Germany’s most over-used political truism states that “after the election is before the election”. In a country of 16 federal states, staggered state elections mean someone, somewhere is always heading into election season. The truism has a universal element, too: post-election periods can be a tricky time of trying to turn promises into policy.
Both readings apply now to Armin Laschet, elected at the weekend as head of Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He takes office amid a pandemic, with all the related uncertainties, as the most influential party in Germany – and Europe – faces a busy election year. After key state elections in March, Laschet has to present the party's strategy for securing a fifth term in office in Berlin in September. It will be the party's first campaign in 20 years without popular chancellor Angela Merkel to pull in votes. Laschet is a Merkel loyalist, but he is no Merkel. He has promised continuity in domestic and European politics, and is convinced that German elections are won or lost in the centre.
But 47 per cent of delegates on Saturday didn't vote for him. They share the view of an even larger number of CDU grassroots members that the party has neglected at its peril its traditional conservative, liberal roots and voter base. Three grand coalitions since 2005 with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), they argue, have diluted dangerously the CDU brand and left older voters easy prey for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). CDU conservatives and its business wing put their hopes on Friedrich Merz, the self-confident millionaire lawyer who hoped his return to politics could settle old scores.
Compared to the high drama across the Atlantic, the civilised, low-wattage CDU leadership election has been a comfort blanket of sorts
It wasn’t to be: just enough party delegates allowed vote at the weekend are as wary of Merz, his character and intentions, as was Angela Merkel who shafted him as her deputy nearly 20 years ago. Laschet’s election balancing act will be to mollify the Merz camp, at least enough to keep the AfD in check, without scaring off any younger voters pulled in by Merkel’s modernising of her party. Laschet hopes to manage all of this while staying on as minister president of North Rhine Westphalia, a sprawling state of 18 million people.
The new CDU leader admitted on Saturday he was not the most exciting politician. Nor another underestimated Rhineland politician: Helmut Kohl. Like the late unity chancellor, Laschet has a talent for being underestimated, keeping it country just long enough to mask his taste for power.
Compared to the high drama across the Atlantic, the civilised, low-wattage CDU leadership election has been a comfort blanket of sorts. With so little to be sure of elsewhere, politics in Europe’s largest member state remains dowdy but comfortable, like a pair of ergonomic sandals with white socks.