This weekend’s Christian-Democrat conference elected Armin Laschet as new party leader, narrowly defeating his Trump-like rival. With Chancellor Angela Merkel set to step down this fall, the party is seeking a new centrist bloc with the Greens — but still faces a hard-right upsurge within its own ranks.
At this weekend’s Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) conference, Armin Laschet narrowly won the race to become the center-right party’s new leader. The victory for Laschet, widely regarded as a more liberal figure than his “hardline conservative” rival Friedrich Merz, paves the way for the CDU to form a coalition government with the Greens after September’s federal elections. However, the structural problems facing the CDU are here to stay.
In many ways, the CDU has gotten itself out of a bind. With the election of Laschet as party leader, the process of establishing a successor to Angela Merkel went much more smoothly than had appeared likely in recent days. Laschet directly succeeds Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who served as CDU leader for just two years before losing the support of the party and of her predecessor Merkel, who remains both Chancellor and a figure of considerable influence within the party.
At the digital party conference, Laschet, who is Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, triumphed over Merz in the run-off ballot by 521 votes to 466. In the first round of voting, no candidate had secured a majority, and only five votes separated the pair. This is a strikingly close result given the stakes involved — indeed, the CDU, Germany’s strongest party, has held the Chancellery for sixteen years and has only grown in popularity during the pandemic. This also reflects a more fundamental indecision: the CDU seems to want to both manage the succession to Merkel as discretely as possible while also striking out on a new path.
For the time being, Laschet has managed to straddle this divide. Among the three candidates at the conference, he is clearly the closest to Merkel both in substance and political style. In a speech repeatedly emphasizing the need to maintain the “center-ground,” he invoked the storming of the US Capitol and insisted that similar events must not be allowed to repeat themselves in Germany (apparently referring to the imperial-flag-waving anti-lockdown protesters who managed to reach the steps of the Bundestag back in August). Only by trusting one another and sticking together can populism be stopped, Laschet argued — almost as if trying to convince delegates that only a united CDU could govern Germany.
As the Minister-President of a German state that was a Social-Democratic stronghold for decades, Laschet also sent clear signals to the labor wing of the party. In his speech, he presented a golden coin that belonged to his father, a former miner, and underscored the importance of trust. One of the CDU’s strengths has always been its ability to unify its “social” and business wings, and Laschet made clear last weekend that he seeks not only to establish peace between these interests, but also to reconcile young and old, city and country, and women and men within his “team.”
As a unifying figure, Laschet will do one thing above all in the coming months: pave the way for a “Black-Green” coalition government between the CDU and the Greens, in which the former would serve as senior partner. He is seen as slightly homely and not a strong chancellor candidate (according to polls, only 28 percent of Germans view him as suited for the position), so will probably set the stage for Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder to head the CDU ticket.
In spite of all his mistakes during the pandemic, Söder remains the top choice for Chancellor among both the political and economic elite and the general public. Promising both to treat the climate crisis as the “question of the century” and to fill the role of authoritarian leader when necessary, Söder is capable of making overtures to Green voters while satisfying the CDU’s conservative clientele by promising domestic security.
He has performed this “statesman” role in the past by meeting with Merkel in the Herrenchiemsee palace (the “Bavarian Versailles”), presenting himself almost as a monarch. His role model is the fierce, hardline conservative Franz Josef Strauß, a Chancelor candidate in the 1980s. Like Söder, Strauß was a politician of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s even more conservative Bavarian sister party. If Söder does become Chancellor, he would be the first ever CSU figure to reach this position.
Prior to the party conference, Söder comported himself with clever reserve, revealing only glimpses of his ambition. Yet it will not be long before the CDU/CSU will have to choose a Chancellor candidate, as the election is in September.
What Söder has going for him is the weakness of the other candidates as well as his own adaptability. Söder used to be viewed as a simple provincial politician, yet not only has he rid himself of his Franconian accent in recent years, he has also appropriated a serious leadership style and assembled a capable team of advisers. In some ways, he could be attempting to model himself on Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the embodiment of a modern conservatism that is nonetheless open to the (far) right.
There is a distinct possibility of Söder leading a Green-bourgeois governing bloc, for the CDU would not be the powerful party it is if it did not choose the most promising candidate. If this possibility were realized, having Armin Laschet as leader would be advantageous for the CDU, as he would ensure that both the labor wing of the party and its strong North Rhine-Westphalia faction toe the line. The third Chancellor candidate at the CDU conference, Norbert Röttgen, also confirmed his support for this team shortly after his defeat.
In other words, Germany’s incoming governing bloc is already taking shape.
