BERLIN — A trio of men have thrown their hats into the ring in the race to become the next leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and, in all likelihood, the party’s next chancellor candidate.
The CDU has scheduled a special party convention for April 25 for delegates to elect a new leader, after Angela Merkel’s prior pick as successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced she would step down earlier this month.
At a time of great upheaval within both the CDU and German politics, the decision is far from routine. What’s at stake is both the direction of Germany’s largest political party and Germany itself as the post-Merkel era (she plans to stay until next year’s election) fast approaches.
Here are the three men who hope to take up her mantle.
Hometown: Aachen, North Rhine-Westphalia
Education: Law degree
Career: Currently premier of NRW, elected in 2017. Formerly worked as a freelance journalist for public broadcasters and a Catholic newspaper. CDU member since 1979. Has held a variety of positions in local, state, federal and European politics, including stints as an MEP and regional minister overseeing the “integration” of foreigners.
Personal: Married to Susanne Malangré, a member of a prominent Aachen family. Three children.
Secret skill: Speaks fluent French.
Politics: Centrist à la Merkel.
Controversial positions: Gay marriage and headscarves. A devout Catholic, Laschet opposed the former (now legal in Germany) and has advocated banning the latter for girls up to age 14. Despite those views, Laschet tapped Health Minister Jens Spahn, a married gay man, to be his deputy, and is seen as a champion of migrant rights.
Greatest asset: Personality. Laschet is widely considered to be good-natured and adept at building consensus.
Biggest weakness: Seen as too much like Merkel and not conservative enough to win back voters the CDU lost to the far right.
Bottom line: With a proven track record as an election-winner and the backing of both Merkel and the CDU in NRW, Germany’s largest state, Laschet will be hard to beat. With the more conservative Spahn as his running mate, Laschet has the best chance of bridging the CDU’s moderate and conservative wings.
Hometown: Brilon, North Rhine-Westphalia
Education: Law degree
Career: Worked as a corporate lawyer for a few years before devoting himself full-time to politics in the 1990s. A protégé of Wolfgang Schäuble, Merz lost out in the CDU leadership contest at the end of the Helmut Kohl era in the early 2000s to Merkel. Since then, he has earned a good living sitting on the boards of a variety of companies, from insurer AXA to chemical giant BASF to investment group BlackRock — though he announced earlier this month that he quit his BlackRock post to focus on politics again. This is also his second bid to steer the CDU in a little over a year, after he lost out to Kramp-Karrenbauer in the last leadership race in late 2018.
Personal: Married to Charlotte Merz, a judge. Three children.
Secret skill: Knows how to fly an airplane.
Politics: A law-and-order, free-market conservative. Merz promises to win back disgruntled CDU voters who have defected to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Controversial positions: Opposed a 1997 reform to criminalize rape within a marriage. Advocates the so-called Leitkultur, which is the promotion of German culture, mores and traditions among migrants.
Greatest asset: Intelligence. Even Merz’s political opponents attest to his sharp mind and detailed knowledge of complicated policy issues.
Biggest weakness: Arrogance. Both inside and outside the CDU, Merz is regarded as a know-it-all who prefers to talk instead of listen.
Bottom line: While Merz is popular with the CDU’s base, especially those who opposed Merkel on refugees and complain that she’s moved the party too far to the left, he lacks a deep network within the party apparatus. To win, he’ll have to convince the functionaries who vote at the convention that he’s their best chance to hang on to power.
Hometown: Meckenheim, North Rhine-Westphalia
Education: Law degree
Career: Currently a member of the Bundestag. Joined the CDU in high school and built a career in the party, becoming a member of parliament in 1994 and environment minister under Merkel in 2009. In 2014, he became chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, where he has been a vocal critic of Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and China’s attempts to spread its influence in Europe.
Personal: Married to Ebba Herfs-Röttgen, a lawyer. Three children.
Secret skill: Learned to play the accordion as a boy.
Politics: A centrist through and through, Röttgen is the favorite of the old CDU establishment. He grew up on the outskirts of Bonn and he epitomizes the core values of the old German republic — transatlanticism, the Franco-German partnership and a strong anchoring of Germany in the EU.
Controversial positions: While Röttgen’s politics are solidly mainstream, he has courted no shortage of controversy. Once a confidant of Merkel, she fired him as environment minister in 2012. Röttgen had led the CDU ballot in North Rhine-Westphalia that year and lost the election. Merkel demanded his resignation from the Cabinet after the defeat, but he refused. The chancellor responded with a public humiliation that resonates to this day and destroyed their relationship.
Greatest asset: A safe pair of hands. Röttgen, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Court of Justice of the European Union, is solidly grounded in all the major political issues of the day, whether the EU, climate policy or 5G.
Biggest weakness: Can come across as aloof, too brainy, stubborn. While a consummate gentleman, Röttgen lacks the common touch, a crucial quality in this populist environment.
Bottom line: For all his qualities, Röttgen is a long shot. He lacks the backing of a powerful ally like Merkel and his state party is destined to support Laschet.