Armin Laschet, prime minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union, putting him in pole position to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Europe’s most powerful country.
Mr Laschet beat Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer, by 521 votes to 466 in a poll held in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Forced online by the national shutdown, it was the first digital party leadership election in Germany’s history.
His victory marks a triumph for the liberals and centrists in the CDU, who want it to continue the moderate, middle-of-the-road policies pursued by Ms Merkel in her 16 years as chancellor.
An easy-going Rhinelander, Mr Laschet wants to preserve the CDU’s status as Germany’s last-remaining Volkspartei, a broad church bringing together hardcore conservatives, green-tinged city dwellers and Merkel-ite liberals that has governed Germany for 50 of the past 70 years.
Mr Merz, a former leader of the CDU parliamentary group, argued that the party had drifted too far to the centre of German politics under Ms Merkel and wanted to turn it into a more identifiably conservative party, able to win back rightwing voters who had defected to the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or stopped voting altogether.
Saturday’s election will have far-reaching implications for Germany, and by extension, European politics. Ms Merkel is bowing out after this September’s Bundestag election, and Mr Laschet now stands a good chance of being named as the CDU’s candidate to replace her.
However, a final decision will only be made after consultations between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Speculation is rife in Berlin that Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, might have an interest in running as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate.
Germany’s allies hoping for a smooth transition into the post-Merkel era will be relieved that one of her closest allies has inherited her party. Over the years Mr Laschet has consistently defended her policies, including her controversial decision to keep Germany’s borders open during the European refugee crisis in 2015 and so allow more than 1m migrants into Germany.
Mr Laschet rose to national prominence in 2017 by winning regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial region that had long been a stronghold of the left-of-centre Social Democrats. While generally popular in his home state, his approval ratings dipped in the early stages of the pandemic when he was seen as hesitant and indecisive.
His first job as leader will be to ensure a good showing for the CDU in two regional elections in March, in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. The party is currently polling well nationally, largely because of Ms Merkel’s deft management of the pandemic. But if its vote shrinks in the state elections he may come under pressure to step aside and let Mr Söder stand as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate for chancellor.
Mr Laschet’s victory is a blow to conservatives in the CDU, who feel that 16 years in government, mainly in “grand coalitions” with the Social Democrats, have sapped it of its energy and intellectual ambition.
Mr Merz had led most of the polls ahead of the election but these did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the 1,001 delegates who actually vote in leadership elections. The delegates are functionaries, MPs, MEPs, regional governors and mayors who tend to prefer continuity to any radical break.
A third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, dropped out after the first round of voting, having garnered 224 votes compared to 385 for Mr Merz and 380 for Mr Laschet.
Initially seen as a rank outsider, Mr Röttgen saw a late surge in the polls thanks to a savvy online campaign that resonated with a younger generation of CDU voters and activists and a promise to make the party “younger, more feminine and more digital”.