Armin Laschet wins battle to lead Merkel’s bloc in German election

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Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, has won a bruising power struggle to become the candidate of Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc for chancellor in the September election.

Mr Laschet, 60, now faces another big battle: to connect with voters and win over frustrated fellow conservatives who backed his more popular rival, Markus Soeder.

Their Union bloc is the last major political force to nominate a candidate for chancellor in the September 26 parliamentary election, in which Mrs Merkel is not seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.

The race turned into a heated duel after both Mr Laschet, the leader of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Mr Soeder, who leads its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), declared their interest in succeeding Mrs Merkel.

Markus Soeder
Markus Soeder (Peter Kneffel/Pool via AP)

“We will support him with all our strength, without a grudge.”

Parts of the CDU favoured Mr Soeder, while others vehemently opposed his bid to elbow Mr Laschet aside for the top job.

Mr Soeder has much better poll ratings, but Mr Laschet was elected in January as the leader of by far the bigger of the sister parties.

It was primarily a conflict of personality and style rather than policy.

Mr Laschet is the governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mr Soeder is the governor of Bavaria.

At the beginning of last week, Mr Laschet informally rallied the CDU leadership behind his bid.

Armin Laschet, left, and Markus Soeder
Armin Laschet, left, and Markus Soeder have ended their power struggle (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

After days of talks failed to produce a solution but laid bare deep divisions in the CDU, Mr Soeder said on Monday that the bigger party must decide the matter and his CSU would respect a “clear decision”.

At a turbulent meeting of the CDU leadership that lasted until after midnight, 31 of its members voted for Mr Laschet, nine for Mr Soeder and six abstained, news agency dpa reported.

That prompted Mr Soeder to concede.

The Union bloc campaigns together in federal elections and has a joint parliamentary group in Berlin.

The CSU exists only in Bavaria, while the CDU runs in Germany’s other 15 states.

The Union leads polls ahead of the environmentalist Greens, who on Monday nominated Annalena Baerbock as their first candidate to be chancellor.

The struggling centre-left Social Democrats nominated finance minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate months ago.

Armin Laschet speaks to the media
Armin Laschet speaks to the media (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

He was elected in 2017 as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold.

Supporters frequently point to that victory when asked about his poor poll ratings – along with his success in the race to lead Mrs Merkel’s party, in which he beat conservative favourite Friedrich Merz.

They also emphasise his conciliatory nature.

Mr Laschet governs his home region in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally, but probably could work smoothly with a partner further to the left.

Current polls suggest the Greens could hold the key to forming the next government, even if Ms Baerbock does not win the chancellery.

Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock
Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

In recent weeks, he drew criticism for appearing to dither over how to manage a resurgence in coronavirus cases, while Mr Soeder has cultivated an image as a decisive backer of tough action.

Last month, the CDU lost two state elections.

National polls have shown the Union giving up gains it made on the strength of Mrs Merkel’s management of the early stages of the pandemic.

There has been discontent with a slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign and a scandal over some Union legislators’ alleged profiteering from mask procurement deals last year.

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