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The man lined up to be Angela Merkel’s successor

Armin Laschet speaks at the CDU party congress, where he was elected as its new leader - Credit: Getty Images

JOHN KAMPFNER on Armin Laschet – the man now lined up as Angela Merkel’s successor.

It was the ‘Merkel Machine’ which helped secure the close victory. After a lacklustre campaign, Armin Laschet hobbled over the line for the leadership of Germany’s largest party, the CDU, thanks to some last-minute lobbying and arm-twisting from the chancellor and her aides behind the scenes. After 16 years at the helm and at the centre of German politics, Angela Merkel was not going to see her party hijacked by a rival dedicated to a harsher variant of conservatism.

Merkel dominates her stage like few other leaders around the world. Her departure this autumn will leave a gaping hole in German and European politics. But even her influence is circumscribed. The person to whom Laschet can be most thankful is actually Donald Trump. The extraordinary scenes on Capitol Hill on January 6 and the attack on Congress by the baying mob of pro-Trump supporters put the fear of God into Germans – and that included the 1,001 delegates of the ruling centre-right party. Many in Germany had likened the events in Washington to the Reichstag arson attack in 1933, four weeks into Hitler’s seizure of power.

Of the many achievements of post-war Germany, none is more important than the role of the constitution in enabling and strengthening democratic values. Underpinning that is the notion that the roots of a free society lie in the mainstream, in the middle. Anyone, anything that threatens that causes instant alarm. The success over the past five years of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has led many to question the durability of the country’s post-war settlement.

Thus, at the CDU’s final hustings event and virtual election on January 16, Laschet denounced his main rival in all but name. “No, you don’t need to polarise,” he declared. “Polarisation is easy, the poison that is quick to grasp.” He was playing up the danger for all it was worth. The runner-up, the swaggering, private jet-owning, politician-come-businessman Friedrich Merz, is no Trump. He poses no threat to Germany’s finely-honed political and social equilibrium. But he does represent something quite different, hence challenging, for supporters of the status quo – an unabashed right-wing politics more akin to Britain’s Conservatives, who, in spite of Boris Johnson’s clownery are still the object of much fascination, even affection, for a German niche.

This is “Super Election Year”, as Germans call it, with a number of regional elections in the first half of 2021, culminating in the general election on September 26. In spite of Merkel’s popularity, the CDU has been in disarray for some time. She thought she had anointed her successor in early 2018, only for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to self-destruct within two years after a series of mishaps. It has been in limbo since. Plans to choose a new party leader have been repeatedly postponed because of Covid. The final field of three late-middle-aged white male candidates from the same part of the country did not fill the party, let alone the country, with joy.

In the end, they opted for safety first, for fear of something worse.

The problem for Merz is that none of the other political parties would have wanted to work with him, and coalitions are essential to form a government. The Greens, who are comfortably in second place in the polls, have long been touted as the likely coalition partner for the CDU after the election. They are comfortable with Laschet and have worked with him closely. They would have been highly reluctant to join if Merz had been at the helm. That could lead to a ‘Green-Red-Red’ government of Greens, Social Democrats and the Left party – a radical departure for Germany and for Europe.

The problem for Laschet is that many in his own party don’t want to work with him, and the CDU is in desperate need of energy. The narrow 53% to 47% run-off demonstrates the challenge he faces winning over party members many of whom have been uncomfortable with Merkel’s centrist course despite her four election victories.

The right wing have a big decision to make. Will they bury the hatchet and fall in behind Laschet? They know that Merkel’s poll ratings are consistently far higher than that of her party. A renewed bout of infighting could see them sink to dangerously low numbers – and Merz and his fan club would be blamed for some of that. They still have destructive potential. By making Laschet’s job difficult in the next two months, they could see the CDU suffer setbacks in two important regional elections on March 14, in the wealthy southwestern Baden Württemberg and in Rhineland Palatinate, where in both places they are hoping to wrest back control.

If they don’t, then Laschet would face considerable pressure to stand aside as the party’s candidate for chancellor. That would leave the path open for Markus Söder, the popular leader of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s sister party.

The son of a miner, a man who likes to advertise his grit, Laschet is not going to give up easily. He was long considered the ‘nearly man’ of German politics, suffering a number of reverses in his long career. On each occasion, he hasn’t so much bounced back, more hauled himself back. He has run the most populace region of North Rhine Westphalia since 2017, in coalition with the SPD.

His has been a mix of tough criminal justice, alongside an avowed pro-immigration position and a classically German mix of fiscal prudence alongside strong state provision. His staunch support for the chancellor’s decision in 2015 to allow in more than one million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa – a move that turbo-charged the popularity of the far-right AfD – was courageous. His opponents denounced him as “Merkel’s body guard”.

If he does become chancellor, Laschet would have much to prove on the global stage. Within hours of his victory, his detractors were digging up past statements he has made on Russia, China and Syria. They don’t make for salutary reading. He belongs to that (sadly large) body of German public opinion that tends to give Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt.

Like many politicians at national and regional level, he appears to be happy to do whatever it takes to ingratiate himself with Xi Jinping, to increase trade. His region includes the curious town of Duisburg, which serves as the Europe end-station for China’s belt and road railway line. Even more worrying are several statements appearing to sympathise with president Assad in the face of what he called “extremist” opposition.

There are two potential work-arounds to all of this. Firstly, Laschet prioritises good relations with the Biden administration, which will be looking for some tough action from Germany and Europe on a number of fronts. Secondly, he appoints, either from the CDU or the Greens, a foreign minister with less indulgent views. And there is no shortage of those.

These concerns are a while off yet. His more immediate task is domestic, to see off opponents who will do whatever it takes to ensure he doesn’t become the chancellor-candidate. The CDU in-fighting has several months yet to run.


Armin Laschet was born in Burtscheid, a suburb of Aachen, near the Belgian and Dutch borders, but his ancestors are of Belgian Wallonian origin, from the Liege province. He worked as a journalist when he was younger, including a stint as editor-in-chief of the Catholic newspaper KirchenZeitung Aachen in the early 1990s, before he become a member of the Bundestag for the city. His family still lives in the area. His son Johannes is a social media influencer who advises his father on fashion

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