The post-Merkel era has begun. Again. The first attempt to put Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the hands of a trusted lieutenant failed when Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer resigned after more than a year in office. Now Angela Merkel has another choice successor. On Saturday, CDU selected as its new leader Armin Laschet, a close ally committed to an outgoing chancellor-centric brand of politics.
The party continues to bet continuity rather than a rightward shift below the closest rival Friedrich Merz. Mr Laschet, North Rhine-Westphalia’s regional prime minister, represented the kind of open centrism that allowed Merkel to win four consecutive election victories. The CDU climbed high in opinion polls ahead of federal elections on Sept. 26. But it will soon be done without Merkel, her biggest asset.
Mr Laschet is now a pioneer to replace Merkel as chancellor but that is far from a guarantee. The CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, will decide in March who will run as their joint candidate. Many doubted whether he had the skills and profile to lead a national campaign. Mr Laschet had to assert himself quickly to strengthen his chances. He could still lose to the much more popular Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder.
Mr Laschet’s first priority was to unify the party. It won’t be easy. He beat Mr Merz by 53 to 47 percent of the vote. There is a large minority in the party who want it to take a clearer conservative direction. When he lost the 2018 leadership contest, Merz stepped down. This time, he seemed determined to consider the future of his party. After his defeat on Saturday, he asked Laschet to engineer his entry into the government as economy minister. Ms Merkel refused.
The second challenge is maintaining CDU ratings as Merkel prepares to step down. They face major regional elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Pfalz in March. Simultaneously, Mr Laschet had to master the pandemic on his own turf. After an inconclusive start last year, he backed Merkel’s popular call for tighter lockdown measures. Now, a successful vaccine launch has the power to make or break politicians in no time.
Ultimately, Laschet must refresh the party’s program, address the deficiencies of the Merkel era, such as the creaky German infrastructure, weaknesses in digital technology and low ambition on climate change. His support for coal and a soft view of China and Russia could complicate a coalition with green, the most attractive election result for the CDU. But it was easier for them to find common ground with a moderate like Mr Laschet than with Mr Merz.
The CDU and Germany – and indeed Europe – are better off without Mr Merz at the helm. His economic and social views were stuck in another era. Despite being broadly pro-European, a Merz-led campaign spreading a hawkish fiscal and monetary outlook to win back voters of a European nationalist alternative to Germany will pose problems. The Francophile Mr Laschet will continue Merkel’s cautious pro-Europeanism and potentially revive strained Franco-German relations.
Before that, Mr Laschet had to earn the trust of his party and his country. She presented the truth of the house to delegates on Saturday: many Germans were attracted first to Angela Merkel and then to CDU. Without him, his success and success are far from certain.
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