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Armin Laschet aims to follow in Merkel's footsteps

Christoph Strack | Rina Goldenberg

Embattled Christian Democrat Armin Laschet tried to rally support in his bid to replace Angela Merkel. But after several stumbles, the campaign of the CDU's chancellor candidate has now come to a close.

Armin Laschet, chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the party's top cadidate for the federal election, addresses the media during a press conference
Armin Laschet is the CDU/CSU top candidate for the September 26 electionImage: Michael Sohn/AP/picture alliance

Armin Laschet is currently the premier of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which would seem to be an ideal springboard for his ambition to be Germany's next leader. 

Laschet is the chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and clinched the nomination to become the conservative bloc's candidate for chancellor in a power struggle with Markus Söder, the charismatic head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU).

But, in the months that followed, the CDU slipped in the polls and Laschet was blamed for this. By the final weeks of the campaign, his personal approval ratings had fallen below those of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz.

Laschet was under huge pressure, and his campaign further faltered with every new poll confirming the CDU/CSU's downturn. So he went on the offensive in live debates with his competitors, rallied support at the CSU party conference and nominated a "team for the future" as a quasi shadow cabinet. 


A series of gaffes

Laschet is a jovial and good-natured politician who speaks with a regional accent and feels comfortable stressing bipartisanship and amicability all around. Laschet has sought to unite his party's left and right wings. "We will only win if we remain strong in the center," is a phrase that comes up often in his speeches. 

But, throughout his campaign, he has come across as vague. What, many wondered, does the candidate really stand for?

When parts of western Germany — including Laschet's home state — were hit by devastating floods in July, climate change became a top campaign issue. But Laschet failed to pay tribute to this shift.

"We're not going to start changing our whole approach," said Laschet, "just because of a day like this." The remark did not go down well at a time when many people were already beginning to talk about ways to adapt to extreme weather events and combat global warming.

The U-turn came days later: "We all need to do what we can to combat climate change," Laschet declared then.

Merkel, Laschet visit flood-hit state as election looms

Observers felt there was too much chopping and changing on policy commitments.

In an interview shared extensively on social media, he was unable to give a persistent interviewer more than two political areas he wanted to focus on as a chancellor: digitalization and climate change.

Unfortunate images have further damaged Laschet's campaign. During a joint visit with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the flood region, camera teams captured Laschet apparently sharing a hearty joke with some local officials, just as Steinmeier was speaking of shock and profound concern for local people, many of whom had lost everything.

He quickly issued an apology for the unseemly behavior — an apology that he repeated several times in the days to come, but the images went viral. 

Armin Laschet sharing a laugh on a visit to Erftstadt
#Laschetlacht (Laschet laughs) went viral on social mediaImage: Marius Becker/dpa/picture alliance

Laschet and Merkel ... and Söder

When Laschet was voted in as party chair in January, many saw him as a key backer of Angela Merkel's course. A former lawyer who has dabbled in teaching and in journalism and been one of five deputy federal chairmen of the CDU since 2012, Laschet had long been seen as a reliable right-hand man to Merkel. He had remained Merkel's loyal ally when she faced strong opposition from parts of her party for her "welcome policy," permitting the entry of hundreds of thousands of refugees since 2015. 

But, in the wake of the mishaps and weaknesses in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Laschet gradually distanced himself from the chancellor, who in turn only began throwing her weight behind Laschet when his campaign was faltering just weeks before the election.

Laschet has more political experience than Merkel did before she became chancellor. He has been elected at the local, state and federal levels; and even to the European Parliament. And, having grown up in Aachen, near the border with Belgium, he is a true European. He has family roots in Belgium and speaks fluent French. Since 2019, Laschet has also been Germany's representative for Franco-German cultural relations and has long maintained close ties with political leadership in Paris. 

Laschet, a Catholic, had to fight hard to become the conservative candidate for the Chancellery, defeating the CSU's Söder,, who was the favorite also of many in the CDU. Söder projects himself as dynamic, forward-looking. His critics call it opportunism. Fact is: In the opinion polls, the Bavarian has consistently been a long way ahead of Laschet.

Laschet and Söder stand at lecterns in front of the symbol for the CDU
Armin Laschet beat Markus Söder to become conservative candidate to succeed Angela MerkelImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Laschet, the Greens and the FDP

Laschet has long maintained that his preferred coalition partner would be the pro-free market Liberal Democrats (FDP). And indeed Laschet heads such a coalition in his home state.

But he is also a figure who could conceivably form an easy alliance with the Greens. Laschet and the Green Party go way back: After his entry into the Bundestag in 1994, Laschet quickly helped to build a relationship between his CDU and the Greens.

But, if the CDU/CSU do not manage to remain the strongest bloc in the new parliament, Laschet may well have no role at all to play on the federal level anytime soon.

This article has been translated from German and reworked to reflect the latest developments.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C