THE election of a centrist figure as the chairman of the CDU could push voters to the far-right in the long-run, an expert has warned.
On Saturday, 59-year-old Armin Laschet, the Minister-president of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was elected as new leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) part. His taking on Merkel’s role could harm the party which has seen several defeats lately.
Speaking before the vote, Georgetown University’s Government Department Prof. Eric Langenbacher told Redaction Politics: “If [the CDU] stays in the Merkelian middle with Armin Laschet, it could continue to lose voters to the [far-right nationalist] Alternative for Germany”.
During the virtual congress’ close race with Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen, Mr Laschet brought Mr Merz to the runoff and obtained 52.8 per cent of the votes against Mr Merz’s 47.2 per cent on the second round of voting.
In the last federal election in 2017, although Angela Merkel was re-elected for the fourth time, her party suffered big losses to smaller parties such as AfD, who are estimated to have gained more than one million voters from the CDU.
While observers believed Mr Merz, positioned at the right of the party, had a better chance to win the election race as he led in the polls in 2020, Mr Laschet, who has often been said to be Angela Merkel’s favourite, is also seen as a less polarizing figure than his conservative counterpart.
A trained lawyer and former journalist from Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous German state, Mr Laschet became an MP in 1994 in the Bundestag before serving as an MEP in 1999.
Married with three children, Mr Laschet was elected state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017 and has since been part of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Defence Committee in the Bundestat.
Laschet’s plea for compromise could be an issue in the coming months, with the federal election planned next September to elect Merkel’s successor.
Prof. Langenbacher said: “Laschet is centrist, maybe even center-left, supporting Merkel’s migration policies and European-wide debt, for instance. But, he is not considered particularly inspiring.”
The CDU, which is still seen as the strongest and most stable party in the country, has lost three state elections in the past two years.
In 2020, the party even suffered its worst results during the Hamburg elections, which saw The Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens take the lead in that state.
Prof. Langenbacher said: “In light of polling and the weakness of other parties (especially the SPD), it is almost a given that the next government will be led by the CDU. But, it should be noted that the CDU is in a perpetual alliance federally with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
“There is a good chance that the Union parties as they are called will put forth CSU leader and Bavarian minister president Markus Soeder as the chancellor candidate for the all-important September election.
“Nevertheless, the CDU leader is almost always the chancellor candidate.”
He also noted that the next government will likely be a coalition of the Union parties with the Greens, with whom he “gets along well” as he said in an interview last month.
Known to have a good relationship with French president Emmanuel Macron, Laschet was praised for an improved Franco-German relationship with an emphasis on European issues.
Although he welcomed Joe Biden’s victory last November in the United States, he has been criticised for his soft tone towards Russia and China.
His alignment with Merkel’s position on Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, and Huawei network provision will also not be embraced in Washington.
Asked about implications of the CDU leader’s election, Prof. Langenbacher explained that the party had to choose between a more right-wing approach or continuing with centrism.
He said: “I think the CDU faces a dilemma. Both courses have risks and potential benefits. Sometimes I consider these strategic decisions to be hypotheses that must then be tested. And the test will be in September, even earlier when the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg votes.”
Prof. Eric Langenbacher is the author of several books on German politics, including: ‘Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany After the 2017 Bundestag Election’, and ‘The German Polity‘.
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