Armin Laschet: Centrist continuity candidate elected leader of Angela Merkel's CDU party

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Justin Huggler
·4 min read
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POOL Mandatory Credit: Photo by CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (11712508ap) Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet speaks during a CDU party virtual party congress in Berlin, Germany, 16 January 2021. Armin Laschet is to become the new chair of the CDU. In the run-off election against Friedrich Merz, the NRW state premier emerged as the winner. The election still has to be confirmed in writing. The CDU party congress takes place on 15 and 16 January in digital format. Virtual party congress of German conservative CDU party, Berlin, Germany - 16 Jan 2021 - CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
POOL Mandatory Credit: Photo by CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (11712508ap) Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet speaks during a CDU party virtual party congress in Berlin, Germany, 16 January 2021. Armin Laschet is to become the new chair of the CDU. In the run-off election against Friedrich Merz, the NRW state premier emerged as the winner. The election still has to be confirmed in writing. The CDU party congress takes place on 15 and 16 January in digital format. Virtual party congress of German conservative CDU party, Berlin, Germany - 16 Jan 2021 - CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Angela Merkel’s party elected her centrist ally Armin Laschet as its new leader on Saturday, putting him in pole position to succeed her as chancellor later this year.

The 59-year-old Mr Laschet openly pitched himself to the Christian Democrat party (CDU) as the continuity candidate to inherit Mrs Merkel's mantle when she steps down at September’s elections after 15 years in power .

“We'll only win if we stay strong in the middle of society,” Mr Laschet told party delegates in his final pitch for their votes. “We have to win, not because we want to win, but because we have to for our country, for our future.”

His victory was a clear rejection of his main rival, Friedrich Merz, who campaigned on a pledge to reverse years of centrism under Mrs Merkel and take the party back to its conservative roots.

Mr Laschet prevailed easily, winning the votes of 521 party delegates to 466 for Mr Merz in the final round of voting. A third contender, Norbert Röttgen, was eliminated in the first round. The vote was held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The party will hope the result will finally put an end to years of division over its idoleogical direction. For Mr Merz, the perennial ghost at the CDU banquet, the dream of becoming chancellor is surely over after losing two leadership elections in three years.

The three candidates for the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Friedrich Merz, Norbert Roettgen and North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier Armin Laschet arrive on stage to take questions from the delegates during the second day of the party's 33rd congress held online amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Berlin, Germany January 16, 2021. Odd Andersen/Pool via REUTERS - POOL/ REUTERS
The three candidates for the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Friedrich Merz, Norbert Roettgen and North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier Armin Laschet arrive on stage to take questions from the delegates during the second day of the party's 33rd congress held online amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Berlin, Germany January 16, 2021. Odd Andersen/Pool via REUTERS - POOL/ REUTERS

Mrs Merkel had made her preference clear in a speech to delegates on Friday evening, telling them she wanted a “team” to win — Mr Laschet was the only candidate with a running mate — and she lost no time in congratulating him, tweeting: “Congratulations on your election, dear Armin. I look forward to working together.”

Mr Laschet is Mr Merz’s polar opposite — and not only because he is short and jovial where Mr Merz is tall and taciturn. While Mr Merz has been in the headlines throughout his political career, Mr Laschet is the quiet man who has repeatedly surprised his opponents.

He did it in 2012 when he unexpectedly led the CDU to victory in regional elections in the centre-Left stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), and will hope he can repeat the performance in September’s general election. He has government experience as regional prime minister of NRW, Germany’s most populous state with 18m inhabitants — more than most European countries.

Markus Soeder (CSU), Governor of Bavaria, gives a press statement on the election of the new CDU leader Armin Laschet in Nuremberg, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (Daniel Karmann/dpa via AP) - Daniel Karmann/DPA
Markus Soeder (CSU), Governor of Bavaria, gives a press statement on the election of the new CDU leader Armin Laschet in Nuremberg, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (Daniel Karmann/dpa via AP) - Daniel Karmann/DPA

But first he will have to persuade the CDU to name him its candidate for chancellor in March — party leaders do not automatically get the role in Germany . Damaged by his handling of the pandemic — he was an early proponent of loosening lockdown only to see infections rise again — he will face competition from younger and more charismatic rivals.

Jens Spahn, the health minister, has been on manouvres to secure the chancellor candidacy for himself despite being Mr Laschet’s unofficial running mate in the leadership election. But Mr Spahn made a mis-step when he used one of a limited number of chances to question the candidates to make his own speech — a stunt one observer dismissed as more worthy of a student election. Mr Spahn was duly punished by delegates, scraping in last in an election to choose five deputy party leaders.

Mr Laschet is also likely to face a challenge from Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Considerably more polished and charismatic than his rivals, Mr Söder is seen by many as the man to beat. But Mr Laschet will have the backing of the much larger CDU, and the candidacy is his to lose.