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German party politics – new captain on the bridge

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German party politics – new captain on the bridge

One week after the digital party convention, the confirmation: the German conservative party CDU has got a new chairman. Armin Laschet, current prime minister of the state of Northrhine-Westphalia, follows Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as the new captain on the bridge, ready to launch the party into the stormy election year in Germany.

For stormy it will be: with 2021 overshadowed by events such as the pandemic, climate change, new US administration, the shape of the EU, China’s muscles plays, Russian interference.  Expectations are high for Laschet to follow Merkel’s big footsteps as Chancellor. And the challenges are even bigger – rather than a political autopilot on a pre-defined course, the arena calls for a cunning navigator for new unchartered waters.

Lesson one: Not to be underestimated

Armin Laschet won a tight race against Merkel’s political archrival, Friedrich Merz. A sign of the division within the party, it took two rounds and a run-off election before Laschet was declared winner. It may have been his very well-rehearsed speech that brought him the votes, with emotional elements explaining his roots as the son of a miner from the region, culminating in the words: “Ich bin Armin Laschet”. With a Kennedy sound to it – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – the speech was an efficient way of saying: This is who you get – somebody you can trust. Cleverly, Laschet combined this with the notion that the last the party needed was a corporate CEO leader but rather a captain for a great team – a blow to his rival Merz’s ‘tough guy’, business profile.

Not many would have expected Armin Laschet to lash out so viciously. But he did, reminding of the person in whose footsteps he is expected follow: most people regularly underestimated Merkel’s political abilities, only to find themselves on the losing side. Friedrich Merz and a long list of German and international male politicians can tell a story of that. Armin Laschet is not one of them.

Lesson two: Homebase NRW

The CDU party delegates had three candidates to choose from, all of whom were from the state of Northrhine-Westfalia (NRW).  NRW is not only the most populous state and an industrial powerhouse, its parliamentary representation in the Federal Parliament is a political force to reckon with. Current health minister and government shooting star Jens Spahn is from NRW, so is Ralph Brinkhaus, chair and chief whip of the ruling CDU/CSU parliamentary group, as well as Norbert Röttgen, former environment minister, foreign policy expert and the third to run for the party chairmanship. This but to name a few.

Lesson three: Don’t forget the East

And then there is of course looming Friedrich Merz, also from NRW, political offspring of chancellor heavy weight Helmut Kohl, and business favorite: before re-entering politics in 2018 after 16 years of absence, Merz was and still is a significant player with tight relationships into the German and trans-Atlantic corporate world. And surprisingly, he was the hope of many CDU party members in East Germany, representing a centre-right CDU option to the far-right xenophobes of the AfD party that abound in many former East German cities and regions. Should he stay in politics, Merz will remain a destabilizing factor under Laschet’s lead. All the more important for Laschet to show who holds the reigns.

Lesson four: Not Merkel’s autopilot

Whether or not Armin Laschet will also follow Merkel as candidate for Federal Chancellorship, depends mainly on two factors: firstly, how he manages the CDU to win the spring elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, and secondly, how Bavaria’s Prime Minister, chair of the sister CSU party, Markus Söder will see his role in a future Germany after elections. For Söder has Bavarian aspirations for the federal throne.

But Bavaria is not Germany, and the best candidate will need to have a strong appeal to the general electorate, from the North and South, East and West – something that Söder will find hard to achieve. In addition, Laschet can draw upon Merkel’s popularity: while not necessarily her autopilot, his election was a vote in favor of the continuation of her moderate politics.

Next steps: The race is on

The German election year 2021 is on. And it will certainly be an extraordinary one, with new personalities, coalitions and political behaviours. Under Laschet, a CDU & green coalition is a real option, but also a structural majority on the left. Or right of centre after all? Everything is in the open: in terms of personnel, content and color. Companies and organisations should prepare for this exciting diversity. The only constant is that Merkel is leaving office in September. Some will be pleased; many will regret it – most will fight over it. It will not be an easy task for Armin Laschet to fill her boots.

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