Wannabe-Trump Forced to Concede
Meanwhile, the CDU’s disaffected members and “Merkel critics” have thrown their support behind Friedrich Merz, a former board member at investment giant Blackrock. This grouping includes sections of the party’s youth organization Junge Union, the business advocacy group Mittelstands-Union, and the party’s local chapters in the former East. Not entirely unjustifiably, Merz spent weeks railing against the “party establishment,” which reduced his chances by giving the conference a digital format. Merz had been counting on the convention hall fostering a lively dynamic that the conference choreographers would not have been able to get under control.
Merz now finds himself out-maneuvered by precisely this establishment. However, its calculations might backfire, for the sabotaging of Merz was a bit too obvious. As the leadership candidates were fielding audience questions following their speeches, Laschet campaign team member and current Health Minister Jens Spahn was “coincidentally” picked out from among the digital crowd and used his time to make another speech for his own preferred candidate. This was not without consequence for Spahn, who received fewer votes for the deputy leadership than all the other candidates for this position. This result indicates a degree of persistent internal division in the CDU, as Laschet and Spahn had effectively campaigned as a leadership duo.
Another hand-picked question from the audience criticized Merz’s association with the WerteUnion, or “Values Union,” an unofficial faction of party right-wingers that in some ways resembles the Tea Party in the United States. As the express purpose of Merz’s candidacy was to win back votes from the far-right AfD, he is hardly in a position to distance himself from the Right. This dynamic makes Laschet appear as the candidate of the reasonable center. However, this center no longer holds, as has been shown by the party’s crisis in recent years around the question of migration — a crisis which has massively strengthened the right wing of the party.
While Trump knew how to use a similar situation within the Republican Party to his advantage, Merz appears trapped between his pro-market ideology, a hardline law-and-order politics, and his adherence to conservative respectability. Quite simply, he lacks the unhinged energy of a Trump or a Boris Johnson needed to unleash the crisis dynamic of the conservatives.
Furthermore, it is not clear that the core basis of the CDU’s power would be stable enough for him to do so. Shortly after his defeat, Merz announced his desire to serve as Economics Minister, only to be shot down by Merkel shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, Merz’s narcissism and will to power remain unbroken. No stranger to inner-party defeats, Merz was edged out by Merkel in his campaign to lead the CDU’s parliamentary group back in 2002, yet he did not give up then and does not appear ready to do so today.
Filling the Power Vacuum, For Now
Laschet’s narrow victory over Merz will hardly resolve any of the tension within the CDU. The inner-party divide between the bourgeois-conservative desire for business-as-usual and the demand for a fundamentally new direction will remain. Additionally, centrifugal forces in both the bourgeois-Green and right-wing camps may yet full the party further apart. Only a strong electoral result for Söder stands any chance of filling the power vacuum that has emerged in recent years. Having been plagued by a lack of direction since Merkel’s resignation as CDU leader in 2018, the extent to which Laschet and Söder are able to unite the party’s disparate factions over the next few months will be decisive for its future.
The CDU’s fortunes will also depend in no small part on how the Greens do in this fall’s election, as that party also stakes its own claim to lead Germany. One thing that became clear at the party conference is that a specter is haunting the CDU — the specter of a center-left coalition government composed of the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the left-wing Die Linke. This possibility apparently strikes so much fear into the hearts of the Christian Democrats that almost every speech at the party conference equated it with the right-wing terrorist threat in Germany. Pushing this logic to a rather revealing extreme, Merz even expressed the argument that every vote for the far-right AfD is a half-vote for a “red-red-green” government.
This dangerous rhetoric draws upon an old tradition of anti-communism within the CDU, which today finds expression in a particular animus directed towards Die Linke. Seeking to avoid being confined to the opposition, the Christian Democrats will lead a particularly vigorous electoral campaign against a center-left coalition — for there is nothing Germany’s conservatives hate more than not governing. At the moment, their fears of being kicked out of government are unfounded: not only is there no electoral majority for “red-red-green” according to current polling, there is also no discernible political will among the parties — above all among the Greens — to really strive for this coalition at the federal level.
As a coalition between the CDU and the Greens appears to be both parties’ best option for fulfilling their desire for power, it is becoming increasingly likely by the day. In line with this trend, Laschet’s victory over Merz is an indication of a staid yet climate-conscious form of bourgeois politics for which there is a majority in Germany.
Without a doubt, Black-Green would be an expression of a green capitalism par excellence. What is less clear is whether this alliance would be able to be challenged from the left or the right, and which actors would serve as its genuine leaders. With the conclusion of the CDU’s party conference, it is now more likely than ever that Söder will become both the first leader of Black-Green government and the first Bavarian to be Chancellor.