The Minister President of the German state North Rhine-Westphalia took one step closer to the German Chancellorship on January 16.
As the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has been a mainstay of European and global politics since assuming office in 2005. During her 15 years in office, she has guided Germany through global financial crises, migration issues, and most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, Merkel’s 2018 announcement that she would not run to be re-elected for a fifth term has opened the chancellorship ahead of the German federal election due for September of 2021. Months ahead of the election, the race is tightening. On January 16, Armin Laschet, a contender, gained leadership of Merkel’s German Christian Democratic Union (CDU). As he emerges as Merkel’s potential successor, many obstacles await him on the campaign trail and in office.
Although Laschet is now the leader of the CDU, the party has yet to confirm the candidate it will support in the September elections. Laschet’s main competitor is Markus Söder, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU). Although the two parties are officially unaffiliated, the CSU only runs in the German state of Bavaria while the CDU operates in the other fifteen German states; before May, the two parties will meet to decide which candidate they ultimately decide to support in concert. Strong proponents of Merkelist continuity, among them more conservative members of Parliament such as Christian Natterer, have signaled that they are open to the idea of supporting alternative candidates like Söder. While Söder himself has insisted that “[his] place is in Bavaria,” he has so far refused to definitively preclude the possibility of a campaign. Polls suggest that voters prefer Söder to Laschet as the CDU/CSU candidate for the chancellorship: while 22% of surveyed voters indicated they would vote for Laschet, 36% of them supported Söder instead. That being said, historical precedent favors Laschet. In the 70 years since the alliance between the CDU and the CSU, the two parties have only picked a Bavarian candidate twice. Should party leaders decide that Söder would do better to continue serving as Bavaria’s Minister President, Laschet may eventually enjoy more widespread support.
Should he have the support of the CDU and the CSU going into the elections come September, Laschet’s victory is still uncertain. Indeed, many conservative members of the union were unhappy with portions of Merkel’s response to the migrant crisis. In early 2018, Merkel’s interior minister temporarily declared that he would resign over the number of migrants and refugees entering German borders. With Laschet rather than Söder as the CDU candidate, more extreme voters may turn towards far-right populist alternatives such as the Alternative for Germany party. Laschet, if elected, would face the daunting task of uniting the fractured state of German politics under the shadow of Merkel’s legacy.
Regardless of domestic support, Laschet’s promises of continuing to pursue a Merkelist agenda are attractive ones to the rest of the European Union, which has long been accustomed to Merkel’s leadership. Germany remains the economic powerhouse of the European Union—and, indeed, of Europe as a whole—and will only play an even more important role alongside France in the wake of Britain’s departure. With regards to foreign policy, Laschet has displayed a distinct unwillingness to vilify Russia or China. He expressed doubts about whether Russian forces were behind the assassination of Sergei Skripal in 2018, criticized “Putin’s demonization” after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and has previously supported dialogue with the country rather than attacking it through economic sanctions and verbal denouncements. Now that protesters in the streets of Moscow and Minsk are demonstrating their frustrations with their government, European powers cannot afford to let this chance slip by appeasing Russian authorities. Instead, given this opportunity, they ought to press for increased democratic freedom in Russia and in neighboring countries. If elected, Laschet may do the former; as he eyes a run to become Merkel’s successor, the September 2021 race for Germany’s chancellorship will continue to evolve.