Early Saturday morning, 16th January 2021. Across Germany 1001 people look into their bathroom mirrors, wipe their eyes. And Armin Laschet stares back. And then, suitably refreshed, they each settle down in front of their laptops, and vote for Laschet as the new party leader of the CDU. Or, to be more precise, 52.7% of them do – in a the election run off against Friedrich Merz.
Since Laschet’s victory on Saturday I have been pondering its meaning. “It’s as if you asked an AI bot to design a CDU politician,” a friend said to me. “It’d design you Laschet.”
That is Laschet’s appeal. Every CDU member sees a bit of themselves in him. He’s like the guy that runs the local sports club in the village, or is the owner of the local accountancy company, or is the guy that rose high enough to become a local mayor. He’s familiar, he’s cheery, he’s not too successful but he’s not a failure either, he has a solid marriage and is well enough dressed but is not a looker – he’s a little short and podgy around the waist. He’s sort of respectable in that Catholic going to church West German way, but there’s a little whiff of backhanders.
Merz, by contrast, is the type of person a slew of CDU members would want to be, even though it is all a little too brash for many of them. Who wouldn’t want to be a millionaire and have a pilot’s license? And Merz doesn’t need backhanders – he can go and work for Blackrock instead. The unabashed self confidence is a turn on – offering to become a Minister after his defeat to Laschet looks like ridiculous hubris to most non-CDU people, but to his supporters this is Merz – a person so sure of himself he can tell others what to do. The sort of behaviour that manager of an accountancy company would just love to be, if they were given permission. And Merz did do just that. Same with regard to women in the CDU – being married to the same woman for 40 years, he offered in his speech, qualified him to talk about gender issues.
Röttgen – in contrast to Merz and Laschet – challenged the CDU to think about what the party ought to be, out and beyond its traditional base. It was uncomfortable. Green issues? To be tougher on China? A party that needs to be more diverse and younger? And even to call into question the reliability of the CDU’s traditional side-kicks, the FDP? It was all too much. And all of that to come after Angela Merkel, an east German protestant woman in this party of west German catholic men.
In other words, this CDU leadership election was not really about policy substance. Yes, there were some minor disagreements about schwarze Null and balancing budgets, and how or when to ditch the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Laschet and his sidekick Spahn even put forward a 10 point plan for Germany’s future, but good luck trying to fathom what it would actually mean in practice were Laschet to become Chancellor. Yet it would be a struggle even for Merz’s most devoted supporters to be able to say with clarity what their man would do differently in terms of policies.
This leadership election was instead about style. Did the CDU want a leader who was them, is them, a sort of comfort blanket? That was Laschet. Or a character who would appeal to what many of them would secretly want to be? Merz. Or a person with some modern vision for the future, but would push the party to change? Röttgen.
The answer, narrowly, was Laschet. The candidate of weiter so (carry on as we are), of keine Experimente (no experiments – Adenauer’s election slogan). The candidate for the pursuit of the comfortable west German consensus and Wohlstand.
A candidate with better political skills than Merz may have been able to do enough to emerge victorious. And Markus Söder even now casts a long shadow over the CDU – his tell-it-like-it-is style and professional communication offer a real alternative to Laschet as Chancellor candidate. Or it might take longer – perhaps only the CDU leader after Laschet will be the one who moves the party on from the studied ambiguous style.
But for now, when the CDU looked in the mirror, it saw in Laschet a reflection of itself. And that was enough, just.