The first event involved Armin Laschet, 58, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and leader of the largest CDU delegation, and Jens Spahn, 39, Merkel’s up-and-coming health minister. They’ve been at odds in the past, but now Spahn has sacrificed his own candidacy to support Laschet, who at a stroke becomes the front-runner to clinch the CDU leadership at a party conference slated for April 25.
Their surprising alliance amounts to a “cartel to weaken competition,” quipped the third candidate, Friedrich Merz, 64. He, too, had been invited in recent weeks to become part of a Laschet-led team. But Merz, citing his good poll numbers, decided to reach for the top spot.
Laschet and Merz would represent fundamentally different directions for the party, country and continent. Laschet is a jovial figure, bordering on lightweight. He wants to show voters that “governing can be fun,” he said. He hasn’t signaled any abrupt policy changes from the Merkel era and gets along well with the present chancellor, which means he could survive the awkward year or so when he would run the party, she the government.
From Merz’s point of view, that’s precisely Laschet’s weakness. The choice for the party, he said, is between continuity and stagnation (Laschet) or “a new start and renewal” (Merz). That might seem a bit rich coming from the oldest candidate, one who was last prominent in politics in 2002 when Merkel ousted him from a top job. He’s since had a good career in investment management at BlackRock, but yearns to get even with Merkel and the whole wobbly centrism she represents.
What Merz really means is that he would steer the CDU rightward to bring back many former supporters who’ve defected to a party on the extremist fringe, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Merz’s notion of the right is being: good for business; hawkish on monetary, fiscal and euro-area policy; and above all tough on law and order, specifically anything to do with migrants.
In divining Laschet and Merz’s relative chances of success, Spahn has made an interesting choice. He represents a new and woke generation, being youngish and gay. But he’s cultivated a profile as an arch-conservative who’s skeptical of Merkel’s wishy-washy middle course. Ideologically, he should be closer to Merz than to Laschet.
So why is he standing beside Laschet instead? Because he’s calculated that Laschet has more hope of going all the way. If his gamble is correct, Spahn can rise alongside Laschet as his deputy, burnishing his stature until his own time comes for the top job.
The main reason why Spahn gives better odds to Laschet is that he’s a proven uniter, whereas Merz tends to have a tin ear for other people’s sensitivities. “We had our differences,” Spahn said about Laschet, “but that’s exactly what this is about: building bridges.” He’s talking about bridges between CDU delegates and between rivals, and bridges to potential coalition partners, above all the environmentalist Greens. These will all have to be crossed to get to a Laschet cabinet in 2021 (when Merkel steps down and a national election is held), in which Spahn would be prominent.
Even before that, another bridge needs building. It’s to Markus Soeder, the premier of Bavaria and leader of the CDU’s sister party, the CSU. By tradition, the two organizations always form one bloc in national politics, with one joint candidate for chancellor. And Soeder might want to be that candidate himself. He’s already made clear that what gets decided on April 25 is only the leadership of the CDU. The choice of joint candidate happens later, in consultation with him.
If Merz becomes CDU leader, he would face a tense standoff with his old nemesis, Merkel, which could weaken him enough for Soeder to claim that the CDU-CSU will only prevail in the 2021 election if it fields Soeder for the chancellery. If Laschet gets the party chair, the transition will be smoother. Above all, Laschet — being Laschet — will immediately embrace Soeder (the two have already been in constant talks) to secure his support in the same way he got Spahn’s. Or, as Laschet put it on Tuesday, the CDU and CSU will jointly make the decision, “as for 70 years, in great love and conviviality.”
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Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.
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