscal policy, the FDP and the Union show significant overlap, and fundamental differences between the Greens and the Union remain. Nevertheless, the situation remains as volatile as ever and many outcomes, including a Jamaica coalition (Union, Greens, FDP) are still conceivable.
Continuity and stability as the winning formula?
After Merkel’s 16-year reign, it seemed at times that not only a change in personnel, but also in the party occupying the Federal Chancellery was imminent. Yet, once again demonstrating his ability to wait out on rough waters, Laschet has seemingly turned the ship around and (re-)established the CDU/CSU as the frontrunner for the September elections, keeping especially the Greens at a solid distance in the current polls. Betting on a course of stability and continuity, the Union currently seems to fare well with voters still feeling the effects of the turbulences of a global pandemic. Yet, with roughly two and half months until the elections, the winds may also turn again. Whether stability is indeed the winning formula in times of great change will only be decided at the polls on 26 September.
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.