Merkel’s legacy: the fight for the soul of the CDU

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On 16th January, Armin Laschet was elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), seen as a consolidation of Angela Merkel’s legacy and a rebuttal of the party’s right wing. However, Laschet has had a difficult start to leadership and is still not guaranteed to be the party’s candidate for Chancellor in September’s Bundestag elections, so how secure is the moderate CDU moulded by Merkel over 18 years and can it maintain its primacy in German politics?

After the last general election in 2017, it took six months for a coalition government to be installed after the CDU’s vote share declined almost 9%, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) nearly tripling theirs. This kept Merkel as Chancellor with the support of the centre-left SPD but after poor performances in the 2018 Bavarian and Hessian state elections, she resigned as CDU leader, planning to remain Chancellor until 2021. Despite not publicly endorsing a successor, her ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected in December 2018 but failed to stamp her authority on the party, resigning after the CDU’s Thuringian state parliament members defied her to vote with the AfD in January 2020.

Seen as a moderate, Laschet is currently Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia and branded himself as a bridge between the moderate and more extreme CDU factions

Three candidates ran to succeed Kramp-Karrenbauer: Friedrich Merz lost the final runoff in 2018, repeating the performance in 2021, and was heavily critical of Merkel’s handling of the migrant crisis in 2015, positioning himself as a pro-business candidate capable of winning back former CDU voters who defected to the AfD. Placing third was Norbert Röttgen, always seen as an outsider: the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee was fired from Merkel’s cabinet in 2012 after a damaging loss in his state’s elections.

Armin Laschet won the second round against Merz after finishing marginally behind him in the first. Seen as a moderate, Laschet is currently Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia and branded himself as a bridge between the moderate and more extreme CDU factions of Merkel and Merz. His recruitment of the younger, ambitious and openly gay Health Minister Jens Spahn as his deputy was a turning point in the campaign, removing a potential rival from the race. Together, they would be expected to represent continuity with Merkel, though critics have highlighted Laschet’s friendly attitudes towards Russia and China, as well as Spahn’s nickname as the ‘Anti-Merkel’ after his fierce attacks on her migrant policy.

It is not yet certain, however, that Laschet will be a candidate for Chancellor in September. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), unite on a federal level to propose a common candidate and, while only two CSU politicians have ever been proposed – both unsuccessfully – the current leader may be an option. Markus Söder is highly popular in Bavaria and was preferred over Laschet in a poll of German voters to become CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate by 41% to 14%.

In an early test of Laschet’s leadership, the CDU returned their worst ever vote share in both the Baden Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate regional elections in March, with the Green Party vote rising in both, in addition to a surge nationally. This complicates the CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate decision, planned to be made after Easter, particularly in the wake of Merkel’s criticism of Laschet this week over his failure to reintroduce stricter coronavirus measures. Söder sided with the Chancellor, calling for greater powers for the federal government, dividing the candidates in the midst of Germany’s rising case numbers and sluggish vaccine rollout.

After a number of turbulent years in German politics, Angela Merkel’s legacy seems intact within her party

Despite this tension and Söder’s high popularity, the latter is relatively inexperienced and may wish to consolidate his position in Bavaria before venturing into national politics. Therefore, it is most likely that the CDU and CSU will endorse Laschet as their common candidate for September’s general election. Nevertheless, the constant uncertainty that has plagued the CDU since 2016 is a marked difference to most of Angela Merkel’s time in power, and may signal a much more volatile political scene for years to come.

After a number of turbulent years in German politics, Angela Merkel’s legacy seems intact within her party, however there are plenty of hurdles leading to September’s election and beyond: the CDU may be in a very different position at the end of 2021. Whatever happens, the years of relative stability enjoyed under Merkel are leaving with her.

Image: Michael Panse via Flickr

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