GERMANY: As CDU soul searching continues, the winner might be Merkel

Carsten Nickel

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Outgoing Christian Democrats (CDU) chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) announced yesterday, 24 February, that the search for a new leader would be expedited. Rather than at the regular CDU conference at the end of the year, the new party leader will be chosen at a special conference on 25 April.

The prospects of a negotiated or “team” solution between the various contenders for AKK’s succession are now entirely off the table. With AKK no longer even in charge of the timeline, there is nobody who could broker such a deal. Moreover, intra-party pressure for a decision by late April indicates that many in the CDU favor a quick verdict over attempts to moderate a lengthy process.

At the same time, the field of contenders has somewhat consolidated. North Rhine-Westphalia’s state premier Armin Laschet pulled off a major coup today, 25 February. He formally announced his decision to run for the CDU leadership, and did so jointly with Health Secretary Jens Spahn, who had been considered a potential candidate himself. Instead, Spahn will run to take over Laschet’s current post as deputy CDU leader. Spahn will represent the more conservative camp within the party, while Laschet stands for a more pragmatic and centrist course.

The joint Laschet/Spahn ticket comes closest to a “team” solution. It reflects the CDU’s traditional status as a broad church of the center-right, uniting economic liberals and social conservatives. Still, Merkel’s old rival Friedrich Merz, who also officially declared his candidature today, should be watched as a serious contender. Recall that at the 2018 conference vote, he pulled off a strong result, despite a comparably weak speech. However, the clear contrast between Laschet/Spahn’s integrative approach and Merz’s more conservative offering makes it difficult to see how alternative contender Norbert Roettgen could stand a realistic chance. The ex-environment minister who was fired by Merkel in 2012 remains an outsider candidate for now.

As discussed in the past, the question to watch remains the exact selection process. The more the party base gets involved (for instance, via regional conferences where all candidates publicly present themselves), the better the outlook for Merz. But the less open the vote at the conference (with regional associations pre-arranging voting behavior in their traditional ways), the better the outlook for Laschet.

In any case, the CDU conference will once more display the tensions between the party’s centrist and conservative wings. These are unlikely to disappear with the election of a new leadership, although the medium-term chances of this might be slightly better under the integrative Laschet/Spahn ticket.

Meanwhile, AKK continues to suggest that the election of a new CDU leader will already be a decision about the chancellor candidacy. But this will only provoke further rebukes from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU. Even if CSU leader Markus Soeder does not want to run for chancellor, the more the CDU insists on an automatic linkage, the bigger the incentive for the CSU to prolong and complicate the coordination process that still lies ahead for the next CDU leader.

On balance, all of this could benefit Chancellor Angela Merkel. As long as the CDU remains divided both internally and in its alliance with the CSU, the less likely will there be support for the bold act of trying to oust her and risking new elections before September 2021

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