Laschet succeeds Merkel as German CDU party leader

North Rhine-Westphalia's premier wins 521 of 991 votes cast during conservative party’s first ever digital convention

Armin Laschet

Centrist Armin Laschet was elected chairman of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) on Saturday, succeeding Angela Merkel and putting him on course to run as the conservative party’s candidate for chancellor in federal elections in September. The son of a miner, Laschet, who is committed to continuing Merkel's centrist policies was seen as the party establishment's candidate.

59-year-old Laschet, the premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia - Germany’s most populous - Laschet fended off a strong challenge from wealthy corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz in a run-off vote at the CDU's first-ever digital party convention, which was framed by the coronavirus crisis, securing 521 votes against 466 for his arch-conservative rival, according to a ballot of 1,001 party delegates. A third candidate, foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in the first round of voting.

At the helm of the CDU Laschet now replaces Merkel - Europe’s predominant politician and a consistent winner with German voters since taking office in 2005, who has said she will not run for chancellor again. Laschet also takes over as CDU party chief from Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was Merkel's personal choice as successor, after she resigned last year following a series of missteps that eroded her political authority. 

“I want to do everything so that we can stick together through this year … and then make sure that the next chancellor in the federal elections will be from the [CDU/CSU] union,” Laschet said in his victory speech, following his party’s first-ever digital convention

The vote comes at the start of a crucial year in German politics, with national elections set for September. Merkel plans to retire at the end of her current fourth term. In deciding for Laschet, the CDU has chosen against making a break with the Merkel era. After 15 years in power, Merkel has already ruled outstanding at the September election. 

This means Laschet is likely to face another major test in the coming months with Germany's political parties already gearing up a super-election year with six state elections and a national poll set down for September. 

Traditionally, the CDU leader spearheads the election campaign as chancellor candidate for the heavyweight party and its Bavarian-based allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU). However, Laschet would soon find himself in another tough possibly three-way race to secure the job of chancellor-candidate as two other contenders have emerged for the post.

This includes Markus Soeder, CSU leader and premier of Bavaria. The 54-year-old Soeder has won plaudits for his tough stance in facing up to the global pandemic. That has given him backing from both CDU members and members of the wider German public. He has also moved to stake out the middle ground by seeking to address climate change concerns and the issue of women on corporate boards. 

In the meantime, he has been flirting with the environmental Green Party, which has emerged as a potential coalition partner for the CDU-CSU after the September election.

At least one other possible chancellor candidate has also emerged - Health Minister Jens Spahn, who, according to media reports, has been sounding out CDU party officials about a bid for the chancellor's post. This comes after the 40-year-old Spahn's high-profile handling of the country’s response to the coronavirus triggered a surge in his popularity. He has denied the reports.

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