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Germany a key step closer to post-Merkel era

Published : Friday, 22 January, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 102
Cornelia Meyer

Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia

Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia

Germany last weekend rang in the next chapter of its political future. This is the twilight of the Merkel era, as the EU's longest-serving leader prepares to step down after the parliamentary elections this coming September.

On Saturday, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which rules in a coalition with its sister party the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party, chose a new leader. There were three candidates, all of whom were male, Catholic, married, and from North Rhine-Westphalia. Ideologically, however, they were miles apart. So much so that the Financial Times described the race as "the battle for the soul of the Christian Democratic Union."

The winner, Armin Laschet, incorporates Angela Merkel's heritage, with the CDU having moved from being a conservative right-wing party to catering more to centrist voters. Among the three, he is also the man with the strongest background in the executive branch, as he has run Germany's largest state since 2017.

The runner-up, Friedrich Merz, garnered 47 percent of votes in the runoff election, as opposed to Laschet's 53 percent. Merz was the opposition leader in the Bundestag in the 1990s until he was eclipsed by Merkel. A former chairman of BlackRock Germany, he is somewhat of a throwback to the 1990s, when shareholders' values dominated over stakeholders' interests. He is a fiscal conservative and wanted to nudge the party further right. He was supported by many of the older members of the CDU, but the direction he wanted to take the party did not resonate with many younger members.

Lastly, there was Norbert Roettgen, who maneuvered himself from being the outsider when he announced his candidacy last February to having more of an inside track. As chairman of the Bundestag's influential foreign affairs committee, he has gained a reputation as a careful thinker well beyond Germany. He is an internationalist and a proud European. His politics are unashamedly centrist and he vowed to stand for the "modern center." It was his intention to make the party leadership younger and more gender-balanced. Roettgen is also a team player, which was evidenced by him joining the party's leadership committee after losing out to Merz and Laschet.

So how should we interpret the win of Laschet, whose thinking is closer to Merkel's than the other two candidates?
For one, the party faithful went for the tested centrist ideology of Merkel. They had a point. While the CDU has continuously lost percentage points among the electorate since the refugee crisis of 2015, even slipping below 30 percent in 2019, it was the biggest political winner from the coronavirus disease crisis, reaching 35.9 percent at the beginning of this year.

However, the going will not get any easier. During the first wave of coronavirus infections, most parties stood behind the government and its measures. That has not been the case during the second wave, during which many on the right have criticized the government for threatening livelihoods by curtailing business during lockdowns. The liberal Free Democratic Party insists that lockdowns have curbed civil liberties and need to be run by parliament. On the left, the Greens and others find that the measures do not go far enough, as public health should always trump economic considerations in their view.

That is one part of the debate. Laschet will also need to prove that he can appeal to younger, greener voters, putting him in direct competition with the Greens. Then there is the digitalization debate. Germany is limping behind most European countries when it comes to digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. This government has promised a lot on that front and delivered very little.

As if successfully differentiating the CDU from other parties in an election year was not difficult enough already, CSU leader Markus Soeder is also a serious contender to be the CSU/CDU alliance's candidate for chancellor. Soeder is doing well in the polls. He has always played his cards well: Jumping on the anti-immigration bandwagon in the aftermath of the 2015/16 immigration wave and literally hugging a tree when Greta Thunberg captured the imagination of the county's youth. One of the reasons Laschet won the CDU race was that he acknowledged the next candidate for the chancellorship needed to be the man most likely to bring in the votes, and not necessarily the leader of the CDU.

It was interesting to watch Soeder in the aftermath of the CDU's leadership choice. He was silent on his quest for the chancellorship during Sunday's television talk shows, but his body language could barely hide his ambitions.

Then there is ambitious Health Minister Jens Spahn, who threw his support behind Laschet last February and who has gained prominence during the pandemic. At this point, however, he is no more than a dark horse as a potential candidate for the chancellorship.

Regardless of who will be the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor in September, Laschet will ensure that the CDU will stay on the center-right course of Merkel. This is important for Germany, but also for its foreign policy, particularly vis-a-vis the EU.

The pandemic and its economic fallout will be a huge challenge for the EU. It is thus important that national leaders have experience in the executive branch and a track record in reaching consensus through compromise. Laschet may come across as a jolly Rhinelander, but he is battle-hardened from winning an election and running Germany's largest state. He can also still draw on Roettgen for foreign policy advice, which the latter will happily dispense.

Over the last 15 years, Germany and the world have got used to Merkel's leadership style. She was controversial at times, particularly when it came to her refugee policy, but whoever the next chancellor is, he or she will have big shoes to fill.

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