(Bloomberg) -- A moderate in Angela Merkel’s mold became the clear front-runner to replace her after a vocal conservative contender backed his bid to lead the Christian Democratic Union, likely easing pressure on the German leader.
Armin Laschet, 58, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, won the support of Health Minister Jens Spahn, 39, a move that defuses concerns over a bruising eight-week leadership race and power struggles in the run-up to the next election.
By uniting centrist and conservative factions in the party, the duo threatens the ambitions of Friedrich Merz, a long-time Merkel antagonist considered the biggest risk to the chancellor.
“We can and we must bring our party and our country together again,” Laschet, said during a joint news conference with Spahn on Tuesday. “That’s why I want to run as leader of the CDU.”
The surprise move means that Laschet, untested on the national stage even though he governs Germany’s largest state, is in pole position to be his party’s candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor. He said that Merkel’s government was elected through next year, a signal that he would work with the chancellor if he wins the top party job at an April 25 special conference.
Still, Laschet said that as party chairman, he wouldn’t always toe the line with the German leader.
“In situations of conflict, one can also say, ‘Angela, you can’t do that’,” Laschet told broadcaster ZDF late Tuesday. He added that, although the CDU has to agree on the candidacy for the chancellorship with the Bavarian CSU, he would be prepared for the job.
For Germany the stakes are high. The CDU has to deal with the rise of the far right, French demands for European integration, and the twilight of an economic era that saw its manufacturers go from strength to strength.
But Germany’s leading political party was caught up in a maelstrom this month. A blistering fight erupted after CDU lawmakers in the eastern state of Thuringia cast their lot in with the far right. Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had an unsteady 14-month tenure, shocked the party two weeks ago by abandoning her ambitions for the chancellorship. The crisis contributed to the CDU’s worst election result in Hamburg since the end of World War II on Sunday.
For now, Merkel looks to be in position to see out her fourth term, which runs until the fall of 2021. Laschet and Spahn indicated that they won’t put pressure on Merkel to leave early, although Laschet noted that while he looped in the Bavarian sister party of the alliance, the chancellor wasn’t informed of the deal with Spahn in advance.
“Our candidacy is not directed at Angela Merkel,” said Spahn. “It’s not about a break, and it wouldn’t succeed anyway. It’s about learning to walk after 15 years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.”
Merz, the 64-year-old whose political career was eclipsed by Merkel even before she became chancellor in 2005, was undaunted by the challenge. He insisted that his chances had improved since 2018, when he lost an outside bid to be CDU chairman in a close contest with Kramp-Karrenbauer.
“As of today, we have an open competition in the CDU,” Merz said, criticizing Laschet as the candidate of continuity while saying he stands for renewal. “I am playing for the win.”
The surprise alliance between Laschet and Spahn -- the two have been steady rivals -- reflects the turmoil sweeping through the party in the aftermath of the Thuringia chapter’s decision to throw its lot in with the far-right Alternative for Germany on Feb. 5. The cooperation broke a political taboo and plunged the CDU into turmoil as it struggles hold on to voters.
“We, as the CDU, are in the biggest crisis of our history, a crisis of trust, solidarity and confidence,” Spahn said. “Armin Laschet and I sometimes had our differences in the past, but that’s what it’s about in a people’s party: building bridges between different positions and different generations.”
Support for Merkel’s bloc held at 26.5% in the latest Insa poll for Bild newspaper published Tuesday, with the Greens gaining 1.5 percentage points to 22% and the Social Democrats steady on 14.5%. By comparison, the CDU-led bloc secured 32.9% of the vote in the 2017 election.
Kramp-Karrenbauer -- Merkel’s chosen successor until this month -- had planned to stick around until year end, but she was forced to accelerate the process as unrest swirled around the party. The disastrous election result in Hamburg underscored the need for urgency.
With Spahn refraining from running, the main contest pits Laschet against Merz. Norbert Roettgen, 54, who was fired by Merkel as environment minister in 2012, has also entered the race but is seen as an outsider. He announced on Twitter that he planned to bring a woman onto his ticket.
Spahn criticized Merz’s decision to pursue his own candidacy and not support a unified ticket under Laschet.
“We both have a great deal of respect for Friedrich Merz,” said Spahn. “But what we need right now is solidarity and unity in the party, and that’s why I have decided to support Armin Laschet.”
Merz fired back, likening the Laschet-Spahn alliance to a “cartel” designed to weaken competition. But he said he wasn’t backing down.
“I have always worked in teams and never alone. And it was completely clear to me that I would also work in a team this time, but a team needs a leader,” said Merz. “I want to win.”
(Adds Laschet comment on contradicting Merkel, chancellor candidacy in sixth paragraph.)
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