Armin Laschet could barely hide his joy last year when the carnival club in his hometown of Aachen named him a honorary knight. “Ultimately I get a job on the first try, without having to lose twice first,” he said.
Faced with the kind of painful setback Mr Laschet suffered in his career, most politicians would have given up and tried something else. He slipped off the greasy pole so many times that some thought he would never get back on it.
But the 59-year-old has always bounced back. And on Saturday he won his biggest victory yet, win the election as head of the Christian Democratic Union and thus move to pole position to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor.
His friends see him as a political survivor whose courage and endurance have finally paid off. Faced with defeat, “he never threw in the towel and walked away,” said Serap Güler, a CDU politician who has known him for 15 years. “He always stayed on the ball.”
The son of a miner who studied law and then worked as a journalist, Mr. Laschet has long been considered the “almost a man” of German politics. He won a seat in the Bundestag in his early 30s, but lost it again four years later. In 2010, he ran for the head of the CDU branch in his home state, North Rhine-Westphalia – and was again defeated.
“NRW’s CDU was famous for its internal power struggles, and he always seemed to be on the losing side,” said a local opposition MP who has known him for years.
Through it all, he maintained his good mood. A typical rhinelander, affable and accessible, he frequently appears in disguise at carnival time. The award he won in Aachen last February was the “Deadly Gravity Medal”, in recognition of his “individuality, popularity and natural spirit”.
But for some traditional CDU extremists, he had an image problem: he was seen as too liberal and too closely associated with Ms Merkel. As a member of the Bundestag, Mr Laschet was part of “Pizza Connection”, an informal discussion group that brought together young lawmakers from the CDU and the Green Party.
As the NRW cabinet minister of the 2000s, he touted the benefits of immigration, saying in 2009 that ethnic and religious diversity should be seen as a “chance” for Germany, “not a threat”. His fellow Christian Democrats have nicknamed him “Turk Armin”.
“He was the first politician in this country to really make people from immigrant communities feel that they were important, that their concerns were taken seriously,” said Serap Güler, who has worked as an advisor for years. 2000 and who is now its Secretary of State for Integration.
This continued into the refugee crisis of 2015, when Mr Laschet was such a staunch supporter of the Chancellor’s’ open door ‘immigration policy that the Berlin press called him’ Merkel’s bodyguard. “.
The CDU conservatives may have been dismayed, but that did not hurt his chances at the polls. In 2017, the CDU defied expectations to win regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, long regarded as the ‘beating heart’ of center-left social democrats, who have ruled it for nearly 50 of the last 75 years. Mr. Laschet became Prime Minister.
“Beating a popular incumbent is a very difficult thing to do in politics, and all the polls have said he can’t do it,” said one of his close allies. “The problem with Laschet is that people always underestimate him.
Although everyone knows he was a Merkel-ite moderate, the cabinet he formed reflected the full spectrum of CDU views. He has an interior minister for public order who has launched high-profile raids against criminal clans. It has a Minister of Labor who is a well-known social policy expert on the left of the CDU. And he has Mrs Güler, the integration secretary, who is the daughter of Turkish immigrants.
“Laschet is a unifying figure – this is his main strength,” said Josef Hovenjürgen, secretary general of the NRW CDU. “He understands that the CDU needs economic liberals, values conservators and those with more of a social agenda. It must remain a great church.
Based on his success in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mr Laschet was considered the favorite of the CDU leadership when he threw his hat in the ring last February, especially after recruiting the minister for Health Jens Spahn, popular with young conservatives, as running mate.
But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works. He saw his approval ratings drop during the first phase of the outbreak, when he appeared hesitant and undecided. During his appearances on TV talk shows, he was ill-prepared and overly emotional. His polls fell as those of Markus Söder, the tough and forceful Bavarian prime minister, rose. But they gradually improved as he gained a foothold and voters appreciated his handling of the crisis more.
In his speech to delegates on Saturday, Mr. Laschet presented himself as the only one of the three candidates able to hold together the various competing camps of the CDU. Any party leader “must be able to unite”, to reach compromises and find solutions, he said. He also positioned himself as the continuity candidate who would maintain Merkel’s pragmatic course. “We will only win if we stay strong at the center of society,” he said.
Mr. Laschet also inserted a personal note in his speech, playing on his humble beginnings. He described how his father had worked “1000m underground” in the “heat and darkness” of the mine, and at one point produced the metal nameplate his father wore at work and had given him as a “lucky charm”.
The speech seemed to do the trick: Mr Laschet convincingly beat his main rival, millionaire business lawyer Friedrich Merz, who ran on a platform tilting the CDU more to the right.
He is now in pole position to run as the CDU candidate for chancellor in the September elections. But first he has to deal with Mr. Söder. Any decision regarding the candidate will have to be taken in consultation with the CDU’s twin Bavarian party, the CSU – and Mr Söder is its leader. Speculation is rife in Berlin that he himself might have ambitions for the high-level position.
However, many CDUs are now convinced that Mr Laschet must be their candidate in September. “Söder is a polarizing figure, while Laschet is a unifier,” said a CDU MP. “I want the next chancellor to be from the CDU, not the CSU.”