Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor after World War II, won the most convincing electoral victory of his political career in 1957 with the campaign slogan “No experience”. This cautious and reassuring message echoed in Germany on Saturday as delegates chose Armin Laschet, the prime minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to be the new leader of the ruling party of the Christian Democratic Union.
Mr Laschet, 59, was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate. It represents the mark of soothing and cautious centrism which enabled him to neutralize his political opponents and win four successive elections between 2005 and 2017. However, his victory leaves important questions unanswered about how the CDU will fight the September Bundestag elections and, in a broader sense , on the ideological profile of the party after Merkel. .
The first point is that Mr Laschet may not even be the candidate for chancellor of the center-right alliance made up of the CDU and the Christian-Social Union, his Bavarian sister party. This honor can go to Markus Söder, the head of the CSU and the Bavarian Prime Minister, or even to Jens Spahn, The German Minister of Health, who supported Mr. Laschet for the direction of the CDU but who would have his own ambitions for the chancellery.
Both Mr Söder and Mr Spahn have performed well under pressure as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Germany, while Mr Laschet has occasionally stumbled and seen his popularity plummet. Many politicians and activists in the conservative wing of the CDU and CSU don’t think Mr Laschet is the best man to lead the alliance in the Bundestag campaign.
The second point concerns the political orientation of the CDU after the departure of Ms Merkel. The party enjoys a dominant lead in opinion polls at the moment, but this masks the fact that it has become increasingly difficult in the Merkel era to retain its electorate.
In 2017, the CDU-CSU block took just under 33% of votes, its worst result since the first post-war West German elections in 1949. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, the CDU-CSU vote fell to 28.9%.
The CDU has remained in power in part because the center-left Social Democrats are in an even more serious situation and have clung to their historic rival in the “grand coalitions”, which formed three of the last four German governments. The big German parties were also wary power sharing at national level with two radical parties on the right and on the left – Alternative for Germany and Die Linke.
If Mr Laschet is the center-right candidate for chancellor, that could make a potential post-September election combination – the CDU and the Greens – more elusive. Although Germany intends to phase out coal production by 2038, Mr Laschet is a strong supporter of the lignite industry in North Rhine-Westphalia. He angered environmentalists last year when he backed the opening of a new coal-fired power station, Datteln 4, in his country of origin.
Another embarrassing issue for the CDU is that it is internally divided over how to deal with the right-wing populist AfD, especially in eastern Germany. In the 2017 election, over a million former CDU and CSU voters have changed at the AfD.
Some CDU politicians in the east want to form local coalitions with the AfD despite opposition from the CDU national leadership. First successor to Ms Merkel at the head of the CDU Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was overthrown last year by the involvement of the local CDU in such a project in the eastern state of Thuringia.
The CDU delegates who elected Mr Laschet believe that Merkel-style centrism remains a sufficiently attractive political project to win another electoral victory in September. Yet without the towering figure of Chancellor herself at the helm, the party faces tough choices about its future.