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German Chancellor Merkel’s party picks Armin Laschet as new leader

Candidate for the chairmanship of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party, Armin Laschet, gestures as he takes part in a discussion at the party’s headquarters in Berlin on Jan. 8, 2021.

CHRISTIAN MANG / POOL / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTIAN MANG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

FRANKFURT — Germany’s ruling CDU party picked Armin Laschet to be its new chairman on Saturday, possibly paving the way for him to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor at elections later this year. 

Laschet is currently the prime minister of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region, the most populous federal state in the country. He beat conservative rival Friedrich Merz by 521 to 466 in a vote that was forced online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to do everything so that we can stick together through this year … and then make sure that the next chancellor in the federal elections will be from the (CDU/CSU) union,” Laschet said after the contest Saturday, according to a Reuters translation.

Continuation of Merkel’s policies

Born in 1961, he was first elected to the Bundestag (German Parliament) in 1994 and his election is seen as a continuation of Merkel’s policies, as he has pledged to keep the CDU firmly in the “middle of society.” 

With him as chairman, the CDU will likely stay on message and focus on more climate change policies and environmental topics. He has a strong Catholic background which brings him support from Christian circles within the party. 

He is a trained lawyer and also worked as a journalist at the time of German reunification between 1986 and 1991. He is seen as being very liberal and is popular with the immigrant community in his home state.

If he becomes the CDU’s candidate for chancellor at September’s elections, he could be open to various coalitions — power sharing is somewhat of a recent tradition in German politics.

He has floated the idea of a government alongside the liberals, the FDP, in a bid to win over parts of the business camp inside the CDU. But he is also seen as a natural fit for a coalition with the Greens too, as he is on good speaking terms with the party and favors environmental issues.

Not certain to be chancellor

But the CDU’s candidate for chancellor will only be determined in the spring. And it’s not certain that the newly-elected chairman will automatically move into Merkel’s role, who has confirmed she will not run for a fifth term in power. Markus Söder, the very popular Bavarian prime minister, and also Jens Spahn, the current health minister, may also join the race to lead Europe’s largest economy.

Merkel stepped down as leader of the CDU in 2018, and her replacement Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer quit in February 2020 after a series of communication mishaps exposed her as being too weak to lead the chancellery.

In a research note Saturday, Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg, said that Laschet was now in the pole position to replace Merkel as chancellor in the fall.

“But if the CDU does not shine at state elections on 14 March, the more popular Markus Söder (CSU) could still be the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor,” he said.

“Laschet was widely seen as the ‘continuity’ candidate favoured by Merkel and much of the party establishment. Laschet seems unlikely to steer the CDU into a new direction, continuing the Merkel line on fiscal and other domestic issues as well as in European and foreign affairs instead.”

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