Germany’s Christian Democrats will elect a new president on Saturday, with the aim of uniting their conservative party behind a new leader who they hope can succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor when she resigns after the federal elections in September.
At stake is the leadership of Europe’s largest economy after Merkel, who has pledged not to run again after becoming Europe’s main leader since taking office in 2005 and has been a winner with voters Germans.
The new CDU leader will be elected by 1,001 delegates at a digital congress. By tradition, the leader is usually – but not always – the candidate for chancellor for the “Union” of the CDU with its sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Centrist Armin Laschet, arch-conservative Friedrich Merz and foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen are fighting over the leadership of the CDU.
However, polls show that Markus Soeder, the leader of the CSU, is the voters’ choice. Some CDU lawmakers want dynamic Health Minister Jens Spahn to run for chancellor, despite supporting Laschet for party leadership.
No clear favorite
The three declared candidates of the CDU all contrast with Merkel.
Roettgen, 55, an eloquent chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wants Germany to take a stronger stance with Russia and China.
Merz, 65 and a former rival of Merkel, has targeted European Central Bank policy and is less diplomatic.
Laschet, 59, who has refined his international profile, complains that Berlin has taken “too long to react” to French calls for reform of the European Union.
Roettgen suggested that, if elected leader of the CDU, he could support Soeder, the Bavarian minister-president, to run as their alliance’s candidate for chancellor.
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Soeder, 54, has moved from right to moderate center lately. He timidly played on his ambitions – “My place is in Bavaria” was his repeated refrain.
Carsten Nickel of Teneo, a political risk consultancy, said Soeder’s clever move to the center could make him the ideal candidate to lead a coalition with the Greens environmentalists.
“But of course the real challenges will arise when liberal and conservative demands collide,” Nickel added.
Merkel urged her party to stay grounded in the center, signaling her preference for a moderate candidate.
At the opening of the two-day congress that had been forced online by the pandemic, Merkel signaled her rejection of Merz by urging delegates to stay the course.
“As a popular party of the center, we naturally seek solutions that balance conflicts and always promote… social cohesion,” she said on Friday.
“It has always distinguished us as a party in power,” added Merkel.
Merkel supports ‘the team’
Giving a further indication of her choice, Merkel said she hoped “a team will be elected that will take the fate of our proud party into their hands.”
Although she did not name names, the call appears to indicate her support for Laschet, who campaigned on a joint ticket with Health Minister Jens Spahn as her deputy.
Merkel had previously declared that Laschet “had the tools” to be chancellor.
She had already stepped down as party president in 2018, but her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign for handling a regional election scandal.
With the pandemic dominating rhetoric in recent months, no candidate is standing out in the battle for the post of chairman of the party that has dominated German politics for 70 years.
Support for Merkel’s chancellery fell after Germany kept its borders open in 2015 to a massive influx of refugees, dividing society and leading to the rise of the far right.
But in the twilight of her reign, Merkel’s popularity grew again thanks to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, making it increasingly difficult for Germans to imagine political life without her.