The Christian Democratic Union party of Angela Merkel elects Armin Laschet as new chairman, a win for moderate conservatives hoping to continue Merkel’s course

The right wing conservative party of Chancellor Angela Merkel elected the moderate conservative Armin Laschet as party chairman. Mr. Laschet has been prime minister of Germany’s most populous state North Rhein-Westphalia (NRW) since June 2017 and is regarded as a moderate conservative. As Minister of Integration (2005-2010), Laschet earned the nickname “Türken Armin” (Turkish Armin) because of his good relationship with immigrant communities. His election as chairman is regarded as a win for the party’s moderate wing who prefer a continuation of the political course set by Chancellor Angela Merkel, serving since 2005, who still enjoys very high approval ratings. Merkel has announced that she was not running for reelection in autumn 2021. Through his election as party chairman, Laschet is the current favorite for nominee of the CDU. With the CDU currently polling ahead of other parties at 35% were the elections to be held now, Armin Laschet has a real shot at becoming Germany’s next Chancellor.

Laschet defeated the conservative hardliner Friedrich Merz, leader of the CDU fraction in the Bundestag (German Parliament) between 2000 and 2002, who is looking for a big comeback to politics after having spent over a decade in the private sector, most notably as Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the hedge fund management firm BlackRock’s German branch. Mr. Merz has now been defeated two times in a row, having lost the race for party chairman in December 2019 to Annegret Kramp-Karenbauer, Laschet’s predecessor. Kramp-Karenbauer (or AKK as she is called in German media) is rumored to have been Merkel’s personal favorite as her successor but quickly eroded her popularity through a series of mistakes, even after Merkel has given her the Ministry of Defense in a clear effort to provide AKK with photo-ops and a chance of profiling herself as a charismatic leader, leading to her eventual decision not to seek reelection as party chairwoman and giving up ultimately on her ambitions as Chancellor.

Voices supporting a more conservative direction have recently been getting stronger inside the CDU. Still, the election of Laschet over Merz by the CDU clearly shows, that the party’s base is afraid that radically breaking with Merkel’s course by electing a conservative hardliner would have helped competing parties (Social Democratic Party - SDP, Alliance 90/The Greens) gather support against the CDU. While this is probably true, Armin Laschet also has a track record showing he may not be as moderate as some people might think. He voted against same-sex marriage in 2017. He campaigned for the deforestation of the Hambach Forest for mining coal, a symbolic issue for climate activists in Germany. His government in North Rhein-Westphalia also recently passed repressive police legislation. Laschet is also being criticized recently for his hesitance in dealing with the Coronavirus epidemic in the state led by him.

Of the three parties with the largest support (CDU 35.8%, Greens 19.3%, SPD 14.5%), only the SPD have already chosen their candidate for Chancellor in 2021 in the person of Olaf Scholz, incumbent Finance Minister and previous Mayor of Hamburg (2011-2018). The Greens have a dual party chairmanship system and have not yet decided on the “K-Frage” (Chancellor Question). Both leaders of The Greens, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, enjoy similar popularity.

The most important topics for the German electorate in the 2021 federal elections will probably be management of the Coronavirus epidemic, especially its economic and social consequences, climate change and immigration/integration.