The CDU – Finally! – Will Choose Its New Leader

Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AGI

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.


But Will the Winner Make Way for Markus Söder as Chancellor Candidate?

The slow-motion departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel enters a new phase this weekend, as her Christian Democratic Union holds a digital party conference to choose a new Chairman. The new leader will hope to succeed Merkel as chancellor after the Bundestag election on September 26. With the CDU polling nearly twice the level of support of any other German political party, the winner would have the inside track. But there are significant hurdles that stand between the January 16 party vote and the chancellery later this year.

Three men are vying for the CDU leadership: North Rhine-Westphalia Minister-President Armin Laschet, Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Norbert Röttgen, and former leader of the CDU Bundestag caucus Friedrich Merz. The winner will take over from Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was Merkel’s heir-apparent and won the chairmanship in a close battle with Merz in late 2018, but who threw in the towel after just over a year, failing to establish a firm grip on the party. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the party conference, and the CDU ultimately decided to hold it digitally, with 1,001 delegates participating online.

With the CDU polling nearly twice the level of support of any other German political party, the winner would have the inside track. But there are significant hurdles that stand between the January 16 party vote and the chancellery later this year.

This is only the first decision on the road to the September election. Later in the spring, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, will have to decide who will lead their joint ticket for the chancellorship. None of the CDU contenders appears to have an overwhelming majority within the party, and they also have failed to inspire the conservative voter base. This dissatisfaction has given rise to a yearning for other options. While it is normally a no-brainer that the CDU leader also runs for chancellor, but dissatisfaction with their choices is leading the plurality of CDU voters to say they want Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder to carry the center-right banner into the election – an implicit rebuke to the CDU contenders and one fraught with history: twice in German history has the CSU leader headed the conservative ticket, but never has he won.

Delay in holding the party convention has not clarified things for the delegates; it has merely added to the confusion. If the selection had taken place rapidly, Laschet’s record of success in Germany’s largest state and his closeness with Merkel might have propelled him to victory. Instead, Laschet has drawn criticism for his handling of the pandemic, while his somewhat mushy communication style has hampered his appeal. His strength is that he leads the largest CDU state organization, and delegates will find attractive his ability to win elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and his continuity with Merkel, Germany’s most respected politician.

Friedrich Merz and his many years of business experience since leaving the Bundestag in 2009 have inspired the CDU’s economic wing, and Merz’s sharp mind and incisive rhetoric have endeared him to party conservatives who hope to marginalize the far-right Alternative for Germany by presenting a stronger conservative message. But Merz has alienated some with his more confrontational style, and his many years away from politics have raised questions about whether he is the right man to appeal to the centrist voters Merkel has brought into the fold, or to be able to form a coalition with the Greens, who consistently poll in second place and might be the only option for a two-party coalition.

Few gave Röttgen much of a chance when he declared his candidacy to lead the CDU. He is a polished speaker with intellectual heft and impeccable international connections, but he has a major strike against him: his loss in the 2012 North Rhine-Westphalia state election. That result led to Merkel ousting him from the cabinet (he was environment minister), and her animosity continues. But with one lackluster candidate (Laschet) and another divisive one (Merz), Röttgen’s relentless campaigning and future-oriented politics have earned him a second look, surpassing Laschet in some polls of CDU voters. Sensing opportunity, Röttgen, alone among the three contenders, has left the door open to yielding the chancellor candidacy to Söder. The message to underwhelmed CDU delegates and members: if you think Söder has the best chance to win the chancellery, vote Röttgen for CDU chairman.

With dwindling time to develop an electoral message and consolidate the center-right, the new chairman of the CDU will step into new challenges on day one.

Merkel has dominated the CDU since she took the party’s reins in 2000 – not brashly, but with patience, outlasting her rivals with a superior tactical sense. So great was her success in systematically sidelining potential competitors that when she decided to relinquish the chairmanship, the CDU bench was devoid of obvious candidates with deep roots in the party, public recognition, and a profile for national leadership. The result has been more than two years of uncertainty and drift in the CDU – remarkable for a party that has been one of the most successful in post-war Europe, heading the government for fifty-two out of the past seventy-two years. Nevertheless, to hold Merkel responsible for her succession would be to apply an unrealistic standard – rarely if ever does a party leader willingly step down and engineer a smooth transition. The uncertainty surrounding the leadership election stands out mainly because it comes at the end of two decades in which Merkel has shaped the CDU and been its public face.

The January 16 vote will resolve a battle for the CDU that began over two years ago. But it may also set the stage for further drama with the CSU over the chancellor candidacy. And a party built around Merkel may struggle to find its message and footing under new leadership and sustain her high levels of public support. With dwindling time to develop an electoral message and consolidate the center-right, the new chairman of the CDU will step into new challenges on day one.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.