Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.
Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.
The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.
Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.
But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.
Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.
The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.
The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.
The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.
Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.
But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.
Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.
But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.
The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.
Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.
Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.
But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.
Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.