German CDU Leaders Back Laschet as Candidate to Succeed Merkel

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Armin Laschet stepped closer to succeeding Angela Merkel, receiving broad backing from her party to become the German conservative bloc’s candidate for chancellor and putting pressure on his rival Markus Soeder to respond.

The chairman of the Christian Democratic Union delivered a speech that effectively kicked off his campaign and said he would speak later on Monday with Soeder, the head of the smaller Bavarian CSU sister party, in an effort to resolve the issue.

“Everyone wants a quick decision,” Laschet said after receiving unanimous support from the CDU’s leadership committee. “We shouldn’t focus any longer on internal party issues but on the major tasks that Germany faces today, tomorrow, this week and in the coming months.”

The CSU leadership is meeting on Monday, and Soeder will hold a news conference after that in Munich.

The CDU and the CSU traditionally field a joint candidate, and their alliance has been a bedrock in German politics since the end of World War II. With Laschet now in pole position to secure the conservative nomination and the bloc still leading in polls, he will have a strong chance of taking over from Merkel after she steps aside following 16 years running Europe’s biggest economy.

German CDU Leaders Back Laschet as Candidate to Succeed Merkel

As chancellor, he would inherit a raft of challenges, ranging from dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and managing a shift to greener technologies, to shaping the transatlantic alliance and tackling the threats posed by China and Russia.

Laschet said he planned to continue Merkel’s pro-Europe, multilateral approach, advance Germany’s environmental agenda and defend the country’s social-welfare system. He attacked the far-right Alternative for Germany and said he would work to keep the anti-immigrant party out of government.

“We want to turn the millions of people with an immigration background who share our values into CDU-CSU voters,” he said. “The opportunity is bigger than ever.”

But handing the candidacy to Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, could be risky. Opinion polls suggest Soeder is significantly more popular among voters and would garner more support for the conservative bloc in the election.

German CDU Leaders Back Laschet as Candidate to Succeed Merkel

Most members of the CDU’s 22-member leadership committee spoke at the meeting and backed Laschet’s bid for chancellor, according to a participant. Several officials made it clear that current polls shouldn’t be the basis for the candidacy decision, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.

Soeder -- who formally declared his candidacy on Sunday after months of maneuvering behind the scenes -- has played up his popularity, saying it’s important that the conservative candidate has broad backing among party members and the general public.

German CDU Leaders Back Laschet as Candidate to Succeed Merkel

CDU officials downplayed that at the meeting, instead arguing in favor of Laschet’s ability to distill different views into a common party line, the participant said, adding that there was confidence that Laschet could devise a winning strategy.

While the backing bolsters Laschet’s bid, he still needs to get the CSU on board and that likely means forcing Soeder to stand down.

The decision would be a joint one and “must be very soon,” Laschet said. “It doesn’t have to be today, we shouldn’t speculate about time frames. It just has to be very soon.”

Merkel, 66, has stayed out of the contest, even though Laschet is from her party. At the meeting, she again made it clear that she won’t take sides, the participant said.

While Merkel and Soeder clashed during Germany’s 2015 refugee crisis, he has backed her push for restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Laschet, meanwhile, has been criticized by Merkel for a lax response in his home state.

National polls put support for the CDU-CSU at between 26% and 28%. While that’s down from the almost 33% of the vote in the last election in 2017, it would be enough to win and seek to form a ruling coalition.

German CDU Leaders Back Laschet as Candidate to Succeed Merkel

The Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner, have also declined, while the Greens, who took 8.9% last time, are polling as high as 23%, increasing the chances that they’ll be part of the next government.

The environmental party is scheduled to announce its chancellor candidate -- likely between co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck -- next Monday.

While approval polls favor Soeder, only two candidates from socially conservative Bavaria have run for chancellor in the post-war period and both lost.

“All the facts are on the table,” said Laschet. “We want to speak very soon with the CSU and find a joint solution. Then I’m sure that we have every chance of winning the election together.”

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