Armin Laschet, CDU Chairman
President of AICGS
Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.
Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.
Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.
First Victory Opens Steeplechase to Federal Election
Under normal circumstances, the election of a CDU chairman shortly before a federal election would be like the sounding of a starting gun in a sprint, the goal clear and the path straight. Armin Laschet’s election on January 16 as CDU leader might better be likened to a steeplechase, with several hurdles and pitfalls standing between him and Germany’s chancellorship after the September 26 election.
Laschet’s victory is attributable to two major factors. First, the head start he enjoyed as the chief executive of Germany’s largest federal state and as head of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia, which represented almost 30 percent of the 1,001 delegates accredited for the party conference. And second, the continuity he represents with the pragmatic, centrist course of Angela Merkel, who is in the sixteenth year of her chancellorship and remains far and away Germany’s most popular political figure.
But Laschet’s victory was narrow (521 to 466 in the deciding runoff), and this indicates the task he faces to bring disparate tendencies inside the CDU together. Even greater is the challenge of finding resonance with the broader public: a pre-convention poll showed that only 25 percent of CDU supporters preferred him as party leader, the lowest among any of the three contenders for the party leadership.
Friedrich Merz’s second attempt at the chairmanship in just over two years ended agonizingly close with support from 47 percent of the party delegates, but he was no closer this year than in December 2018. Following his bitter defeat, Merz had the opportunity to position himself as the obvious leader-in-waiting should Laschet falter. Instead, he declined the offer to join the party’s prasidium, just as he had done in 2018. Merz declared on Twitter that he was prepared to join Merkel’s cabinet immediately as economics minister – an astounding display of chutzpah that rankled even many of his supporters in the party and that Merkel immediately rejected publicly through her spokesperson. Merz quickly backpedaled, sending a letter two days later to the entire CDU membership expressing regret for the confusion he caused and pledging to remain engaged for the party. But perhaps this drama was Merz’s gift to the party, albeit unintentional: his actions after the vote may have convinced the CDU delegates – most of whom are either professional politicians or local officeholders – that the 53 percent of the delegates choosing Laschet had made the right call.
Laschet’s ultimate objective was not to become CDU leader but to win the chancellorship in September. With the CDU/CSU the most popular party in the country, their chances of victory in September are high, and the CDU chairperson nearly always leads the ticket. But Laschet has to overcome one more potential rival to lead the CDU/CSU into the election campaign: Markus Söder, the Minister-President of Bavaria and leader of the CDU sister party, the CSU. His strong public presence and gift for public profile during the pandemic have made him the most popular potential chancellor among all voters, with 54 percent considering him suitable for the position. Only twice in German history has the CSU leader been handed the baton as chancellor candidate: in 1980 and 2002, both times unsuccessfully. Söder’s popularity remains an impediment to Laschet’s rise – as long as a significant number of CDU members doubt Laschet’s electability at the national level, there will be temptation to offer the chalice to Söder.
The CDU and CSU intend to decide on the chancellor candidate by Easter, leaving Laschet just over two months to demonstrate his claim to lead the center-right into the federal election. On March 14, important state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz will serve as a barometer for the CDU’s trajectory. Neither state has a CDU minister-president now, so success in one or both will burnish Laschet’s image and bolster confidence in his ability to sustain the CDU/CSU’s sixteen-year hold on the chancellery in Berlin.
While the path is not straight for Armin Laschet, these are all good problems to have: he is the single most likely person to govern Germany at the end of 2021, and he has a track record of winning elections in Germany’s largest state. The next ten weeks will determine whether he clears the field – he will need an energetic and effective period of activity in the coming weeks to set himself up to contend for Germany’s highest office.