What next for the CDU?

, by Guillermo Íñiguez

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

What next for the CDU?
Newly elected CDU leader Armin Laschet. Source: DW / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On Saturday, 1001 CDU delegates, assembled both in Berlin and virtually, elected Armin Laschet to the party leadership, marking the end of two years of political uncertainty for the German Christian Democrats. Despite having lagged behind in the polls for much of the campaign, Laschet – viewed as the continuity candidate, and widely supported by the party establishment – defeated right-wing Friedrich Merz in the second round, having left centrist Norbert Röttgen behind in the first.

11 months after the resignation of former leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), and just under a year before Merkel puts an end to her 16-year term in office, the CDU seems, at last, to have elected the Chancellor’s likely successor. If Laschet wins the September 2021 general election, his Vice-Chancellor will be health minister Jens Spahn – his running mate in the party leadership election, one of the country’s most popular politicians, and a man widely believed to have serious Chancellorship ambitions himself.

Who is Armin Laschet?

Armin Laschet is a well-known figure in the CDU, having served as a member of the Bundestag (1994-99), as an MEP (1999-2005), and as the party’s deputy leader since 2012. The current Minister-president of North Rhein-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, Laschet is broadly on the party’s Left: in a rare move for a CDU politician, he openly criticised his party’s austerity policy in Greece, played a leading role in the energy transition (Energiewende) negotiations, and was a strong supporter of the CDU-Green-FDP federal coalition which failed to materialise in the aftermath of the 2017 election.

He has also been an outspoken critic of the AfD, of using polarisation as a political tool, and of ceding ground to the far right, three points he repeatedly drove home in Saturday’s election speech. His victory, in other words, is also one for Merkelism, in an electoral campaign which had openly pitched the party’s factions against each other.

Throughout much of the campaign, Laschet seemed to be trailing behind in the polls. For the Bavarian Süddeutsche Zeitung, he is the ‘eternal second man’ (der ewige Zweiter) – a politician ‘used to losing elections’, and one often deemed ‘too soft, too nice, too jittery’ to lead in the contemporary political climate. Yet he is a political veteran, Christian Wernicke adds, who skilfully played his strengths (his moderation, his savoir faire, and the confidence he projects) to portray himself as the best way of ensuring a smooth transition into the post-Merkel era. This was enough to win over a majority of delegates, defeating Merz’s right-wing shift and Röttgen’s bold centrist rupturism.

The elephant in the room, however, is the new leader’s relatively scarce support among the wider conservative electorate. In a recent poll by Infratest Dimap, Laschet’s approval rate was 32%, in stark contrast with Söder’s 80%. If he wants to secure his candidacy in September’s general election, in other words, he will have to act quickly and decisively to make himself known to the wider public. And 2021, a so-called ’super-electoral year’ (Superwahljahr), will be unforgiving.

What lies ahead for the CDU in 2021?

Laschet’s honeymoon period will be extremely brief, with 2021 shaping up to be an extraordinarily busy year in German politics. Six Länder will hold regional elections, with three (Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt) doing so before the general election. A a further two (Lower Saxony and Hesse) will hold municipal ones. And on September 26th, of course, Merkel’s successor will be elected, alongside the regional chambers of Berlin, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, and Thuringia.

The new leader’s electoral prospects will largely depend on the CDU’s performance in the first set of elections – those of Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, and the Rhineland, to be held on March 14th. A strong showing by the party may dissipate any existing doubts, and persuade both the CDU and its Bavarian sister party that Laschet is a strong enough candidate. A disappointing performance, on the other hand, may all but hand the pole position to CSU leader Markus Söder, who has long eyed the Chancellorship.

In Baden-Württemberg, which has been governed by veteran Green politician Winfried Kretschmann since 2011, the situation looks promising for the Christian Democrats, with recent polling placing both parties at 30%, and the SPD at a distant 12%. Germany’s third largest state, Baden-Württemberg is also one of its wealthiest, with low unemployment figures and an economy heavily dependent on the car manufacturing and engineering sectors. It provides, in other words, fertile ground to put into practice Laschet’s centrist electoral project, attempting to win over urban middle-class and young voters – in other words, the Greens’ traditional electorate. A victory by Susanne Eisenmann, the CDU’s candidate and the Land’s current culture minister, would be a huge boost for the newly elected leader.

