After over a year as a rudderless ship, Germany’s dominant party finds a new helmsman. What does this mean, and how well-equipped is he for the job?
Last summer, this author wrote an article contextualizing the choice of Olaf Scholz, Germany’s centrist Minister of Finance, as the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for Chancellor. On 16 January, its traditional rival, the Christian Democratic Union, took a similar step in electing as its new leader Armin Laschet, the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia. As we shall see, this does not automatically mark him out as the party’s candidate in September’s federal elections. But the event did create some clarity where before there was uncertainty, and also closed down alternative trajectories for the party. This article may be considered a companion piece to that of last summer, contextualizing these recent developments in Germany’s largest party.
To some, Laschet’s victory is most significant because of who he is not — that is, either of the competitors he defeated on Saturday. Norbert Röttgen, a former Minister of the Environment who resigned his position after a state-level electoral defeat in 2012, was originally considered a long-shot candidate. His focus on foreign policy and image as a relative ‘outsider’ could have signified a process of renewal for the party. Friedrich Merz, a staunch conservative who left politics to work for BlackRock after losing a power-struggle to Merkel, promised to return the party to its status quo ante. His victory would have signalled a shift towards neoliberalism and machismo.
The triumph of Laschet, the most ‘Merkelian’ of the three, therefore indicates a course of continuity. This also means that the CDU will be plagued by many of its old problems. Merz’s self-confessed motivation in moving the party platform towards a more hard-line stance was to close the gap allegedly opened up in Germany’s political spectrum by Merkel’s shift to the left, which he and his supporters claim the AfD has exploited. Whether or not such a strategy would have been an effective or ethical antidote to post-war Germany’s most successful far-right party is everything but certain. What can be said with greater confidence, though, is that Laschet will continue to court moderates — perhaps to the chagrin of his party’s base, which, if polls are to be believed, would have broken for Merz in a direct election.
Yet it is far from certain that chasing more progressive votes will come easy to the CDU this election cycle. That is because, in the period since last election, Thunbergian climate strikes have rocked German society in particular. Fridays for Future Germany, a broad movement composed mostly of middle-class teenagers, has gained greater social acceptance than Extinction Rebellion‘s radical antics and often puzzling stunts. Unlike previous years, all CDU leadership candidates were grilled on environmental issues during this year’s race, revealing that, with the partial exception of Röttgen, none were really in their ‘natural habitat’.
A chequered environmental record in North Rhine-Westphalia and several humiliating blunders in handling that state’s Coronavirus response cast doubt on Laschet’s suitability as a candidate. The new leader will have to work hard to re-formulate and -package his policy positions in order to appear both more competent and environmentally friendly. If in a few months time polls indicate a failure in this regard, the CDU could look instead to Markus Söder, the wily Minister President of Bavaria. Söder has previously disavowed any aspirations to serve at the federal level, and with good reason: Franz Josef Strauss and Edmund Stoiber, two previous Bavarians who made their bids for the Chancellorship in 1980 and 2002, respectively, were both defeated. Of course, were Laschet’s chances to implode, and a subsequent Söder candidacy to founder, the latter could deflect blame for electoral failures by pointing to the party’s lack of other viable candidates.
Jens Spahn, once the CDU’s youngest member in the Bundestag, was until recently discussed as a further option, and should not be counted out entirely. Spahn had, in fact, run in the previous leadership election but was ultimately defeated by Laschet’s predecessor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. He declined to do so this time around, to avoid both diverting moderate votes from Laschet and coming off as not fully devoted to his job as Health Minister in the middle of a global pandemic. This last motive will probably rule him out as a possible candidate for chancellor, too, as may remarks in support of Laschet at last week’s congress which were perceived by many party members as a breach of neutrality.
Much then depends on Laschet’s performance over the next few months. The importance of ‘Green’ issues can hardly be overstated, particularly because Germany’s party of that designation is, according to polls, the country’s second most popular and thus the CDU’s likeliest partner in a coalition. If the leader’s positions appear unconvincing, the party will almost certainly opt for Söder, who garnered experience ‘talking Green’ while battling it out in Bavaria’s most recent elections. Either way, however, for such a Black-Green coalition to thrive, genuine conviction is needed more than policy tokenism. For their career to be viable, whoever becomes the CDU’s candidate for chancellor will need to rethink their stances on economics, the environment, and sustainability from the ground up.