The CDU/CSU chose its candidate, but the way to the chancellorship is still very steep
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On April 20, after more than six hours of intense negotiations, the CDU/CSU union agreed that Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and freshly-elected president of the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU) would be the party’s candidate for the chancellorship. The other candidate, Markus Söder, Bavarian Prime Minister and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern, CSU) recognised his defeat, withdrew his candidacy as promised, and accepted the decision of the CDU leadership to rally behind Laschet for the federal election in September. After winning the struggle for candidacy, and amid internal political turmoil, Laschet now has to counterbalance the advance of the Alliance 90/The Greens and is tasked to secure a CDU/CSU victory in the federal elections in September.
Die Würfel sind gefallen, i.e. the dice have been cast when, after a long and intense negotiation overnight, the race to become the chancellor candidate of the CDU/CSU came finally to an end on the 20th April. Armin Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and freshly-elected CDU president won the contest and hence will be the Union’s choice at the next federal election in September.
Few hours before the final decision was made, there still was great uncertainty about who the winner will be. While the CSU as a whole stood firmly behind its candidate, the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, the situation within the CDU was not that clear-cut, since not all the party members sympathised with Armin Laschet. Interestingly, even the CDU prime ministers were divided in their preferences: while three of them, namely Reiner Haseloff, from Saxony-Anhalt, Tobias Hans, from Saarland, and Michael Kretschmer from Saxony supported more or less unambiguously Söder, Volker Bouffier, Prime Minister of Hesse and Daniel Günther from Schleswig-Holstein backed their party leader, Laschet. However, it is also important to note that even a week before the final choice was made, Haseloff and Kretschmer would rather have voted for Laschet than for Söder. As the prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt explained, his eventual change of heart was motivated by the idea that the final decision should be mostly based on the popularity rate of the candidates, which, until the end has been clearly in Söder’s favour. As Haseloff reiterated, in this situation, “it is not a matter of personal sympathy, trust or character traits. It does not help if according to general conviction someone is absolutely able to be chancellor but does not gain this office because the voters will not let it happen.” While Söder’s popularity led him to lead the opinion polls, the more moderate and more pro–European Laschet enjoyed the support of prominent CDU politicians such as Wolfgang Schäuble, President of the Bundestag (federal parliament), and, above all, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support for the new party president lies in the fact that he is more in line with her centrist political direction. Likewise, also Jens Spahn, Federal Minister of Health, and Mike Mohring, leader of the CDU group in Thuringia, have put decisively their weight on Laschet’s side and favoured his final victory.
Markus Söder, Bavarian Prime Minister and the challenger of Armin Laschet Source: Foto-berlin.net/Shutterstock
Over his long political career, Laschet learned that determination can bring success, even in seemingly hopeless situations. And on the voting day, surprisingly, the CDU president had not only recovered his early disadvantage but also won with a decisive majority of 77.5%. Following the vote, Laschet ratified the decision of his party and officialised his willingness to run for the post of chancellor. All in all, the decision was “utterly clear,” as CDU federal executive board member Henning Otte affirmed, and the reason for this “is that it is not just Bavaria’s policy that is at stake here, but that of Germany as a whole. And that's what Armin Laschet stands for.” Irrespective whether or not they had favoured Laschet’s candidacy, following this outcome, leading CDU politicians acknowledged that their party leader has sufficient legitimacy to run for Germany’s main political post. On the other hand, accepting that the choice of the candidate chancellor was made by the CDU leadership, and as promised before the vote, Söder declared his and his party’s unreserved and full support of Laschet on his way to the chancellorship. In the light of the result, Söder even offered to withdraw his own candidacy, saying that “only a united Union could be successful.” His pledge to unity was also necessitated by the fact that before the election he was accused of “damaging the Union” with his fierce conduct and extreme interest in polls.
Armin Laschet is one step closer to the chancellorship, as he has been chosen as the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor Source: photocosmos1/Shutterstock
Even if Laschet was able to overcome this difficult vote, his path towards the September election is not going to be a smooth one. In fact, many still believe that Söder would have been a better choice and with him the Union would have more chances of success at the federal election. Markus Blume, the CSU Secretary General said that Söder was the “candidate of hearts,” referring to his party’s president strong popularity not just among many CDU representatives but especially among German voters. Söder’s charismatic personality and his successful management of the ongoing crisis caused by the pandemic contributed, according to some polls conducted right before the CDU vote, to the rise of his popularity. In fact, when asked for whom they would vote if it were possible to directly elect a chancellor, 63% of the respondents chose the Bavarian prime minister, while just 29% opted for Laschet. According to the same poll, if the question was extended to include the other parties candidates, Söder would even gain 40% of the votes, while Annalena Baerbock, the Green candidate (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) 23%, Olaf Scholz, the nominee of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) 16% of the ballots, and just 19% of the surveyed respondents would like to see Armin Laschet taking Angela Merkel’s place. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why many were particularly surprised that after the CDU leadership’s decision Söder just gave up the fight and withdrew straightforwardly from the chancellorship race. In fact, all the odds were in favour of the Bavarian prime minister who even enjoyed a more comfortable position being the candidate of the junior partner in the CDU/CSU Union. However, the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate has always been chosen among the CDU ranks and in the few cases the CSU nevertheless managed to deliver the candidate of the Union, the result was not flattering for the centre–right formation. Probably, Söder did not want to repeat history by forcing his candidature, as it happened with CSU politician Franz Josef Strauß in 1979. At that time the CSU candidate won the chancellorship’s race against the CDU politician, Ernst Albrecht, former Prime Minister of Lower Saxony (and the father of Ursula von der Leyen, incumbent President of the European Commission), but lost the 1980 federal elections against the SPD led by Helmut Schmidt. Similarly, in 2002 the CDU/CSU Union nominated the Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber to run for chancellor, instead of Angela Merkel. Eventually, a CSU candidate was yet again defeated and the SPD (with Gerhard Schröder as the party candidate for chancellor) won the federal elections.
