Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats opt for continuity, choose Armin Laschet to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as CDU leader

Published : January 17, 2021 21:30 IST

Armin Laschet, federal premier of Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (file photo) Photo: REUTERS / THILO SCHMUELGEN

The election of Armin Laschet as the leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) marks a decisive victory for German conservatives who prefer continuity with the liberal centrist policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure. The Prime Minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and CDU Vice-chairman, Laschet had been a vocal supporter of Merkel’s policy to invite nearly a million Syrian refugees in October 2015 and saw little justification to deviate from her successful record.

In a digital conference among the party’s 1,001 delegates on Saturday, he defeated frontrunner Friedrich Merz, an old rival of Angela Merkel who had pledged to take the CDU back to its traditional right-of-centre base to counter the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Yesterday’s election to the party’s highest position, which must be formally confirmed by a postal ballot, came about a decade since Laschet’s elusive bid for leadership of the CDU’s NRW branch. The son of a miner, law graduate and former journalist, the 60-year-old’s candidacy was boosted early on when Jens Spahn, Germany’s Health Minister, stepped aside from the race, deciding instead to stand as his running mate.

A big test of Laschet’s leadership style came during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His case for loosening the lockdown restrictions was contrasted, in mostly negative terms, with the tough measures advocated in Bavaria by the state’s Prime Minister Markus Soeder, who is also the leader of the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). An opinion poll had announced that over 50 per cent of Germans felt that the CDU should back Soeder for the 2021 chancellorship race, rather than its own (to be elected) leader Laschet. However, the moment to savour arrived soon for the latter when the lockdown was eased in order to balance the public health and livelihood concerns of the population.

A political moderate who is regarded as an ideological heir to Angela Merkel, Armin Laschet joined the CDU when he was 18 and won a seat in the Bundestag (German parliament) in 1994, and subsequently entered the European Parliament. He rose to prominence in the 2017 NRW provincial elections, when the CDU replaced the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in government and offered representation to the party’s various ideological strands.

Saturday’s verdict brings to a close several months of speculation over the stewardship and direction of the CDU and the country, ever since Merkel announced in 2018 that she was stepping down as party leader and would not run for a fifth term in the general election this September. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whom Merkel had anointed to succeed her, won the CDU’s 2018 contest, but stepped down last year after she failed to stamp her imprint on the party.

As per convention, the CDU head leads the party for the country’s chancellorship in the quadrennial general election. However, the joint confirmation of Laschet’s candidature by the CDU and the CSU for the September 2021 election could turn out to be more than a matter of formality. This is in view of Soeder’s strong contention to run for the top job after a sharp rise in his poll ratings, owing to his handling of Bavaria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is some speculation also that Spahn may yet throw his hat into the electoral ring. This would add further uncertainty to the process, which is expected to take place in the spring after the completion of several crucial regional elections around the country.

Come September, post-war Germany’s longest-ruling party will face the electorate after its worst showing in the polls, both to the Bundestag in 2017 and the European Parliament in 2019. In the country’s fragmented polity today, where parties on the left and further to the right of the CDU are vying for more space, the landscape has become even more competitive. As the radical left-wing Die Linke (The Left) and the far-right AfD jostle for legislative seats besides the Greens and the Free Democrats, the prospects for another so-called grand coalition between the two main centrist parties, the CDU and the SPD, could be constrained by an ever-slender electoral arithmetic. Laschet, the quintessential pragmatist, has a formidable task ahead.

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