Armin Laschet, prime minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been elected leader of the governing Christian Democratic Union on a promise of continuity with the centrist course of Angela Merkel.
Mr Laschet’s victory puts him in pole position to succeed Ms Merkel as chancellor of Europe’s most powerful economy after September elections to the Bundestag.
He beat Friedrich Merz, a prominent conservative and former chairman of BlackRock Germany, by 521 votes to 466 in a poll held in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Forced online by the national shutdown, it was the first digital party leadership election in Germany’s history.
His win marks a triumph for the liberals and centrists in the CDU, who want it to continue the moderate, middle-of-the-road policies pursued by Ms Merkel during her 16 years as chancellor. Mr Merz was backed by those who want the party to tilt to the right.
Mr Laschet, 59 years old, won with an emotional speech that emphasised his humble beginnings — his father was a coalminer — and conveyed a message of conciliation and compromise. The next CDU leader must, he said, have the “ability to unify”.
“We’ll only win if we remain strong in the centre of society,” he said in his speech, which was viewed online by the 1,001 delegates. “We must ensure that this centre continues to have faith in us.”
An easy-going Rhinelander, Mr Laschet wants to preserve the CDU’s status as Germany’s last-remaining Volkspartei, a broad church bringing together hardcore conservatives, green-tinged city dwellers and Merkel-ite liberals that has governed Germany for 51 of the past 71 years.
Mr Merz, a former leader of the CDU parliamentary group, argued that the party had drifted too far to the centre of German politics under Ms Merkel and wanted to turn it into a more identifiably conservative party, able to win back rightwing voters who had defected to the populist Alternative for Germany or stopped voting altogether.
After his defeat on Saturday, Mr Merz said he had suggested to Mr Laschet that he would like to take over the Economy Ministry — a post that is already occupied by a senior CDU politician and Merkel ally, Peter Altmaier. Mr Laschet has not responded to the proposal.
Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling agency, said the CDU was “lucky” not to have elected Mr Merz. “Laschet’s election increases the chances that it will emerge as the strongest party in this year’s elections and won’t be overtaken by the Greens,” he said.
A win by Mr Merz would have jeopardised the Christian Democrats’ “success in the centre of society” and driven a lot of erstwhile Merkel voters to other parties, such as the Greens.
Saturday’s election will have far-reaching implications for Germany, and by extension, European politics. Ms Merkel is bowing out after the election, and Mr Laschet now stands a good chance of being named as the CDU’s candidate to replace her.
However, a final decision will only be made after consultations between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Speculation is rife in Berlin that Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, might have an interest in running as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate.
“It will be interesting to see what Laschet says in his first public statements about the chancellor-candidate timetable,” said Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin. “If he lays claim to the candidacy quickly, he has a good chance of getting it. He now has the momentum of victory.”
Germany’s allies hoping for a smooth transition into the post-Merkel era will be relieved that one of her closest allies has inherited her party. Over the years Mr Laschet has consistently defended her policies, including her controversial decision to keep Germany’s borders open during the European refugee crisis in 2015 and so allow more than 1m migrants into Germany.
Mr Laschet rose to national prominence in 2017 by winning regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial region that had long been a stronghold of the left-of-centre Social Democrats. While generally popular in his home state, his approval ratings dipped in the early stages of the pandemic when he was seen as hesitant and indecisive.
His first job as leader will be to ensure a good showing for the CDU in two regional elections in March, in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The party is currently polling well nationally, largely because of Ms Merkel’s deft management of the pandemic. But if its vote shrinks in the state elections he may come under pressure to step aside and let Mr Söder stand as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate for chancellor.
Mr Laschet’s victory is a blow to conservatives in the CDU, who feel that 16 years in government, mainly in “grand coalitions” with the Social Democrats, have sapped it of its energy and intellectual ambition.
Mr Merz had led most of the polls ahead of the election but these did not reflect the opinions of the delegates who actually vote in leadership elections. These are functionaries, MPs, MEPs, regional governors and mayors who tend to prefer continuity to any radical break.
A third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, dropped out after the first round of voting, having garnered 224 votes compared to 385 for Mr Merz and 380 for Mr Laschet.
Initially seen as a rank outsider, Mr Röttgen saw a late surge in the polls thanks to a savvy online campaign that resonated with a younger generation of CDU voters and activists, and a promise to make the party “younger, more feminine and more digital”.