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CDU Leadership Election: Angela Merkel’s Heir in Germany

Armin Laschet (left), Friedrich Merz (centre) and Norbert Röttgen (right), the three candidates for the centre-right CDU (EPP) leadership // Photos, from left to right: Christliches Medienmagazin (CC BY-SA 2.0), Olaf Kosinsky (CC BY-SA 3.0) and Wolfgang Henry (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE). 

Germany is preparing for an extraordinary election year. Incumbent centre-right head of government Angela Merkel (CDU-EPP)—who is on track to become Germany’s longest-serving post-war chancellor—will not seek a fifth term as Chancellor after the 2021 federal parliamentary elections. For the first time since 1949, Germans are going to elect a new federal parliament without the participation of the incumbent head of government; the Chancellor.

Current polls suggest that four political parties have a chance of winning the chancellorship: The centre-left Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD-S&D), the environmentalist Alliance-Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, GRÜNE-Greens/EFA) as well as the two centre-right CDU/CSU Union alliance parties, the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU-EPP) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern, CSU-EPP).

For CDU, the situation is difficult this year. Incumbent party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned over a leadership performance perceived as insufficient during the Thuringia regional government crisis in 2019. Three three contestants have declared their interest to become her successor, and all of them are currently, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fairly weakly compared to CSU leader and Bavarian state Prime Minister Markus Söder by voters and CDU supporters alike. While the new CDU leadership election is formally only set to determine the party chairman, it is very common that CDU leaders become the party’s candidate for Chancellor. The next leader of the CDU will de facto be elected on January 16 in a formally non-binding virtual party congress. As German party laws do not allow party leaders to be elected through online voting, the winner of the digital vote will be formally confirmed as elected in a binding mail-in-vote, results of which will be presented on January 22.

While additional on-election day surprise nominations are a theoretical possibility, the three declared candidates are as follows:

Armin Laschet

Armin Laschet // Photo: Christliches Medienmagazin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Armin Laschet is the regional (state) Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The leader of the CDU’s North Rhine-Westphalia division, he is also federal deputy leader of the CDU. To imagine who Armin Laschet is, it is helpful to simply visualise Angela Merkel as a man, Catholic and with glasses. Ideologically, Armin Laschet is perhaps closest to Angela Merkel—a conservative who, for example, supports the Geneva refugee convention, opposes headscarves for girls below the age of 14, and opposes same-sex marriage. Economically, he is a moderate with a mixed record on how much government intervention he thinks is necessary to bring about Germany’s energy transformation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he stood out for having a more liberal approach towards tackling the crisis, calling for early school and business re-openings during the first coronavirus wave in Germany. This later haunted him in polls: in his home state North Rhine-Westphalia, his approval rating dropped by 19 points to just 46%, according to a June poll conducted by Infratest dimap.

While Laschet hints at the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP-RE) as the best-fit government coalition partner under his potential leadership, he has stated that he is not rejective towards working with the the Social Democratic Party and Alliance-Greens. He has the support of the Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, who received 16% of the votes in the first round of the 2018 CDU leadership election, as well as the incumbent party chairwoman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Jens Spahn is also the inofficial co-lead of Laschet’s leadership ticket, as part of a ‘ team solution’ with Spahn as designated CDU deputy leader.

Friedrich Merz

Friedrich Merz // Photo: Olaf Kosinsky (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The former member of the European Parliament Friedrich Merz represents a different vision of the CDU. To understand the policies of Merz, one needs to understand his history. He was leader of the CDU/CSU group in the German Federal Parliament from 2000 until 2002. He was then pushed aside by Merkel in 2002 and largely retreated from politics in 2009. The move continued a perceived ideological transformation of the party: Merkel represented a more moderate and less polarising approach to politics than her male predecessors. And that is what Merz wants to break with.

First and foremost, Merz identifies with the more frugal wing of the party. He is known as a supporter of state de-regulation and a privatisation of the economy—reflecting the dominant economic thought in Europe in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Socially, he is a conservative that promotes the German “Leitkultur” (‘German core culture’), a concept that defines certain cultural traits as German and European to which all communities living in Germany have to adhere. A critic of Islam, Merz states that the Muslim community in Germany should ‘accept our manners, customs and habits’.

In the 2018 CDU leadership election, he received 39% of the votes in the first and 48% in the second round, ultimately losing to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Ever since his popularity in Germany and in the party have remained rather steady, even though in recent months he lost ground compared to CSU leader Markus Söder in ‘preferred chancellor’ opinion polls.

For potential government coalition parties, it has been reported that Merz seems to favour a coalition with the Alliance-Greens. Among others, his candidacy for chairman is backed by the speaker of the German Parliament and former CDU chair, Wolfgang Schäuble, as well as the Youth Union—the CDU/CSU youth wing—after a plurality of their members voted to endorse Merz in a membership referendum.

Norbert Röttgen

Norbert Röttgen // Photo: Wolfgang Henry (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

The former leader of the CDU’s North Rhine-Westphalia division, Norbert Röttgen, surprised the public with his candidature. The former Federal Minister for the Environment is a centrist who has centred much of his career on foreign policy, emphasising the need for alliances with other Western liberal democracies.

29% of the German public think he is ready to become Chancellor, a similar score compared to his contestants. Röttgen has a poor electoral record that has tainted his public image as elitist, most notably highlighted with the regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012, where CDU party under Röttgen’s leadership received the worst election result in the history of the existence of the region; just 26.3%, down over eight percentage points from the previous election in 2010.

As is the case with fellow leadership contestant Friedrich Merz, Röttgen has hinted at favouring a government coalition with the Alliance-Greens.

The fight for Merkel’s inheritance

With all three candidates originating from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the leadership election has shown the re-ignition of old local rivalries among the candidates. For the past decade, strong tensions have existed between Laschet and Röttgen, rooting in decade-old events when Röttgen, at the time Minister for Environment in Merkel’s second federal cabinet, beat Laschet—a prominent state politician in North Rhine-Westphalia—in the race to become the chair of the state’s CDU party branch in late 2010.

For long, Friedrich Merz has held a comfortable lead over his rivals in polls conducted among CDU/CSU voters. While recent polls conducted among the broader public tend to suggest a surging support for Norbert Röttgen, The European projects a confident lead for Merz, who—according to their projection—could be looking at winning 410 of the 1001 total party congress delegate votes in the first round.

While the candidates all aspire to be the CDU/CSU Union’s Chancellor candidate if elected chair of CDU, none of them are ruling out the possibility of Markus Söder, the chair of the sister party CSU and regional president of Bavaria, as the Union’s Chancellor candidate. Both Laschet and Röttgen have stated that they will engage in talks with Söder about the Union’s chancellor candidate should they win. Merz is more reluctant, saying that Söder as Chancellor candidate would be ‘theoretically’ possible. A poll commissioned and published by ZDF on Friday showed that just 28% of German voters find Laschet suitable for the job of Chancellor, 29% think Merz or Röttingen would be suitable, while Söder polls significantly higher at 54%.

The leadership elections will likely prove the definitive end of the era of Merkel’s strong grip of the CDU base as well as the last year’s internal tumult in the party after Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision to step down. With Merkel’s final exit looming ahead in late 2021’s parliamentary elections, the ultimately triumphing candidate will lead in a situation that Germany has not seen in nearly two decades: a nation without Angela Merkel at the helm.

This article was written by Tobias Gerhard Schminke and Linus Folke Jensen, and was edited by Julius Lauri Lehtinen and Leon Andrius Liesener.