Shortly before the current leader of Germany’s CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced she was stepping down, Armin Laschet joked, “Is Germany ready for a male Chancellor?” Not long after that, the 58 year old Prime Minister of Germany’s largest state, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), surprised many by making his bid to be CDU leader.
All three leadership contenders – Laschet, Merz and Röttgen – come from NRW: it is Laschet, however, who shows the sense of humour people from that area are known for. Sometimes criticised for being too liberal, especially for many in the CDU, and even too friendly, Laschet “chats like you do yourself at the kitchen table,” as the Berliner Morgenpost put it: “The 1.72 meter tall man…likes to laugh – a lot. Whoever talks to him is pleasantly surprised that he has the rare gift of listening. He asks a lot, absorbs, is interested in a lot.” When asked about his eldest son Johannes, a successful fashion blogger, he shouts in mock indignation: “Why does everyone say he looks like the Hollywood star Ryan Gosling and nobody says he looks like Armin Laschet?”
Laschet has been Prime Minister of North-Rhine Westphalia since 2017. It’s an important position – NRW has a population of 18 million, nearly a quarter of Germany’s population. Born in Aachen in 1961 into a Catholic family, Laschet studied politics and law at university, but failed to pass his second state exam, meaning his studies were unfinished. He became a freelance journalist, went into local politics at the age of 27 and in 1994 entered the Bundestag as member for Aachen City. He lost his seat in the 1998 election, but became an MEP in 1999; he describes himself as a ‘passionate European‘.
From 2005 – 2010, Laschet was NRW’S Minister for Generations, Family, Women and Integration and gained the sarcastic nickname, as the Frankfurter Rundschau reports, of ‘Armin the Turk’, due to his liberal views on issues such as integration, especially among the descendants of the ‘Gastarbeiter’ – Turkish people who came to Germany as ‘guest workers’ in the 1960s and 1970s. He said in 2009 that, “We have to understand the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity of our country not as a threat, but as an opportunity and a challenge.” In 2010, Laschet became a member of the NRW parliament, and then Chair of the CDU group in 2013. In his 2017 election campaign, Laschet focused on internal security, advocating a “zero tolerance line” towards those who take advantage of the right to asylum, policing (with more rights for the police, education, the economy and traffic. He won 33% of the votes and formed a coalition with the FDP, the Liberal Party, who had come third with 12.6%. The coalition has a majority of one.
Laschet had been discussed as a possible CDU leader for some months. Die Welt commented that “Laschet, long underestimated….. played skilfully with his chancellor potential and fuelled speculation.” In 2018, when he held back from running, the paper notes, “He preferred to take on the role of moderator between the contenders Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merz and Spahn.”
German media have pointed out that Laschet has more to lose than either Merz or Spahn, since if he wins the leadership, he will probably have to give up his position as Prime Minister of NRW, which could also have the knock-on effect of de-stabilising that government. This is one reason that people were surprised when he announced his candidature. Another reason is that he had a reputation for caution: Die Zeit said he was so cautious that he was most comfortable betting on a draw in sports events.
Laschet is seen as the Merkel continuity candidate, having declared that there would be no sharp break with Merkel’s policies: “I don’t see the point of distancing ourselves from the 15 successful years of the Merkel era.” Die Welt argued that, like Merkel, he does not see ‘conservative’ as the core brand of the CDU/CSU union; rather, he has a Christian world view. Laschet has been criticised by both leadership rivals, Merz and Röttgen, for his support for Merkel’s refugee policy.
NRW has close economic ties with China: Laschet has supported the relationship his state has with the Chinese government, and repudiated Röttgen and Merz’s arguments that Huwaei should be excluded from a role in Germany’s 5G network. He has also warned against isolating Putin’s Russia.
Noting that he sees himself as a bridge builder, with ‘measure and middle’ the motto he has given his NRW government, the Zeit argues that, “he lets the others rush forward and remains in the background himself as a mediator. This tends to give him a low profile, but also makes him difficult to attack.” The Deutsche Welle reported that Wolfgang Kubicki, the vice chairman of the FDP, said that, “He’s a likable person, someone who can win others over and unite them — all while being the master of the noncommital.”
The taz reported that Laschet’s aim as a man of the middle is, “to ensure nothing less than the cohesion of society….he speaks about the fears of citizens: of social decline, of climate change, of job losses through digitization – but also about the fears of migrants and of Muslims and Jews about extreme right-wing violence.”
Laschet is known as someone who can reach across party and factional lines. In the 1990s, he was a member of the ‘Pizza Connection’, which was a group of CDU and Green MPS who used to meet in an Italian restaurant in Bonn to identify the common ground between the parties. The Zeit argues that the reason the NRW coalition is so stable with only a majority of one is that Laschet has accommodated the FDP; so much so that national FDP leader Christian Lindner said in 2018 that Laschet had “what it takes to be chancellor”. In addition, Laschet announced that he would be running for leader with the ultra-conservative Health Minister Jens Spahn as his deputy, showing that he sees uniting the wings of the CDU as a priority.
As far as cooperation with the far-right AfD is concerned, however, Laschet has been clear: he has ruled out any kind of cooperation, including coalition, tolerance and talks: “The Union’s course must remain a middle course.”
Laschet has been criticised for his environmental policies, and he has come into conflict with Merkel over this issue. The coal industry has traditionally been a crucial part of the NRW economy, but the German government has agreed to phase out coal by 2038 at the latest. Under the phase-out plans, NRW was one of the areas promised investment to support the creation of new industry and business; Laschet has accused the government of dragging its feet over the investment. Laschet has also come under fire for his comments that there was an ‘illegal occupation’ by protestors who were trying to stop the tearing down of parts of the Hambach forest in NRW in order to expand the nearby Hambach coal mine. And as an FT article pointed out, he “told a talk show that he could not understand why climate change had managed to get to the top of the political agenda. He has just commissioned a new coal-fired power station.”
Some have argued that Laschet does not have a clear agenda marking him out from the others. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, wrote that, “Laschet, a passionate European, lacks a sparkling idea, a “project”. Just wanting to prevent Friedrich Merz and a shift to the right will not be enough.”
Similarly, some doubt that he has the qualities needed to be leader. On the one hand, he is determined and his determination has paid off. The taz, in an article about him entitled ‘The Persistent’, characterised his career as one of “failures, which he turns into victories. ” The Berliner Morgenpost labelled him “the Duracell bunny from Düsseldorf” because he keeps on going after setbacks.
However as the Zeit commented, “When Armin Laschet enters a room, he does not dominate it. He is just there.” The Stern argues that, “critics accuse Laschet of being too well-behaved, harmless, needing more sharpness and biting attacks against red-green (the SPD and Greens). The image of the somewhat too nice politician, who is anything but a hardliner, has accompanied him for many years.”
Yet the Stern points out that Laschet, who is often underestimated, has shown himself to be a formidable politician. The magazine concludes, “No, you really shouldn’t underestimate the nice Mr. Laschet.”