Almost 12 months of stand-by party chairmanship in Germany’s biggest party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), ended on Saturday, Jan. 16. Armin Laschet succeeded Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), who took over for Angela Merkel in 2018, but declared on 10 February 2020 that they were stepping down and would run as the candidate for the elections in September 2021. Then came COVID-19. The necessary party congress to elect a new chairperson was postponed several times, then the party statutes were changed to allow for an online congress, which took place on Jan. 15-16.
The election of Laschet means continuity. Among the three candidates, he is the closest to Merkel’s policies. The other two, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgens, would have meant more change. With Merz, we would have seen a more conservative, traditional, economy-friendly direction, but also more polarization and moving the party from the centre further to the right. Norbert Röttgens tried to position himself as an innovator who stood for a more feminine, digital, and modern party.
The party chairperson is not elected by the party members, of whom there are more than 400,000, but by delegates, of whom there are 1001. These are party functionaries, MPs on the national and regional level, mayors, and high-level bureaucrats. That is why almost no one openly endorsed a candidate, because no one wanted to end up in the loser's camp. This also made predicting an outcome more than difficult. In the first round, Merz got 385 votes, Laschet 380 and Röttgens 224. Since none had an absolute majority, a second round was necessary, in which Laschet won with 521 against 466 for Merz.
As much as this result indicates continuity, it also shows the nearly 50-50 division of the party, depending on who wants the centrist Merkel-course to continue and who wants a more conservative, traditional, rightist approach. The latter group has been accusing Merkel of alienating conservative voters with too liberal policies and therefore driving them into the arms of the right-wing extremist AfD. However, the Merkel camp argues that the traditional-conservative camp would mean a niche existence for the CDU of around 20%, because this camp decreased significantly in number during the past decades. They also feared that Merz would have abandoned the center and driven Merkel voters into the arms of the SPD and the Greens.
Bridging this divide is not an easy task. Laschet’s predecessor, AKK, suffered from the polarization within the party, which led to her resignation after only a bit more than a year. Laschet must try to integrate the conservative elements of the party into the party structure in order to be able to count on their full support in the many elections in 2021. There will be six elections on the state (Länder) level, from March until September, and the national elections on Sept. 26.
Following the election of the chairperson, the party presidency and the deputy chairpersons were elected. The party presidency is the CDU’s most important governing body. In addition to the party chairman, the secretary-general, the deputy chairpersons, and the federal treasurer, it has seven more members. Norbert Röttgens was for the first time elected to this body. He underlined his willingness to work together with Laschet and support him. The other members of the presidency are: Bernd Althusmann, Monika Grütters, Reiner Haseloff, Michael Kretschmer, Karl-Josef Laumann, and Annette Widmann-Mauz.
Merz did not run, arguing that not only men from North Rhine-Westphalia should lead the CDU and that he did not want to take a position of a woman. However, he offered something else to Laschet, or rather demanded to become the minister of the economy, still in this legislature. This is surprising, because there is already a minister of the economy, Peter Altmaier, also the CDU and Laschet as party chairman are not even in charge of the government. This still falls to Angela Merkel as chancellor. To say that Merkel and Merz don’t like each other is a very diplomatic way of putting it. Merz left active politics, because of a confrontation with Merkel more than 10 years ago and became lobbyist with Blackrock and a German economic lobby group. He followed politics from the sidelines and only tried to re-enter into politics when Merkel stepped down from party leadership. Therefore, it is possible that he could become a minister in the upcoming government under a CDU chancellor. But, who could that chancellor be?
That is the next construction site for the CDU. There is no guarantee that the party chairman will also be the candidate for chancellor. Laschet now has the best chance, but his position will depend on the election results in March. If the CDU were to post disappointing results, the path to candidacy would be open for others. Merz certainly wants to, but so does the CSU (the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria) chairman and Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder. Both must now wait for Laschet to make mistakes or have poor election results, otherwise they won’t get a chance.
The new CDU chairman won’t change the approach towards Turkey. Laschet has never been in favor of Turkey’s full EU membership, but he supported the ‘pacta sund servanda’ approach of Angela Merkel, to respect official agreements. For the German-Turks and migrants in Germany, Laschet is a good choice. He became in 2005 Germany’s first minister in favor of integration in his home state, which has been one of the main areas of migration for “guest workers” since the 1960s. As early as 2009, he wrote in a book entitled “The Upstart Republic: Immigration as an Opportunity” that “we must see the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of our country not as a threat, but as an opportunity and a challenge.” Maybe this doesn’t sound too revolutionary in 2021, but 12 years ago it was so unusual for the CDU that Laschet got the nickname “Türken-Armin”, the Armin of the Turks.