The post-Merkel era has begun. Again. A first attempt to place Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the hands of a trusted lieutenant failed when Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer resigned after just over a year in the job. Now Angela Merkel has another preferred successor in place. On Saturday, the CDU elected as its new leader Armin Laschet, a close ally committed to the outgoing chancellor’s centrist brand of politics.
The party gambled on continuity rather than a shift to the right under closest rival Friedrich Merz. Mr Laschet, the regional premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, represents the kind of open centrism that enabled Ms Merkel to notch up four consecutive election victories. The CDU is riding high in the polls ahead of federal elections on September 26. But it will soon have to do without Ms Merkel, its greatest asset.
Mr Laschet is now the frontrunner to succeed Ms Merkel as chancellor but that is far from guaranteed. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are due to decide in March who will run as their joint candidate. Many doubt whether he has the skills and profile to lead a national campaign. Mr Laschet will need to assert himself quickly to cement his chances. He could still lose out to Bavarian premier Markus Söder who is far more popular.
Mr Laschet’s first priority will be uniting the party. It will not be easy. He beat Mr Merz by 53 to 47 per cent of the vote. There is large minority in the party who want it to take a clearer conservative direction. When he lost the 2018 leadership contest, Mr Merz retreated. This time, he seems determined to weigh on the party’s future. After his defeat on Saturday, he asked Mr Laschet to engineer his entry into government as economy minister. Ms Merkel declined.
The second challenge will be maintaining the CDU’s ratings as Ms Merkel prepares to bow out. It faces important regional elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Pfalz in March. Simultaneously, Mr Laschet has to master the pandemic in his own region. After an unconvincing start last year, he swung behind Ms Merkel’s popular call for tougher lockdown measures. Now, the success of the vaccine rollout has the power to make or break politicians in short order.
Finally, Mr Laschet will have to refresh the party’s programme, addressing the shortcomings of the Merkel era, such as Germany’s creaking infrastructure, weakness in digital technology and low ambition on climate change. His support for coal and soft views on China and Russia could complicate a coalition with the greens, the most compelling election outcome for the CDU. But it is easier for them to find common ground with a moderate like Mr Laschet than with Mr Merz.
The CDU and Germany — and indeed Europe — are better off without Mr Merz as leader. His economic and social views are stuck in another era. Although broadly pro-European, a Merz-led campaign deploying hawkish fiscal and monetary views to win back voters from the Eurosceptic nationalist Alternative for Germany would have spelt trouble. The Francophile Mr Laschet would continue Ms Merkel’s cautious pro-Europeanism and potentially revive a strained Franco-German relationship.
Before that though, Mr Laschet will have to earn the trust of his party and the country. He delivered a home truth to delegates on Saturday: many Germans are attracted first to Angela Merkel and then to the CDU. Without her, its success and his success are far from certain.