Merkel’s new heir promises continuity, faces new scrutiny

The race to lead Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came down to a conservative, a modernizer and a continuity candidate.

What happened: The party of Angela Merkel opted for continuity on Sunday, picking North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet, a centrist Merkel ally. With Merkel set to step down later this year after 16 years in power, Laschet is now the frontrunner to lead the German center-right into September’s elections.

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Like Merkel, Laschet is seen as a champion of German industry who backs close economic ties with China and Russia, but “the tide is turning” on those issues, says Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund.

  • Laschet has come under scrutiny for his positions on allowing Huawei into Germany’s 5G networks and maintaining good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • “We have to look at what he said in the past as a reflection of his role as the governor of a state with lots of business interests with China and Russia, but now he’s in a new role,” she says.

  • “He’ll still have to support German business, but voters in Germany are starting to see Russia and China in a new light.”

The state of play: The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, will pick a joint chancellor candidate this spring.

  • As CDU leader Laschet would be the traditional pick, but there could still be a twist if he’s seen as “a drag on the party” in upcoming regional elections, David-Wilp says.

  • “The CDU is very pragmatic and shrewd and they’re going to go with a winner.”

  • Laschet would bring a stylistic change from Merkel, David-Wilp says, in that he’s a “real retail politician” unlike the reserved Merkel.

What to watch: David-Wilp says Germans aren’t fully prepared for the “political earthquake” coming later this year.

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