The German Christian Democrats will elect a new leader on Saturday to unite their Conservative party behind a new leader who they hope can succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor when she resigns after the general election in September.
What is at stake is the leadership of Europe’s largest economy in the post-Merkel era, which has pledged not to run for office after becoming Europe’s dominant leader since taking office in 2005 and proving to be a winner among German voters.
The new CDU chairman is elected by 1,001 delegates at a digital congress. Traditionally, the chairman is – if not always – the candidate for chancellor for the “Union” of the CDU with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The centrist Armin Laschet, the archconservative Friedrich Merz and the foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen vie for the leadership of the CDU.
However, polls show that Markus Soeder, the CSU leader, is the voters’ choice. Some CDU lawmakers want the dynamic health minister Jens Spahn to run for chancellor, although he supported Laschet for the party leadership.
Not a clear leader
The three declared CDU candidates are all opposed to Merkel.
Roettgen, 55, the eloquent chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wants Germany to take a firmer stance on Russia and China.
65-year-old Merz, an old rival of Merkel, has targeted the policies of the European Central Bank and is less diplomatic.
The 59-year-old Laschet, who has polished up his international profile, complains that Berlin “took too long to respond to French demands for a reform of the European Union”.
Roettgen has suggested that if he were elected CDU leader, he could support Soeder, the Bavarian prime minister, as a candidate for chancellor for their alliance.
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Leader from Bavaria
The 54-year-old Soeder has recently shifted from the right to the moderate center. He treated his ambitions cautiously – “My place is in Bavaria” was his repeated refrain.
Carsten Nickel from Teneo, a political risk consultant, said Soeder’s clever move towards the center could make him the ideal candidate for a coalition with the ecologist Greens.
“But of course the real challenges will arise when liberal and conservative demands collide,” added Nickel.
Laschet, the 59-year-old centrist politician, is considered Merkel’s preferred choice [Christian Mang/AFP]Merkel has urged her party to stay at the center, signaling her preference for a moderate candidate.
At the opening of the two-day congress, which had been forced online by the pandemic, Merkel stated her rejection of Merz when she urged delegates to maintain the centrist course.
“As the people’s party in the center, we are of course looking for solutions that balance conflicts and always promote social cohesion,” she said on Friday.
“That has always distinguished us as a ruling party,” added Merkel.
Merkel supports “team”
Merkel gave another indication of her election and hoped that “a team will be chosen that will take the fate of our proud party into its own hands”.
Although she did not mention any names, the call seemed to suggest support for Laschet, who has campaigned for a joint ticket with Health Minister Jens Spahn as his deputy.
Merkel had previously said that the Laschet had “the tools” to become chancellor.
She had already given up the party leadership in 2018, but her preferred successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had to resign because of a regional election scandal.
Since the pandemic has dominated the discourse in recent months, no candidate stands out in the fight for the chairman of the party that has dominated German politics for 70 years.
Support for Merkel’s chancellorship collapsed after Germany opened its borders to a mass influx of refugees in 2015 that divided society and led to the rise of the far right.
But in the twilight of her reign, Merkel’s popularity rose again thanks to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, making it increasingly difficult for Germans to imagine a political life without her.