Armin Laschet was named as the German centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in this year’s national election, after his rival Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria, threw in the towel.
Laschet said he would campaign on a platform of change and innovation, promising a fresh start after Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign. “There can be no more business-as-usual,” he told reporters. “As a country we must become better, faster and more modern.”
Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union and prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, won out in a battle with Söder that exposed deep rifts in the centre-right movement.
Söder exited the race for chancellor after a six-hour meeting of the CDU governing executive on Monday night which came out for Laschet. In a secret ballot, 31 members supported the CDU leader while only nine voted for Söder.
“The die is cast,” Söder told reporters on Tuesday, announcing he would be throwing his weight behind Laschet as the joint candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU, which he leads.
The result of the power struggle is in line with precedent: the CDU leader traditionally gets to run for chancellor, representing both the CDU and the CSU. Only twice in Germany’s postwar history did the two parties field a joint chancellor candidate from the CSU — and both times they lost.
But many in the CDU/CSU are deeply worried about the prospects of a Laschet candidacy. The CDU boss is far less popular than Söder, both among conservatives and the German voting public at large.
Even the CDU’s top brass had misgivings about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive backed his candidacy unanimously last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote on Monday after a number of CDU heavyweights defected to the Söder camp.
The CDU has been caught off-guard by a steep fall in its popularity with voters. It surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But its approval rating slumped earlier this year as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks. Laschet, 60, who was elected CDU leader in January, has so far been unable to stop the rot.
The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, who some pollsters believe could win September’s election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor on Monday, in a smooth process that presented a sharp contrast to the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.
The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.
Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.
But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who has earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his approval ratings soar.
In Monday’s meeting of the CDU executive, Laschet was endorsed by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president.
But other attendees, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, threw their weight behind Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.
Laschet was at pains on Tuesday to mend fences between the CDU and CSU. The two parties were, he said, “sisters, a unique phenomenon in the history of political parties in Germany . . . [and] our republic’s anchor of stability”. He said Söder would continue to play a “central role” in German politics and he would liaise closely with him on policy issues.
Söder said it was time to close ranks around Laschet. “Only a united CDU/CSU can be successful,” he added. “We do not want any division.” He said he had called Laschet to congratulate him on his selection.
Markus Blume, the CSU’s general secretary, said it had become obvious that Söder was “the candidate of people’s hearts”. “But in a democracy, the majority decides,” he added.