Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a conservative and former rival of Merkel, at an online convention of the Christian Democratic Union. Laschet got 521 votes to Merz’s 466. A third candidate, prominent lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, was eliminated in a first round of voting.
Saturday’s vote is not the last word on who will run as the center-right candidate for chancellor in Germany’s Sept. 26 elections, but Laschet will either run for chancellor or have a lot to say about who will.
Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, announced in late 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term. He also retired from the leadership of the CDU.
The decision ends an 11-month leadership limbo in Germany’s strongest party after outgoing leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had failed to assert her authority on the party, announced her resignation. The vote on his successor was delayed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There had been no clear favorite for Saturday’s convention, but Merz’s election would have marked at least a symbolic break from the Merkel era. Laschet will now have to work to ensure party unity.
Laschet, 59, was elected in 2017 as governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional center-left stronghold. He governs the region in a coalition with pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally on the right, but could probably work without a hitch with a more liberal partner. Current polls point to Green environmentalists as a possible key to power in the elections.
Laschet on Saturday noted the value of continuity and restraint, citing the assault on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump as an example of where deliberate polarization can lead.
“Trust is what keeps us going and what has been broken in America,” he told delegates before the vote. “By polarizing, sowing discord and mistrust, and systematically lying, a president has destroyed stability and trust.”
“We must speak clearly but not polarize,” Laschet said. “We must be able to integrate, keep society together.”
He said the party needs “continuity of success” and “we will only win if we stay strong in the midst of society.”
Laschet said that “there are many people who, above all, find Angela Merkel good and only after that the CDU.” He added that “we need this trust now as a party” and that “we must work for this trust.”
Saturday’s result will now be officially endorsed in a vote-by-mail, which is expected to be a formality, but is a requirement of German law.
The CDU is part of the Union bloc along with the Bavarian-only Christian Social Union, and the two parties will decide together on the center-right candidate for chancellor. Currently, the Union has a healthy lead in the polls, helped by positive reviews about Merkel’s handling of the pandemic.
CSU leader Markus Soeder, governor of Bavaria, is widely considered a potential candidate after gaining political stature during the pandemic. Some also consider Health Minister Jens Spahn, who supported Laschet and was elected as one of his deputies, a possible contender.
Polls have shown Soeder’s ratings outperform those of Saturday’s CDU candidates. Laschet has drawn mixed reviews on the pandemic, particularly as a staunch advocate of easing restrictions after the first phase last year.
You shouldn’t expect a long honeymoon as leader of the CDU. This year also includes six state elections, the first two in mid-March.
Merkel, now 66, has led Germany and Europe through a series of crises since taking office. It has also repeatedly broken with conservative orthodoxy, for example, hastening Germany’s exit from nuclear power and ending conscription.
Its 2015 decision to allow large numbers of migrants to enter sparked center-right divisions and strengthened the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which entered the German parliament two years later.
Alternative for Germany co-leader Joerg Meuthen said Laschet’s election means the CDU “will continue with Merkeling” and said his party “remains the only conservative party in Germany.”