The election of Armin Laschet as the new leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, has been welcomed by those hoping for a smooth transition after the imminent departure of Angela Merkel from political leadership. But his detractors have warned he faces an uphill challenge to unite not just his party but also the country in the case he becomes chancellor, at a time of national crisis and division.
Laschet, who is now in line to succeed Merkel as chancellor after the parliamentary elections in September, secured victory at the weekend despite the odds having been on Friedrich Merz, a prominent conservative and investment banker. Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee dropped out after the first round, prompting many of his supporters to back Laschet. The digital vote must still be confirmed by a postal ballot.
Even as Merkel bows out of politics at the next election – having stepped down as party leader in 2018 – her influence on the weekend’s leadership contest, held online for the first time in German history, was clear after she had given Laschet her tacit backing urging continuity for her centrist course. The big question now is whether the party can stand on its own feet without her and retain those who supported the party because of her. Laschet pointed out that many people had voted for the party over the past 15 years mainly due to their support of Merkel.
Commentators on Sunday welcomed the centrist Laschet’s emphasis on social cohesion and reconciliation, saying he had frequently been told that the secret to political success was the art of polarisation. “No, you don’t need to polarise,” he told the conference. “Polarisation is easy, the poison that is quick to grasp.” In contrast the CDU he said, “has to speak clearly, but not to polarise.”
He recalled the recent chaotic scenes at the Capitol in Washington DC as a reminder of where divisive leadership could lead. Political figures in Germany had been quick to connect the Washington riots with German anti coronavirus-lockdown protesters’ attempts last year to unlawfully enter the Reichstag building in Berlin and by extension with the arson attack on the Reichstag in 1933 which was central in the establishment of Nazi Germany.
But German commentators were almost unanimous in their assessment of the weighty challenge Laschet now faces. “Armin Laschet campaigned as a big reconciler,” said news magazine the Spiegel. “But the CDU leader must now do justice to the demand for this in the party.” This would also include the need to integrate the disappointed supporters of the rightwing Friedrich Merz, the magazine said. Just hours after his defeat, Merz, who had been campaigning for the leadership role for a year, requested the post of economics minister. A spokesman for Merkel said that there were no plans to reshuffle the cabinet or replace the current economics minister, Peter Altmaier, a Merkel ally. Laschet also said a cabinet switch was “not on the agenda”. However, he may yet be forced to include Merz in a new lineup to keep him close to hand and appease his large band of supporters within the party.
The conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said Laschet had been “the safe choice” for Germany’s largest party. It said Laschet had won support due to his proven experience in government as leader of the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, in which he has held together a broad coalition since winning power there from the Social Democrats in 2017.
It pointed out that Merkel’s successor as CDU leader in 2018, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who announced her resignation last year, had also stood on a ticket of continuity and keeping the grand coalition with the Social Democrats intact, but that that had also been her undoing. Kramp-Karrenbauer was not mentioned in Merkel’s short speech to the party conference, her last as chancellor.
It remained to be seen, the paper said, whether Laschet could now deliver “the fresh air and clear cut lines” which many in the party craved.
The co-leaders of the Green party, which is currently performing strongly and has the potential to enter government in September in a power-sharing deal with the CDU, welcomed the clarity of Laschet’s election. “He must now newly define the CDU after the era of Angela Merkel and clarify what the party actually stands for,” Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck said in a statement.
Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats wished Laschet luck, and said: “this year ... will be a challenge for us all.” Alice Weidel, leader of the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland, the main opposition party in the Bundestag, said Laschet’s election amounted to “political lockdown” for the CDU.
Laschet will face his first big tests at two regional elections in March, in the states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg. His chance of becoming the party’s chancellor candidate in this autumn’s election will depend on how the CDU performs in those polls.
Markus Söder, the popular state leader of Bavaria, and head of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s sister party, is his direct contender who may yet force him to stand aside. Jens Spahn, the health minister, long tipped as a chancellor candidate, who has won praise for his management of the coronavirus crisis, was elected as Laschet’s deputy leader but performed much worse than expected after appearing not to respect the voting process by holding a campaign speech for Laschet.