Merkel's party picks centrist successor

Merkel's party picks centrist successor

Christian Democrats gear up for September general election without Europe's longest-serving leader at the helm

Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union, reacts in Berlin after being elected at the party's 33rd congress, held online because of the coronavirus  pandemic. (Reuters Photo)
Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union, reacts in Berlin after being elected at the party's 33rd congress, held online because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters Photo)

BERLIN: Germany’s dominant party voted for continuity on Saturday by electing Armin Laschet, a centrist regional premier, to succeed Angela Merkel, Europe’s longest-serving leader.

As the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Laschet is in pole position to become Germany’s next Chancellor when general elections are held in September. 

Laschet defeated long-time Merkel critic Friedrich Merz in an online runoff vote on Saturday after Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag, was eliminated in the first round.

“I’m aware of the responsibility that comes with this job and will do everything to do well in the upcoming regional elections and to ensure in the national election that the next chancellor comes from the Union,” he said.

With Merkel stepping down after the election in September, there has been intense focus on the succession in Berlin as Europe seeks to kickstart a pandemic-ravaged economy, reset transatlantic ties with the incoming US administration and take a larger role on the world stage.

Of the three candidates, Laschet has been Merkel’s biggest supporter and the most likely to maintain her centrist course, resisting challenges from the right-wing and from the Greens and with a firm commitment to the European Union.

“The Germany I imagine is a European Germany,” Laschet told delegates ahead of the vote. “We need to be able to integrate, to hold a society together.”

The son of a coal mining foreman, 59-year-old Laschet graduated in law, once edited a Catholic newspaper and was a legislator in the Bundestag as well as the European Parliament before being elected premier of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017.

His ties to the immigrant community during a previous stint in the regional government earned him the nickname “Turkish Armin” and his composed demeanour reminds many Germans of the outgoing chancellor, who remains highly popular with the public.

“The CDU delegates have clearly voted for a continuation of Merkel’s line, staying in the political centre,” said Carsten Brzeski, global head of macro research at ING. “Laschet has proven to be very pragmatic and stands for more fiscal stimulus and support for the green transition without losing the interests of business.”

While the party leader usually goes on to be the chancellor candidate for Germany’s conservative bloc, that step isn’t automatic this time. The Christian Social Union (CSU), a sister party in Bavaria, will have an important say in the decision. Markus Soeder, the CSU leader, is currently well ahead in the polls.

In a recent Infratest Dimap survey, 32% of CDU-CSU members polled thought Laschet would make a good chancellor candidate. That compares with 80% support for Soeder. Indeed, Laschet himself insisted the party should consider a candidate from the CSU when he spoke at the launch of Soeder’s biography in December.

Laschet will have a brief window to prove himself during state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on March 14. If the CDU performs well there, it would enhance his chances of thwarting the Bavarian premier and claiming the candidacy.

At stake is not only how the CDU fares but also the kind of coalitions that will emerge from the next election. On the far-right, the Alternative for Germany is nipping at CDU support, while the Green party has jumped from sixth to second place in opinion polls since the last national vote in 2017 and is shaping up as a potential partner for the CDU/CSU.

After running neck-and-neck with the Greens earlier in the parliament, the conservatives have opened up a comfortable lead in the polls, thanks mainly to Merkel’s steady leadership during the pandemic. But lockdown fatigue and an uncertain economic outlook may nevertheless make the party vulnerable when they hit the campaign trail without Merkel for the first time in a generation.

While Laschet is said to be open to a Soeder candidacy and the two have a close professional relationship, some party members say he is too ambitious to simply hand over the chance to become the leader of Europe’s largest economy.


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