Two of Germany’s top politicians have launched a joint bid for the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union, promising a fresh start for a party in crisis but also warning against a sharp break with the Merkel era.
Armin Laschet, one of the CDU’s leading moderates, will run for CDU leader while Jens Spahn, the conservative health minister, will campaign to be his deputy, forming a team that unites two of the most powerful wings in the party.
The combination presents a significant threat to Friedrich Merz, the rightwinger who has long been a clear frontrunner for the leadership and who also announced his candidacy on Tuesday. Mr Merz once led the CDU parliamentary group and is popular with the party’s conservative grassroots.
The contest is shaping up to be a battle for the soul of the CDU, with Mr Laschet and Mr Spahn pledging to uphold chancellor Angela Merkel’s legacy and keep the party anchored in the centre-ground of German politics, and Mr Merz promising to shift it firmly to the right.
Announcing his candidacy, Mr Merz said the choice was “between continuity, and a fresh start and renewal”.
“We must break out into a new era, we can’t just continue with business as usual,” he added. He described the election as a “decision on the future direction of the CDU”.
But Mr Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, said that with him there would be no break with Ms Merkel’s political inheritance. “I don’t see the point of distancing ourselves from the 15 successful years [of the Merkel era],” he said.
The CDU, the biggest party in Germany’s ruling coalition, has been in crisis since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, long seen as Ms Merkel’s handpicked successor, announced this month that she was stepping down as CDU chief and abandoning her ambitions to run for chancellor after Ms Merkel steps down in 2021.
Her decision came in response to a scandal in the east German state of Thuringia, when the local CDU teamed up with the nationalist Alternative for Germany to elect a little-known politician as prime minister. The move shattered Germany’s postwar consensus that forbids co-operation between mainstream parties and the hard right.
Thuringia has since cast a long shadow over the CDU and badly hurt its poll ratings. In elections in Hamburg on Sunday, it came third with 11.2 per cent of the vote, its worst-ever result in the city state.
There are four declared candidates for the CDU succession — Mr Laschet, Mr Spahn, Mr Merz and Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.
Initially, party officials tried to hammer out a “team solution”, in which the four would divide the top jobs between them and so avoid a public fight for the CDU crown. But Mr Merz ultimately refused to play ball.
Mr Laschet said he had tried to do a deal with Mr Merz, but it became clear that they had fundamentally different views on how to revive the CDU. Mr Laschet said he believed that “competition [for votes] takes place in the centre-ground” while Mr Merz “set a different priority” — winning back former CDU voters who had defected to the AfD.
Mr Merz later agreed. “We embody two different directions [for the party],” he said.
A victory for Mr Merz, an old rival of Ms Merkel, who she squeezed out as leader of the opposition in 2002, could force her to stand down as chancellor before the formal end of her fourth and final term in late 2021.
In his pitch for the leadership, Mr Laschet described Germany as a country where hatred and aggression were on the rise, where rightwing violence was a growing problem — as seen in last week’s terror attack in Hanau, in which a gunman killed 10 people, including nine from immigrant communities — and social cohesion was in short supply.
He presented himself as the candidate able to heal society’s wounds. “We can and must bring our party and our country back together,” Mr Laschet said. His candidacy was “inclusive”, reflecting the “full spectrum” of opinion in the CDU.
Mr Laschet said he would fight to ensure Germany retained a strong industrial base even after it abandoned nuclear and coal power. He stood for “zero tolerance of crime” but a “Germany that is liberal and open to the world”, emphasising the need for greater social mobility, more investment in education and “more Europe”.
Mr Merz, meanwhile, spoke of the need to “restore faith in the law-based state” and to “better control illegal immigration”. Germany must protect its own borders if the EU failed to sufficiently safeguard the bloc’s external frontiers, he said.
Mr Spahn’s decision to back Mr Laschet’s candidacy and not to run himself came as a surprise to many in Berlin. The 39-year-old health minister has long been seen as a potential future chancellor, and when Ms Merkel stepped down as CDU leader in 2018, he was one of three candidates — along with Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and Mr Merz — who ran to succeed her. In the end he came last.
But Mr Spahn said on Tuesday that with the CDU now in the “worst crisis” of its history, “it’s no longer just about my personal ambition”.