German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into an election-winning outfit in her years at the helm of the party, moving it away from traditional values and towards the centre.
The CDU has headed the federal government under Merkel since 2005.
And after polls showed a slump in popularity before the pandemic hit, with the CDU suffering some regional losses, her steady-handed authority during the crisis has meant impressive approval ratings of over 70%.
Now, after Merkel stepped down in 2018 and her chosen successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) quit, three hopefuls are contending to be chosen as the CDU’s new leader and take the party into a new era.
Whoever wins could also succeed Merkel as chancellor and de facto leader of Europe. The 66-year-old says she will step down before federal elections scheduled to take place in September. Pollsters have put the CDU and the CSU, which only runs in Bavaria, ahead of their rivals.
CDU’s new chairman will be chosen at the party’s first fully digital congress, which draws to a close on Saturday.
All three candidates are male, in their 50s or 60s and hail from the North Rhine-Westphalia state in Western Germany, but while they cut a similar figure, their CVs and political outlooks also show marked differences.
Moderate Armin Laschet, Norbert Röttgen, a leading foreign policy expert in the party, and Friedrich Merz, a conservative, are the men competing to be the CDU’s next chairperson — here’s what you need to know about them.
Armin Laschet, minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia
Armin Laschet is considered to be one of the candidates who is most likely to keep the party in the same line as Merkel — a liberal social approach paired with fiscal virtue.
In 2017, he defeated the Social Democrats in their former stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany and one of the country’s biggest regions. He became premier and has governed as part of a coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Laschet has used this government experience in Germany’s most populous state to campaign for the top CDU job.
“It is good to have party leaders who also have government responsibility. That has proven itself,” he told Der Spiegel.
The 59-year-old says he wants to bring Germany up-to-date for the 2020s and remedy “the deficiencies” the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed.
Foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen
After failing to get elected as North Rhine-Westphalia’s minister-president in 2012 and being ousted as federal environment minister, Norbert Röttgen was most recently made chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.
Polls have shown the doctor of law, who has long been considered an outsider for the top CDU position, gain in popularity in recent weeks.
A foreign policy expert, the 55-year-old positions himself between the conservative Friedrich Merz (see below) and the Merkel-loyalist Laschet.
At a recent debate, Röttgen said he didn’t belong to any camp in the party, adding: “I stand for all … for the modern centre.”
Millionaire businessman Friedrich Merz
Lawyer Friedrich Merz had disappeared from the CDU scene, only to pop back up in 2018 to run for the party chairmanship after Merkel gave it up in 2018.
But the 65-year-old was narrowly defeated by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the run-off election. AKK, as she is known in the German media, quit the post in February last year, sparking this latest leadership contest.
Merz is considered economically liberal and is particularly popular with the conservative wing of the party and among the party youth.
He was a member of the Bundestag until 2009 before working for a long period in business, most recently as chairman of the board of directors of investment management firm BlackRock Asset Management Deutschland AG, as well as making millions as a corporate lawyer.
Merz has made no secret of wanting to break with Merkel’s form of politics and take the CDU back down a route of traditional social conservatism.
He is also the most controversial of the three candidates, with some of his statements causing public outrage; he drew criticism in recent months when he seemed to compare homosexuality and paedophilia.
In September, when asked during an interview whether he could imagine a homosexual chancellor, he said: “As long as this is within the framework of the law and as long as it does not affect children — at this point, however, an absolute limit has been reached — this is not a topic for public discussion.”
Whoever wins is not guaranteed a shot at being Germany’s next chancellor
Senior party figures, including Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, have hinted that the winning candidate may not be guaranteed a shot at being chancellor in September, as the CDU and the CSU could nominate another person after state elections in March, which will also be a litmus test for the new CDU leader.
Traditionally, the head of the Christian Democrats is also the party’s candidate for chancellor, but this year, Bavaria’s premier Markus Söder (CSU) and health minister Jens Spahn (CDU) are also being touted as possible candidates because of their consistently high scores in the polls.
However, Spahn had recently denied reports that he was considering this and Söder has also emphasised that his place is in Bavaria.
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