It’s been a long time coming, but for a few weeks now it’s been clear: Armin Laschet is the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor in Germany’s 2021 federal election. His candidacy is not without controversy, both internally and externally: Laschet is said to have “no chancellor format.” In particular, numerous members of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group voiced their displeasure during the personnel debate on the chancellor’s candidacy and called instead for Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU) to run. The latter is clearly ahead of Laschet in opinion polls. With Markus Söder as chancellor candidate, the re-entry of CDU delegates into the German Bundestag would be “more secured”, according to some Union delegates.
However, polls and preferences of elected officials are not everything in a long Bundestag election campaign. Ultimately, a multiplicity of factors will play a role. In this article, our expert Jenovan Krishnan does not look into a crystal ball. Instead, he provides an overview of the opportunities and challenges that could await chancellor candidate Armin Laschet from various perspectives, such as coalition arrangements, regional proportional representation, and internal party dynamics. In addition, an exciting question is raised: What does this mean for public policy officers and their work in the coming months and under a potential Chancellor Laschet?
Opportunities for Armin Laschet
Armin Laschet can form coalitions and govern: The lack or presence of experience in government has taken up a lot of space in the debate about chancellor candidates so far. Whether it is decisive is a matter for each voter to judge for themselves, but experience is certainly helpful in leading a federal government with around 15 ministries out of the (hopefully) abating pandemic. Laschet currently leads the black-yellow coalition in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state, without a sound – with only a one-vote lead.
Laschet and Lindner: Which opens up the next topic. Should the FDP be in a position tip the scales after the federal election and decide between “traffic light” and “Jamaica” coalitions, Laschet makes a strong case for the latter. The possibility of a 3-party coalition with the FDP – similar to 2017 – is a likely scenario. The collapsed talks after the 2017 federal election are still present in the minds of some. However, in 2021, the starting position looks different. Neither Angela Merkel nor her staff will play a role in the negotiations. Furthermore, the party leaders of the CDU and FDP know and appreciate each other from their earlier cooperation in North Rhine-Westphalia. In exploratory and coalition negotiations in 2021, this could be the basis for cooperation.
Laschet and the Greens: Nevertheless, it seems to have been forgotten that Laschet was part of the so-called “Pizza Connection” in the late 1990s. More than 25 years ago, young members of the Bundestag – from the CDU and Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen – met in the wine cellar of the Bonn Italian “Sassella”. The aim was to test out new democratic majorities in the form of a black-green coalition and to identify overlaps in policy ideas. Laschet was part of this alliance from the start. In upcoming black-green exploratory and coalition negotiations, he would have the opportunity to turn this long-standing idea into reality. Laschet can tie in with both the Greens and the FDP.
Armin Laschet can win elections: Laschet’s election victory in North Rhine-Westphalia came as a surprise. On the one hand, he won in the much-vaunted “heartland of social democracy.” On the other hand, he managed to do so against an incumbent Minister President, Hannelore Kraft (SPD), who had been extremely popular. A parallel to the Bundestag election campaign should give pause for thought here. Back then, Laschet also started with very poor poll ratings – and turned them around within a few weeks. Therefore, he should not be written off until the very end.
Challenges for Armin Laschet
Risk NRW: Armin Laschet and his supporters repeatedly mention North Rhine-Westphalia, and for good reasons. Here, he has gained government experience and can demonstrate strong ties. At the same time, this talking point can also become an obstacle, since he now has to position himself as an unifying chancellor for all the German states. If you look at Laschet’s circle of supporters, it is striking that numerous politicians, including Ralph Brinkhaus, Paul Ziemiak, Friedrich Merz, Jens Spahn, Norbert Röttgen and Serap Güler, come from North Rhine-Westphalia. This could still cause a lot of unrest internally – especially when it comes to the distribution of ministerial and state secretary posts after a successful federal election. In addition, as party chairman, Laschet will decide on the start of exploratory and coalition negotiations and the appointment of negotiators. Some state associations could feel neglected and make life difficult for Laschet, through internal or public criticism. The impression of a divided CDU/CSU would be reinforced once again.
