Merkel's CDU to elect new leader today

The three men standing to take over as chair of the conservatives will take the party in strikingly different directions

End of Merkel's era begins as her party heads into a key vote to select chancellor's successor.

Germany’s Christian Democrats elect a new chairman on Saturday, aiming to unite their conservative party behind a new leader who they hope can succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor when she steps down after federal elections in September. The race to lead Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), however, appears wide open.

As dpa reports, the 1,001 delegates attending the online convention are to select from three candidates for CDU leader: Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia, corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen.

Having departed politics over a decade ago and not on the best terms with Merkel, Merz has positioned himself as the true conservative in the race and the antidote to the AfD. Although he has no executive experience, Merz has the CDU’s small-business backers behind him as well as younger conservatives. But outside the party base, he seems to encapsulate the bygone days of the party when it governed with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in provincial Bonn. The FDP has been unable to play the role of kingmaker for over a decade and could not muster the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag in 2013.

Laschet, the head of North Rhine-Westphalia, is viewed as the most direct continuation of Merkelism, but his popularity hasn’t followed the chancellor’s trajectory during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Röttgen is the semi-outsider, albeit with extensive government experience. He was abruptly let go as environment minister in 2012 after a fallout with Merkel. But he is now back in her good graces and serves as chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Relations Committee. His knowledge of international affairs and of the environment, as well as his push for the party to be more inclusive, appeals to the general public and to the CDU’s likely next coalition partner, the Greens. Unfortunately, these attributes do not necessarily endear him to the delegates, who are interested in political chits rather than dexterity with social media.

No matter the winner this weekend, the CDU is poised to deliver Germany’s next chancellor after the federal election in September as Merkel plans to retire at the end of her current fourth term.

In an opening address to the conference on Friday evening, the chancellor appealed for unity.

"I hope a team will be elected that takes the fate of our proud people's party into its own hands and then works with all members to find the right answers to the tasks of the future," Merkel said.

Traditionally, the CDU leader would spearhead the election campaign as chancellor candidate for the heavyweight party and its Bavarian-based allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU). But this year, other possible contenders to lead the CDU-CSU into the election have emerged, notably CSU leader Markus Soeder, who is also the Bavarian premier and one of Germany's most popular politicians.

Soeder warned delegates on Friday not to be complacent about their electoral chances, saying that the pandemic had changed Germany more than many realize.

A decision on the parties' chancellor candidate is expected in March.

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