Armin Laschet: Safe choice to replace Angela Merkel, but can he lead the party to victory?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Jorg Luyken
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Armin Laschet speaking about the chancellorship at CDU's headquarters - FILIP SINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
Armin Laschet speaking about the chancellorship at CDU's headquarters - FILIP SINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Angela Merkel's conservatives on Tuesday confirmed Armin Laschet's nomination as their chancellor candidate in September's election, as his rival conceded following a bitter battle that has left the bloc deeply divided.

"The dice have fallen. Armin Laschet is the chancellor candidate" of the conservative CDU-CSU alliance, said his rival Markus Soeder.

Mr Soeder, the leader of the CDU's smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, had faced off against Mr Laschet for over a week in a standoff that laid bare deep divisions in Ms Merkel's party.

Mr Soeder, whose personal poll ratings are much better than Mr Laschet's, had significant support in the CDU.

The Union bloc is the last major party to nominate a candidate for chancellor in the Sept 26 parliamentary election, in which Ms Merkel is not seeking a fifth four-year term.

The 60-year-old Mr Laschet is the governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Mr Soeder is the governor of Bavaria.

Profile: The uninspiring choice of Armin Laschet

The son of a miner from the town of Aachen on the Dutch border, Mr Laschet has made his way to the top of German politics by combining a steely ambition with the sunny demeanour typical of the Rhine region.

The 60-year-old’s election as party leader this January is the latest step in a winding career.

He entered the Bundestag in his early thirties, did a stint in the European parliament and then returned to local politics in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where he has been state leader since 2017.

Mr Laschet is often characterised as the continuity candidate, a man who will keep an open mind on a variety of centrist coalition partners in the same way that Ms Merkel has done.

For a long time he was seen as a loyalist, sticking by Ms Merkel throughout the divisive days of the refugee crisis.

When wooing party delegates at the January conference, he assured them that he has the same soft leadership skills that have made such a success of Ms Merkel’s leadership.

“I’m not one for self-promotion. I’m just Armin Laschet,” he said.

But there have been notable fissures in the relationship between the Chancellor and the CDU leader in recent months.

Mr Laschet’s liberal instincts mean that he has occasionally criticised lockdowns. In February, he lamented that “banning everything, being strict, treating citizens like little children - that's not something that’s sustainable in the long run.”

Ms Merkel has in turn publicly admonished him for not being firm enough in his application of pandemic rules in his home state.

Armin Laschet (L) and his rival, leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party Markus Soeder - TOBIAS SCHWARZ /AFP
Armin Laschet (L) and his rival, leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party Markus Soeder - TOBIAS SCHWARZ /AFP

A general perception among the public that Mr Laschet switches between favouring lockdowns and criticising them has contributed to weak polling figures, posing a danger that some voters could desert the party in September's election.

But he hasn’t been helped in the first months of his leadership by a scandal over potentially corrupt commissions that CDU politicians took for arranged medical mask purchases last year.

Much of the momentum that built up around his rival Markus Söder was based on the popularity of his more draconian pandemic response in Bavaria.

But the CDU executive board feared losing their second chairperson in a little over a year if they had backed the leader of the Bavarian CSU, while Mr Söder’s more authoritarian style is believed to cause unease among the CDU’s top brass.

Conservatives will be banking on Mr Laschet's ability to pull off a repeat of 2017, when he turfed the Social Democrats out of power in their heartland state of North Rhine-Westphalia despite trailing for months in polling.

A campaign built around cutting bureaucracy in the indebted region swept him into the state chancellery with an impressive 15 percent swing in support.

While Mr Laschet has largely avoided divisive rhetoric throughout his career, comments he has made on Russia have raised eyebrows.

In 2014 he criticised a “marketable anti-Putin populism” during the Ukraine conflict, and as recently as 2018 he attacked the UK for “coercing” NATO partners into showing solidarity over an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal without having hard evidence that Moscow was behind it.