A similar situation arises in Rhineland-Palatinate, a Bundesland governed by social democrat Malu Dreyer, who leads an SPD-FDP-Green administration, but where the CDU has consistently led the polls since mid-2018. If Christian Baldauf, the party’s Spitzenkandidat, manages to pull off a victory, it will be the first time the CDU governs the Land since 1991, when Carl-Ludwig Wagner’s term came to an end. Once again, the region provides fertile ground for Laschet’s project, with a high per capita GDP, a low unemployment rate, and a strong political presence from Germany’s traditional Volksparteien - the CDU and the SPD.

Söder ante portas?

If, come April or May, the party has performed well in the polls, it seems likely that both the CDU and the CSU will be happy to let Laschet run. Yet if the latter underperforms, the chance may be seized by either Jens Spahn, or, in a more likely scenario, by CSU leader Markus Söder.

Although the Union’s Chancellorship candidate is traditionally drawn from the CDU, a CSU candidate, Saskia Richter writes in Die Kanzlerkandidaten der CSU (Dr. Kovac Verlag, 2004), is not unheard of: both Franz Josef Strauß and Edmund Stoiber stemmed from the Bavarian sister party. Yet Richter’s analysis hardly bodes well for the Union. In both cases, she writes, the Union was in opposition – and in 1999, when Stoiber was elected, its crisis was so deep the party was ‘without staff, without financial resources, and without electoral prospects’.

It was this scenario, Richter concludes, that allowed the CSU to rise to the challenge, presenting itself as the Union’s saviour. In both cases, however, this was to no avail. Although Strauß’ Union emerged as the largest party in 1980, Helmud Schmidt formed an electoral coalition with the FDP. In 2002, on the other hand, the election was narrowly won by SPD leader Gerhard Schröder, who struck a deal with Joschka Fischer’s Green Party.

Neither precedent, of course, is wholly applicable to the present situation. The CDU comfortably leads the polls (polling at 25%, with the Greens on 21% and the SPD on 14%), and Markus Söder has consistently proven to be the most popular Union politician, despite never having formally announced his candidacy. Electing the latter, in other words, would be less an act of political desperation than a showing of political strength.

Following Saturday’s election, the Bavarian leader is putting out a cautious message, declaring that the new leader had the CSU’s ’full support’, and claiming that nothing would be discussed until ‘after Easter’. The coalition’s priority, he added, should be a strong CDU performance in March’s set of elections. For a man who has long eyed the Chancellorship, however, this may be but a long-term strategy: according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Bavarian politician wants to avoid ’rushing’ things. The Söderweg, in other words, has by no means been ruled out.

Whither CDU?

Laschet’s election marks the end of a two-year perpetual election cycle for his party. A centrist and staunchly pro-European CDU leader is good news for both Germany and Europe – as is the third (and, many hope, final) defeat of Friedrich Merz, who was ousted by Merkel at the start of the century and had lost to AKK in 2019. Merz’s political agenda – to shift decisively to the right in order to win over AfD voters – is unlikely to feature in a future CDU administration, which will be led from the political centre and is expected to form a coalition with the (similarly centrist) Green Party, which Merz had unambiguously ruled out.

It remains to be seen, however, whether it will heal the divide which has characterized the CDU for the past five years – a result, in no particular order, of Merkel’s humanitarian refugee policy, the rise of the AfD, and the consistent decline of Germany’s Voksparteien. Laschet’s victory (with a mere 53% of the vote) is hardly a decisive mandate, and it is unlikely to appease the so-called ’value conservatives’ (Wertkonservativen) in their fight to shape a future CDU administration. As much has already been demonstrated by Merz himself, who, shortly after Saturday’s defeat, announced his intention (swiftly rejected by the Chancellor) to become Merkel’s finance minister.

For the time being, however, Armin Laschet has been handed a golden opportunity to make his political case for the post-Merkel Chancellorship. If not 100 days, the upcoming regional elections on March 14th will, at the very least, provide him a 56-day grace period. It will be up to the ’eternal second man’ to prove he is fit for the job.

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