Support from within his own party: The tough battle between Markus Söder and Armin Laschet over the chancellor candidacy has publicly shown that Laschet does not have the backing of parts of the CDU / CSU. The parliamentary group in the Bundestag in particular has expressed this repeatedly in the media. Thus, even though Laschet is now officially the CDU/CSU’s candidate, he is entering the election campaign with a divided party base. It remains to be seen whether he can win over disappointed Söder supporters. The party executive board has high hopes for Laschet’s “integrative” abilities. He demonstrated these, for example, in North Rhine-Westphalia after losing the state election in May 2012 with historically poor results for the CDU. As the new CDU state leader at the time, Laschet led the NRW CDU into the 2017 state election, from which the party emerged as the strongest political force with 33.0% (72 seats). He also showed it in the aftermath when filling his cabinet. For example, he made Herbert Reul, representing the conservative camp in the CDU/CSU, interior minister. With Hendrik Wüst, he made the state chairman of the CDU/CSU’s Small Business and Economic Union in North Rhine-Westphalia the transport minister. And with Karl-Josef Laumann, he made the federal chairman of the CDU’s workers’ wing the state minister for labour, health, and social affairs.
What can policy-makers expect from a Chancellor Laschet?
Differentiation from the Greens in terms of content: Laschet emphasises that he stands for the harmony of economy and ecology and has made this synthesis the central promise of his policies at the federal level. In his view, social cohesion must be guaranteed, employment must be secured, and the ecological transformation must succeed. At this level, the leading candidates now differ only in nuances. The implementation will be more exciting. Here, too, it is worth looking to North Rhine-Westphalia: There, he moderated and accompanied the structural change in the coal region. In the process, he succeeded in bringing all the parties involved to the table and creating a perspective for the jobs that would be lost and for the environment. It remains to be seen whether and how he will be able to bring this about.
More precise demands can be expected from the end of June/beginning of July, when the CDU/CSU government program will also be finalised and presented.
Armin Laschet’s self-image: In the past, Laschet has repeatedly shown that he remains true to his line and largely avoids erratic changes of direction. This is interpreted by critics as a weakness and by supporters as a strength. For example, as the first integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, he advocated tolerance, respect, and a willingness to engage in dialogue. In the refugee crisis, he followed his line and supported the Chancellor’s policy. During the coronavirus pandemic, he pleaded for opening steps early on and despite criticism, stuck to this position. For public-policy officials, the actions of a Chancellor Laschet are therefore largely “predictable.”
What’s next for the CDU/CSU?
Roadmap to the federal election: The state election in Saxony-Anhalt, which will be held on June 6, 2021, will be the first test for Armin Laschet. As Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, he has the challenges of all those affected by structural change, particularly in coal mining, on his agenda. This is the dominant issue in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Brandenburg in particular, where the Alternative for Germany is strong. In this respect, he has the opportunity to set substantive priorities for AfD strongholds and score points with his experience in supporting structural change in North Rhine-Westphalia. However, polls predict a close race and complicated government constellations. It will be interesting to see how Armin Laschet reacts to possible coalition efforts by CDU members and deputies with the AfD. Laschet may be warned from recent history: in 2020, the state election in Thuringia, the CDU’s handling of the AfD, and the reaction of his predecessor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer cost her the office of party chairman. In Saxony-Anhalt, moreover, CDU members will decide whether to approve a coalition agreement in a member survey. Theoretically, then, CDU members in Saxony-Anhalt have the option of rejecting any coalition preferred by the party leadership. This would once again put Laschet’s leadership to the test. However, such a scenario seems unlikely at present.
Unlike the other parties, the CDU/CSU has not yet published its election manifesto. From previous election campaigns, it can be concluded that the CDU/CSU traditionally publish their program very late. On the one hand, this allows them to respond to the programs of the other parties and, on the other, to react to current political debates. At the same time, however, it makes the CDU/CSU more vulnerable, especially to political opponents.
The CDU is currently in the program process for their election manifesto for the 2021 federal election. The basis for this is provided by the CDU’s federal specialist committees, which submit their position papers, and by the so-called topic tables. Members, politicians from the CDU/CSU and experts discuss the following topics in a digital format: Economy and Labour, Bureaucracy Reduction and Administration, Climate and Environmental Protection, Family, Education, Health and Social Security, Building and Housing, Europe and International Affairs, Innovations and Research, Internal Security and City and Country. These discussions and the position papers of the federal specialist committees will culminate in the CDU’s manifesto. The draft of this program must then be finally confirmed at a meeting of the national executive committee. At the beginning of June, the election manifesto of the two parties will then be confirmed and presented at a joint executive committee meeting between the CDU and CSU.
Conclusion: In the polls, Armin Laschet and the CDU/CSU are still well behind their expectations. However, this is merely a snapshot. In the past, Laschet has proven that he can turn polls around and win people over. He is often denied this power. However, his experience and qualities in government set him apart from some of his competitors. Now it’s up to Laschet and his team to overcome the challenges ahead and get the party behind him. Formally, Armin Laschet has “chancellor potential”. However, it will be up to voters on September 26, 2021 to decide whether he can fulfil this ambition.