Armin Laschet will run as the conservative candidate to succeed chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s elections in September, after the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won the support of senior party leaders and his rival Markus Söder dropped out of the race.
Söder, the state premier of Bavaria and leader of CDU sister party CSU, conceded defeat at a press conference on Tuesday, saying he had already congratulated his competitor on the appointment.
“The die has been cast,” said Söder, whose aggressive bid for the chancellor candidacy had paralysed the conservative party bloc for the last week. “Armin Laschet will be the CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor.”
Laschet, who has been party leader since January, on Monday night gained the support of 77.5% of the party board at an internal meeting – 31 votes compared to nine for Söder.
“It’s about the best answers to the pressing questions of the future. And I am ready to run for office on our behalf,” Laschet said after the board voted.
But the internal gathering also revealed a deep divide about Laschet’s candidacy within the CDU board, whose backing of their leader was less unanimous than at a more informal show of support a week ago.
Peter Altmaier, the economy minister and close Merkel ally, switched his support to Söder after saying he perceived a lack of enthusiasm about Laschet in all federal states bar the party leader’s home turf, in North-Rhine Westphalia.
Christian Democrats from the formerly socialist eastern regions also expressed a preference for the Bavarian. On Tuesday, the general secretary of the CSU called Söder the Kandidat der Herzen, “the candidate of hearts”.
On Monday Söder had made it clear he would accept the decision of the CDU federal committee, a statement that Laschet called “a very important signal” in the internal meeting.
But in a conservative party bloc that traditionally agrees on its candidate for the chancellory behind the scenes, there was no formalised procedure for what would happen next. On Monday night, even Laschet seemed to briefly consider putting his candidacy to the vote among Germany’s 300-odd regional party bosses.
With Merkel stepping down after the election, pressure has been mounting on the conservatives to agree on a candidate as its ratings wallow near a one-year low, hurt by the chaotic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Laschet and Söder have been at loggerheads over who is better placed to become the candidate to lead the conservative alliance, dubbed “the Union”, to an election victory.
By backing Laschet, 60, the CDU elite has prioritised its ascendancy in the conservative bloc over the prospect of being led to victory by Söder, 54, who is seen as less of a team-player than the Rhinelander.
Polls suggest that Söder is more popular than Laschet, so the prospect of losing votes with Laschet as the candidate for chancellor has unnerved some members of his own CDU party.
Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, has not weighed in on the debate, saying last week: “I wanted to, want to and will stay out of it.”
Participants at Monday’s marathon talks told German media that Merkel sat in on the video conference but did not contribute to the discussions, with some observers reading into her silence a lack of support for Laschet.
The disarray in the conservative camp was in contrast to the opposition Greens who on Monday, with no internal wrangling, named their co-leader Annalena Baerbock as their first candidate for chancellor in the party’s 40-year history.
The conservatives retain a narrow lead in polls over the Greens, but the leadership rift threatens to harm their efforts to extend their 16-year-old hold on power without Merkel, who has won them four consecutive victories.
Laschet is widely seen as a candidate who would continue Merkel’s legacy, though he has clashed with her over coronavirus restrictions. Söder is an astute political operator who has sided with Merkel during the pandemic.
Laschet has said that for him, one of the policy priorities as chancellor would be to keep Europe together and steer the bloc out of its current coronavirus crisis.
A Forsa poll last week put support for the conservative alliance at 27%, ahead of the Greens at 23%.
With Reuters and Agence France-Presse