CDU’s new leader Laschet under pressure to heal party rift

Fresh from being elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet faces the daunting task of uniting a party deeply divided between his own supporters and those of his defeated rival, the conservative Friedrich Merz.

The result of Saturday’s election — 53 per cent for Mr Laschet and 47 per cent for Mr Merz — showed the party was almost evenly split between those who want to continue Angela Merkel’s brand of moderate policies under Mr Laschet and those in favour of taking the CDU in a more conservative direction.

“The rift in the party is deep and Laschet will have his work cut out to win over Merz’s supporters,” Katja Leikert, deputy leader of the CDU parliamentary group, told the Financial Times. “A lot of members feel offended, and it’s going to be very hard to motivate them.”

The divisions could prove dangerous for the party ahead of regional elections in March and the Bundestag election in September. The CDU is Germany’s most popular party but most pollsters attribute its success to Ms Merkel, who will stand down at the election after 16 years as chancellor.

Mr Laschet was elected by a majority of the 1,001 delegates at the CDU’s digital party conference on Saturday — mainly functionaries, MPs, mayors and other elected officials who tend to play it safe and prefer continuity over radical change.

But “if it had been a vote of CDU members [rather than delegates], Merz would have won,” Christian von Stetten, a CDU MP and Merz supporter, told the FT. “There is definitely a majority in the party for Merz and what he stands for.”

Mr von Stetten is one of a large group of CDU MPs who resent how Ms Merkel has dragged the party into the centre of German politics, and yearn for a return to more clear-cut conservative values. Mr Merz, a millionaire corporate lawyer and former leader of the CDU parliamentary group, was their man.

Mr von Stetten said that dozens of people, distraught at Mr Merz’s defeat, were quitting the CDU in protest. “These are people who mentally gave up on the party a long time ago, but still pinned some hopes on Merz,” he said. “But he lost and now they’ve given up.”

The mood is clearly febrile. MPs have described people in their constituencies “running amok on social media” by criticising the leadership.

“They say that the delegates disregarded the views of the rank-and-file, who were predominantly pro-Merz,” said one Christian Democrat MP. “They feel duped.”

Some observers fear the CDU’s history might repeat itself. In 2018 Ms Merkel stepped down as leader and in the ensuing contest, at a party conference in Hamburg, her favoured successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, narrowly beat Mr Merz. But in the months that followed Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer found her authority constantly undermined by party conservatives and little more than a year later she stepped down.

“We saw how divided the CDU was in Hamburg, and we have seen it again now — the different tendencies are still equally strong,” said Thorsten Faas, political scientist at the Free University in Berlin. “And we have seen in the past couple of years what trouble the party has got into because of that.”

“We must not make the same mistake we made two years ago,” said Olav Gutting, a CDU MP. “We all have to get our act together and unite behind Laschet.”

On the other hand, Mr Merz’s supporters said Mr Laschet must quickly make them an offer — for example by signalling loud and clear that he intends to depart from Ms Merkel’s centrist platform. 

“That means he will have to prevail against the policies of Angela Merkel’s grand coalitions,” said Mr von Stetten. “If he can’t, then he will fail, just as Kramp-Karrenbauer failed.”

Yet those hoping that Mr Merz would be able to play a major role in German politics, despite his election defeat, were disappointed this weekend. Mr Merz told Mr Laschet he wanted to run Germany’s economy ministry: both Ms Merkel and Mr Laschet said there would be no cabinet reshuffles.

Meanwhile, some said talk of a CDU split was exaggerated. Serap Güler, an ally of Mr Laschet and a secretary of state in his regional government, told the FT that there were “actually no big differences in Laschet and Merz’s views”. 

“Some people just preferred Merz because he’s more sharp-tongued,” she said. “It wasn’t really a vote on policies.”

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