What the CDU leadership result means

This newsletter is a 5-minute read

Dear Reader,

The largest political party in Germany, the Christian Democrats (CDU), picked a new leader yesterday. Given that the CDU are head and shoulders above the competition in polling, we should now have a good idea of who Germany’s next Chancellor will be. But it's not that simple…


Jörg & Axel

Keine Experimente!

Armin Laschet. Wikipedia Commons.

The Christian Democrats have a new leader: step forward Armin Laschet. On Saturday he won a vote at a digital party conference, beating rival Friedrich Merz in a second round run off by 521 votes to 466.

If you want to know why the victory will have been particularly sweet for Merkel, read the backstory in our Friday edition.

Who is Laschet?

  • Born in 1961, Laschet grew up in a Roman Catholic family in the town of Aachen near the Dutch/Belgian border. He’s spent time in the Bundestag, the European parliament and the North Rhine-Westphalian (NRW) parliament.

  • In 2017 he won a surprise victory against the SPD to become state premier in NRW. Since then he’s been in coalition with the liberal Free Democrats in the country’s most populous state.

  • A diminutive chap, Laschet always has a ready smile and is known as a bridge-builder and a moderate. He has knows how to change policies when it suits him. As state leader, he supported the energy concern RWE in controversial plans to flatten an ancient forest before moving towards conciliation with climate activists when the story started to make national headlines.

How did he become chairman?

  • The 59 year old threw his hat into the ring soon after Merkel protégé Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced she was stepping back from the post last February. The vote was supposed to happen in April but, due to corona, he ended up in an eleven-month campaign against backbench MdB Norbert Röttgen and long-time Merkel rival Friedrich Merz.

  • Laschet’s popularity has been hit over the past year as the public has perceived him to have mishandled the pandemic. Particularly damaging was his attempt to blame underpaid Romanian shift workers for a corona outbreak at a slaughter house.

  • His main rival, Friedrich Merz, returned to politics from a boardroom role at Blackrock two years ago, promising to bring fresh wind into party debates. But his bullish style led some journalists to characterize him as a polarizing figure. One newspaper even attempted the kiss of death by nicknaming him “the German Trump.”

The key moment

Going into the conference wekend, few pundits were prepared to make a prediction. But Mr Laschet’s speech seems to have swung it.

Addressing delegates at the digital conference, Mr Laschet played the humble card. “I’m not one for self-promotion. I’m just Armin Laschet,” he said. That folksy tone masked a cunning trick - he used his speech to exploit his opponent’s key weakness.

“Corona, lockdown, a virus mutation. As if this all wasn’t strange enough we then had the pictures from the Capitol in Washington,” Laschet began. “Many people think that couldn’t happen here,” he continued. “But we recently had Reich’s war flags on the steps of the Reichstag.”

“Again and again I hear people say: ‘one should be able to polarize’. But I say ‘no, one doesn’t need to.”

Of course, the affable Mr Laschet was too tactful to mention Mr Merz by name. But the message between the lines was loud and clear: in such a polarized world, a vote for a contrarian like Merz is that last thing Germany needs. Vote for me and there won’t be any unseemly arguments.

Several commentators have speculated that this speech swung the vote in his favour.

What does his victory mean?

  • The victory represents continuity, with Mr Laschet making a pitch for the party to stay squarely in the middle of the political spectrum ahead of the federal election this September.

  • In his speech he spent more time praising Ms Merkel for the trust she had earned from the German public than he did talking about his own plans for Germany’s future. He would clearly try to lead in her mould: as a technocratic who leads from the back rather than from the front.

  • His pledge to keep the CDU as “a party of the middle” keeps coalition options open. He is a politicians whom the Green party would be comfortable doing business with, unlike Merz who likes picking fights on obscure Green dogmas like gendering the German language.

Is he a dead cert for Chancellor?

Far from it. Saturday’s victory is just the beginning. The next step is a meeting with the head of the Bavarian CSU, the CDU’s sister party. 

Laschet and CSU leader Markus Söder will now have to fight it out between them as to who leads the party into September's election. Usually this would be a no brainer. The sister parties have only been led into a federal election by a Bavarian twice (in 1980 and 2002) and on both occasions they had little chance of beating the Social Democrats.

This time around it is different. The CDU/CSU are flying high in polling. Unlike Mr Laschet, Mr Söder is widely believed to have done a sterling job during the pandemic (even if that actual data does nothing to back this popular belief up). Polling shows that the public see him as the person most suited to be Chancellor.

A swaggering Machtpolitiker, Söder has happily tacked between populist and liberal policies as he’s elbowed his way to the top in his home state. Few people know what his true intentions are, but he isn’t the kind of man to take no for an answer.

Who wins that little power struggle will first become clear in March.

Even if Mr Laschet does run for Chancellor, time will tell the extent to which the CDU’s polling success rests on the personal popularity of the woman who is about to retire after 16 years at the top. The Greens and the Social Democrats are both waiting in the wings…

Is he a good long-term pick?

  • In choosing Laschet, the CDU delegates followed the old party maxim of keine Experimente! But they may have been lulled into a false sense of security by their good polling figures during the pandemic. A year ago the atmosphere was very different: Merkel was unpopular and the country was chaffing under the visionless politics that she represented.

  • Arguably, a Volkspartei that tries to represent liberal, Christian and conservative wings needs to have a leader as flexible as Laschet. His victory is ultimately likely to lead to far less inner-party friction than if Merz had won. His amiable personality could be what the party needs to stay united over the coming four years.

  • A win for the centrists is unlikely to have much of an impact on the popularity of the AfD. By picking the Merkel fanboy, the CDU have given a weapon to a party who’ve turned into a an anti-Angie cult.

  • With the US internally riven, China and Russia both posing increasing threats to liberal democracy, and the future of the EU far from certain, the largest European power arguably needs a leader who has a vision for Germany and Europe. A good manager might no longer cut it in the third decade of the 21st century.

What do you think of the CDU’s choice? Join the discussion below:

Leave a comment