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Germany’s CDU to let members pick new leader for first time in attempt to stop rot

Election disaster prompts change in policy, as defeated candidates line up for second shot

After its worst election result in history, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is poised to break with tradition and choose its next leader by popular vote of its 400,000 members.

In a case of deja vu all over again, many of the same men who failed to win the party leadership last January are stretching on the sidelines for another run.

At a weekend gathering, more than 350 leaders of local CDU parties in German constituencies discussed how to move on past September’s federal election rout under leader Armin Laschet.

He has indicated he is ready to stand aside once the party chooses a successor – but the weekend gathering made clear that party rank and file would not accept a repeat of last January.


Back then, Laschet was chosen by hand-picked delegates of the CDU’s 17 state parties in an opaque process of horse-trading that favours regional parties from larger federal states.

Laschet was seen as a safe, centrist choice, the favoured candidate of the CDU grandees. But he proved so unpopular with regional representatives that some refused to put up election posters featuring their leader – calling Laschet ballot box poison.

Open process

On Tuesday a chastened CDU party executive is likely to back a more open process, like a public broadcaster allowing viewers to choose a Eurovision song contest contestant in the hope of ending a disastrous run of null points.

“This is the first day in the renewal of the CDU ... we are starting a new chapter, a chapter for member participation,” said Paul Ziemiak, party general secretary, talking up the grass-roots revolt.

Many in the centre-right are wary of too much grass-roots participation – and fear the party is set to open a political Pandora's box

CDU regional representatives who pushed for the party to let members choose a new leader were delighted at the news.

“This is well overdue,” said Guntram Wothly, a CDU representative from the eastern city of Jena.

But many in the centre-right are wary of too much grass-roots participation – and fear the party is set to open a political Pandora’s box.

The first to welcome the proposed shift was Friedrich Merz, a liberal conservative lawyer who was once the right hand of Angela Merkel – until she noticed his talent and ambition, and sidelined him.

“The party executive and steering committee should, on Tuesday, follow the clear vote and allow for a membership consultation,” Merz wrote on Twitter.

Throwing his hat into the ring now would make this his third leadership run since Merkel stood down as leader in 2018. At each turn her centrist CDU allies in the current party front bench have moved to block every Merz leadership bid, wary of what they see as a populist, ruthless streak.

AfD votes

But Merz is popular among conservatives – in particular in southwestern and eastern Germany – for his promise to sharpen its right wing and win back voters lost to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). According to reports, 66-year-old Merz hopes to recruit to his team the outgoing health minister Jens Spahn, a 41-year-old seen by some as a future leader.

On Friday a representative survey for ARD public television found that nearly a quarter of respondents found Merz the most suitable CDU leader.

In second place with 19 per cent support was Norbert Röttgen, a centrist foreign policy expert. Following Spahn, placed by the survey in third place, were CDU parliamentary party leader Ralph Brinkhaus and Carsten Linnemann, spokesman of the party’s business wing.

Resigned to the opposition benches, many senior CDU figures fear none of the potential leaders can unite a party they see slipping towards a breakdown into ideological factions.