Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party picked her ally Armin Laschet as its next leader on Saturday, in a vote for “continuity” as Europe’s biggest economy heads into a key election year with the deadly coronavirus pandemic still raging.
In the close race, Laschet, the state premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, triumphed over old Merkel nemesis Friedrich Merz, after a first-round that saw Merz leading by just five votes.
A third hopeful, foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen, was knocked out of the race.
Merz had campaigned on a promise to shift away from Merkel’s centrist path and steer right, writing in a column for Der Spiegel that a “happy ‘carry on like this’ is just as inappropriate as the vague claim to occupy the centre at all times”.
But delegates at the congress pushed online because of the pandemic were not swayed by the 65-year-old corporate lawyer.
Instead, they gave a late victory to Laschet, who pledged to continue with Merkel’s more moderate course.
In a speech minutes before the vote on Saturday, Laschet called for “continuity” and highlighted the challenge of retaining CDU voters without Merkel at the top.
‘Continuity of success’
“What we need is continuity of success,” he said, in a direct rejection of Merz’s vision.
“I keep hearing the phrase, ‘You have to be prepared to polarise’. I say, no, you don’t have to. Polarising is easy, anyone can do it,” he said, adding that he wants to “integrate, hold society together”.
Laschet had been trailing in surveys in the run-up to the vote, but his promise to stay the course has struck a cord with a party keen not to rock the boat further in a year already filled with ructions like the pandemic.
At the opening on Friday of the two-day congress, Merkel had signalled her opposition to Merz as she urged delegates to stay the centrist course.
Undeterred by the loss, Merz tweeted that he had extended an offer to Laschet to enter the current government as finance minister.
But he immediately earned a new rebuff from Merkel, with a government spokesman telling AFP there were “no plans for a reshuffle”.
While popular with the most conservative faction of the CDU, Merz has been struggling to shed his image as an out-of-touch traditionalist.
He was panned on social media on Saturday for an attempt to address his low levels of support among women in the party by highlighting Saturday his good relationship with his wife and daughter.
“Sure, every heterosexual husband and father is virtually a women’s rights movement in their own right,” one Twitter user wrote.
Merkel backs ‘team’
Laschet’s win on Saturday puts him pole position to lead the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party into a general election as their chancellor candidate, meaning he is in with a good chance of securing Merkel’s job.
Merkel, who is planning to stand down after four terms and 16 years in the job, had previously said that Laschet “has the tools” to be chancellor.
But the pandemic has reshuffled the cards, and questions are swirling on whether someone other than the CDU chief could lead the conservative alliance into the vote, particularly since Laschet currently polls nowhere close to the top in popularity surveys.
Topping the polls at the moment is CSU leader and Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder, whose robust response to the pandemic has won him widespread praise and given him a national spotlight.
Another contender could be Laschet’s deputy, Health Minister Jens Spahn, who has reportedly been sounding out his chances behind the scenes.
But Laschet should not be written off either, according to Der Spiegel weekly, which praised his ability to “sit out his opponents”.
After being an early favourite in the leadership race, Laschet saw his support plummet thanks to various gaffes in his handling of the pandemic in North Rhine-Westphalia.
But Der Spiegel described him as a “grinder” who “wears down his opponents slowly, continuously, with great endurance”.
While a platform of “continue somewhat like this” is usually a handicap in election campaigns… after a world pandemic, after a President Trump, after a hectic, nervous, sometimes crazy time, the majority of Germans could well long for” that.
“This could be Armin Laschet’s year,” it said.