By LAURE RENAULT
This year is fundamental for German politics as Angela Merkel plans to step down in September, after 15 years in office. Starting on the 15th and 16th of January, the Christian Democratic Union held an election for a new leader. The members had the choice between lawyer Friedrich Merz, who appealed to the right of the party with claims about conservatism and neoliberalism, foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen, who focused on the European Union and the need for continuity, and finally state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia Armin Laschet, who positioned himself as the heir of Mrs Merkel. Armin Laschet narrowly secured the leadership of the party by 52.8% against Friedrich Merz. In this regard, one of Mr Laschet's most important tasks will be to unify the party and gain confidence from the various factions.
Mr Laschet’s victory can be linked with his promise to maintain Mrs Merkel’s continuity. Throughout his career, he has always been loyal to the Chancellor, having much in common with her pragmatist views. This can be seen in his continued defence of her migration policies throughout the 2015 European migrant crisis. Another important event during his campaign was his alliance with the popular Health Minister Jens Spahn, who has risen in the polls due to his maintained efforts since the beginning of the health crisis. Mr Laschet and Mr Spahn insisted on their desire to modernise the CDU and to create a collective leadership. Furthermore, on the eve of the vote, Mrs Merkel called for a moderate leader for the party and even mentioned her desire for a “team” to be elected, seemingly subtly endorsing Mr Laschet.
His experience certainly played a role in gaining support as well. Since joining the party at 18 Laschet has occupied numerous positions since then: he was member of the Bundestag from 1994 to 1999, then of the European Parliament until 2004, before getting involved in North Rhine-Westphalia state politics and finally being elected as Prime Minister of the state in 2017. He reminded us of this numerous times using it as a strong argument to prove his legitimacy as the next leader of the party.
His political career has not all been smooth sailing, with certain controversial opinions hindering his chances at ascertaining an unquestionable majority. First of all, he is one of Germany’s Putinversteher - a defender of the Russian President Putin. He vocally criticised the rise of “marketable anti-Putin populism” in 2014, shortly after the annexation of Crimea. Not stopping there, he has since questioned whether the Kremlin was behind the assasination attempts against the Skripals, a case widely recognised internationally as ordered by the Kremlin, and has praised Russia for supporting the Syrian regime. This may be due to the strong economic incentives Mr Laschet has in North Rhine-Westphalia to maintain good German-Russian relations. Despite this it seems unlikely that Mr Laschet will turn away from Mrs Merkel’s legacy, and he has displayed a pragmatic approach to Russia in multiple debates and insisted on his interest to continue in her footsteps.
He displayed poor leadership at the start of the global pandemic as he strongly stood against strict lockdowns, before falling in line with those views of Mrs Merkel later on. This screeching u-turn came after a massive coronavirus outbreak in a slaughterhouse in his state. The controversy went further as he tried to defend his choice of easing restrictions by blaming the surges in cases on Romanian and Bulgarian workers who acted irresponsibly. He retracted these accusations and focused on the housing and working conditions later on, but these wild statements definitely sparked debate about his fitness to lead the party. Nonetheless he seems to represent Berlin’s status quo overall, and to respond to Mrs Merkel’s call for a moderate leader.
This election was a decisive moment for German politics but far from the last we will be witnessing this year. Traditionally, the leader of the CDU becomes the Chancellor candidate of the conservative bloc. However, polls indicate that Markus Söder, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, is far more popular with 54% of Germans considering him fit to become Chancellor against barely 28% for Armin Laschet. Whilst Mr Laschet won this important election, he must not ease off and rely on this victory until September. Indeed, public scrutiny will intensify even more, and these next eight months will be critical for the future of his political career, and the future of Germany itself.
Image - Flickr (Christliches Medienmagazin pro)