CDU hopeful warns on hacking risk to poll

One of the leading contenders in the race to lead Germany’s Christian Democrats has said he fears the planned online election for party leader could fall victim to hackers and spies seeking to influence the outcome of a poll that will help determine the country’s direction in the post-Merkel era.

Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer and former chairman of BlackRock Germany, said the CDU must ensure the integrity of the election, which is expected to be held online for the first time in the party’s history because of coronavirus curbs on gatherings.

“All the hacker groups of the world, and also all the world’s intelligence agencies could get the biggest trophy of 2021 if they succeed in manipulating the CDU party conference and the election of the new chairman,” he told reporters.

Whoever wins the contest is widely expected to be the Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in next September’s elections. With nine months to go, the CDU is leading in the polls.

The CDU had planned to elect a new leader at a party conference in April this year but had to postpone it because of the pandemic. The meeting was originally rescheduled for December but has now been put back to mid-January.

Mr Merz is one of three candidates vying to lead the party. The others are Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.

A conservative popular with the CDU’s rank and file, Mr Merz reacted with anger to the decision to move the party conference from December, saying it was part of a plot by the CDU establishment to foil his leadership bid. He said party grandees felt that the longer the conference was delayed, the better Mr Laschet’s chance of winning.

Most polls of CDU members put Mr Merz in the lead, with Mr Laschet, an ideological ally of Ms Merkel, trailing badly.

Mr Merz is a former political rival of Ms Merkel, who squeezed him out as leader of the CDU parliamentary group in 2002. Over the years he has been an outspoken critic of her efforts to move the CDU to the political centre.

He said the CDU executive was considering plans to combine an online election with a postal vote, in which delegates would note their preference on a traditional ballot paper and send it to CDU headquarters.

Such an elaborate procedure was necessary because Germany’s law on political parties did not allow exclusively online leadership elections, he said.

But the security risks of a digital election were grave, providing “an invitation, not just to the Hamburg Chaos Computer Club but to many others . . . to see if they can hack it”, he said.

“If you see what attacks we have every day on the data network in Germany, the hack of the German Bundestag, of the chancellor’s mobile phone — it’s a real threat,” he said.

However, he added, steps were being taken to ensure the election was not compromised. “We have the technical possibilities, both on the hardware and software side, to protect it.”

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