Magazine
Latest Issue
Special Reports
Latest Special Report

Armin Laschet is no Angela Merkel. He may still win the German chancellorship

The new leader of the Christian Democratic Union has a long way to go yet. But it is worth asking what his programme in government might look like

By Paul Lever  

Laschet is not an ideal partner for Joe Biden—or Boris Johnson. Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

In 2000, Germany’s CDU party elected Angela Merkel as its leader. It was a surprising choice. Merkel differed from her predecessors in almost every respect: a woman, an Ossi (from East Germany), a scientist, Lutheran, divorced, childless and someone who had never been a minister president of one of Germany’s 16 states. To the amazement of most commentators, and to the dismay of her political rivals, she remained in office as party chairman for 18 years and has served for 15 years as Chancellor.

When she stepped down from the party leadership in 2018 her successor was also a woman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, albeit one with a more traditional background (a former minister president from Saarland). But she proved unable to stamp her authority on the party and after only 18 months, resigned. Last Saturday the party picked her replacement.

In doing so it stuck closely to the political advice of it first leader, Konrad Adenauer: keine experimente (no experiments). This time, three candidates were on offer: all men in their 50s, all from North Rhein Westphalia, all Catholic, all lawyers and all married with three children. The one eventually picked was the state’s Minister President Armin Laschet. What does his appointment mean for the Christian Democratic Union, its relationship with its sister party, and the possible direction of German politics more broadly?

Laschet’s victory was not overwhelming. In the first round of voting his main rival, Friedrich Merz, had greater support. But in the final run-off Laschet prevailed by 521 votes to 466. His compelling hustings speech emphasised his modest origins as the son of a coalminer. But his main selling point was that he was the only one of the candidates who had previously won an election. His likeable personality also helped. He comes across as calm, reassuring, avuncular—a man who is comfortable in his own skin.

He is not, however, charismatic; and there is a question mark over whether the qualities which impressed the members of his own party will strike a chord with the wider German electorate. And this is one reason why, although he is the front runner, it is not yet certain that he will be the CDU’s candidate for the chancellorship in the federal election due in September.

The decision on that candidature will be taken jointly in spring with the CSU, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. The two parties have always fielded a single candidate; and although this has usually been someone from the much larger CDU, on two occasions a CSU nominee has been selected. In 1980, Franz-Josef Strauss was preferred to the CDU’s Ernst Albrecht (the father of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen); and in 2002 Edmund Stoiber was chosen over Merkel. Both Strauss and Stoiber were minister presidents of Bavaria at the time and were also nationally known political heavyweights. Both lost.

So, will this make the CDU wary of accepting a CSU candidate again? Not necessarily. The political circumstances in 1980 and 2002 were different. In both years the Social Democrats were in power and the incumbent chancellor (Helmut Schmidt in 1980 and Gerhard Schröder in 2002) was the dominant political figure in the country. It was widely expected that they would remain in power; and both Strauss and Stoiber performed somewhat better than might have been anticipated. Strauss’s abrasive personality may have counted against him. But there is no evidence that in either case being Bavarian was a handicap.

Yet whether the CSU will propose its own candidate for chancellor this time is so far unclear. The only credible contender would be Markus Söder, the party’s Chairman and Bavarian Minister President. He has so far only said that his place is in Bavaria: a disclaimer which falls short of an outright refusal.

According to opinion polls, Söder is more popular than Laschet both among voters overall and among CDU supporters. The first sample taken after Laschet’s election showed that among the general population, 45 per cent favoured Söder as Chancellor, while only 12 per cent favoured Laschet. Among CDU supporters the ratio was 51:25.

Söder comes across as tough, decisive and competent. He is a good communicator and has always taken care to maintain close relations with Merkel. He would probably do better than Laschet at attracting voters who might otherwise be tempted by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland.

The decision will be taken by the combined parliamentary groups of the CDU and the CSU in March or April. In the meantime, state elections will have taken place in Rheinland Pfalz and Baden Wuerttemberg. These were both controlled by the CDU in the past but are now ruled by coalitions led by the Social Democrats and the Greens. If the CDU does well and regains control, Laschet will be able to take the credit. If it does badly, his colleagues may conclude that they need someone better placed to win votes.

If Laschet does eventually become chancellor, he will continue with Merkel’s domestic agenda, albeit initially without her authority. He is by temperament liberal, moderate and centrist in this sphere. He has not advocated any changes to Germany’s socio-economic model nor to its energy or immigration policies. He has said that his preference as party chairman would be to form a coalition with the economically liberal Free Democrats, of the kind which he currently leads in North Rhine Westphalia. But if, as seems likely, the electoral mathematics don’t allow this, he would have little difficulty in negotiating one with either the Social Democrats or the Greens.

Unlike Merkel, he grew up immersed in Europe. His family came originally from Wallonia, as did his wife’s, and he was raised in Aachen—right on the border with Belgium. He is a former member of the European Parliament and his political horizons are those of the traditional Brussels/Luxembourg/Strasbourg triangle. Though he would be the first modern German chancellor to speak French, he has shown little interest in the wider world and has had few dealings with the United States or with Britain.

He has, however, supported the involvement of Huawei in Germany’s 5G network, and like the current German Economics Minister, has made clear that he doesn’t accept that China’s human rights record should affect German-Chinese trade. He initially expressed scepticism about Russia’s involvement in the Skripal poisonings and has shown some sympathy for President Assad’s regime in Syria. Of course, in office his instincts might change. But he might not be the Biden administration’s ideal partner.

Both Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel were regarded by many commentators as unexciting nonentities when they took office. Both defied expectations, stayed in power for 16 years and were dominant personalities in Europe. It seems improbable that Armin Laschet has the qualities to follow their example, but who knows? A German chancellor’s European and international authority depends on the strength of the German economy rather on his or her personality.

One prediction can, however, be made with reasonable confidence. He is not going to regard Boris Johnson as a soulmate. They have nothing in common either in their style or in the substance of their political views. Whatever type of relationship is formed between Germany and Britain now that we have left the EU will not, if Laschet becomes chancellor, be nurtured by any warmth from the top.

Have your say

Join the conversation on Prospect.

More From Prospect