In addition, Söder’s decision to accept the result of the vote has also to be understood as an attempt not to cause a rift within the Union and thereby to further damage the popularity of the party that has been experiencing a period of decline. During this Superwahljahr, when not only federal but also a number of provincial and local elections take place, the CDU has already been defeated in two federal states: in Baden-Württemberg as well as in Rhineland-Palatinate on 14 March. The CDU suffered historic defeats in these states, which Laschet described as “disappointing.” In Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann from the Green party kept his post as prime minister with a record result of 32.6%. On the contrary, the support for the Christian Democrats in this state fell from 27% in 2016 to 24.1%. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the Social Democrats won with 35.7%, and the CDU’s defeat was even more sharp with its popularity falling from 31.8% in 2016 to 27.7%. Among the causes of the defeat, the lingering corruption scandal involving CDU politicians and the uncertain management of the pandemic are the most perceptible. Two CDU/CSU politicians, Georg Nüßlein, CSU deputy head of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, and Nikolas Löbel, CDU member of the Bundestag from the state of Baden-Württemberg, profited for more than two hundred thousand euros from the import of medical facemasks at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. This scandal had obviously serious repercussions on the party leadership and seriously damaged the Union’s reputation just before the state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Moreover, the side effects of this scandal could even compromise the results of the party in the federal elections in September. However, this episode alone is not enough to explain the strong fall in support for the CDU/CSU and further reasons may be found in the government’s management of the pandemic and the indecisiveness regarding the lifting of the restrictions, which are the cause of dissatisfaction among many German voters. In this overall situation, losing the chancellorship race would have had strong consequences for the CDU and would have surely further complicated its post–Merkel transition. In the following five months before the elections, the main challenge for Laschet will be thus to regain popularity and to convince German voters, including non–CDU ones, of his suitability for being the next chancellor of Germany. The last opinion polls suggest that Laschet and the SPD candidate, Olaf Scholz are currently in a neck to neck situation with 15% of acceptance while, most surprisingly, 32% of the voters would like to see the Green candidate as the head of the next government.
Opinion polls show that the party co-leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock is currently the most popular candidate for chancellorship. Source: Foto-berlin.net/Shutterstock
As a matter of fact, Laschet’s task is made even more difficult by the seemingly unstoppable surge of the Greens in the polls. Their candidate, the forty-year-old Annalena Baerbock, described as a determined, focused and iron-willed woman by Robert Habeck, co-chair of her party, is surely Laschet’s main rival and one of the main contenders for the chancellorship. Currently, the Greens seem to have a great chance to enter the German government, as the party is more united than ever and their political direction is attracting more and more voters. Surely, opinion polls are very important to understand the country’s political feelings, but it is also true, as it is often said in the CDU, that “elections are to be won through elections.”
A lot can still happen in Germany before the September elections, but it is becoming harder and harder to imagine a scenario in which the next government would not include the Greens. Hence, the discussion now revolves mainly around the anticipated composition of the coalition that will lead Germany in the next four-year-period. Many believe that a conservative–Green coalition is already on the list of possible alliances, and with Laschet’s candidacy for chancellor, the chance of this to happen (even with the inclusion of the Free Democrats) is probably higher. Of course, besides pondering on possible future coalitions, the main goal of the CDU/CSU is to obtain enough support to govern alone or at least to remain the senior partner in any kind of coalition that might form after the September election. At the same time, many in the CDU have already tried to temper down the over-enthusiasm of some in taking a conservative–Green coalition for granted. As Christoph Ploß, the CDU leader in Hamburg affirmed, “flirting with the Greens is absolutely the wrong way to go and should not determine the CDU/CSU's line.” Also, from the point of view of immigration and economic policies, the Green have hold a quite different stand from the more conservative direction pursued by the CDU/CSU and, as Laschet has previously said, the Union’s cooperation with the FDP (Free Democratic Party/Freie Demokratische Partei) would be a more workable partnership.
As the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, a state which relies strong on industry, Laschet has also emphasised that while climate protection is an important objective for the country, it must not endanger Germany’s status as one of the world most powerful industrial countries. However, the question remains, given the current peak of popularity of the Greens, on what issues the CDU/CSU will be ready to cooperate with them. Regardless the outcome of the elections, the formation of a government will require in any case a strong willingness to compromise. Besides, to monitor preliminary opinion polls might not be a wrong exercise after all.