The theme of the 2021 CDU leadership election in Germany is “let’s try this again.”
Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union thought it had replaced outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2018. Merkel stood down as party leader then and would not seek another term as chancellor, opening the door for a new voice.
The CDU narrowly elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018 on a second ballot. She, known usually by her initials “AKK,” never fought a German federal election. Her two years in charge were rocky for the party, and they came to a crescendo in early 2020 with the election of a new Minister President (the equivalent of an American governor or Canadian premier) in Thuringia. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) voted in tandem with the CDU and Free Democratic Party (FDP) to elect Thomas Kemmerich, putting the party on the “winning” side for the first time since it was founded.1
The CDU working with AfD was widely panned in German political discourse. It cost Kramp-Karrenbauer her job2, and her resignation triggered this 2021 CDU leadership election.
Who, this time for real, will replace Angela Merkel and lead the ruling party into the federal election later this year?
Candidates in the 2021 CDU Leadership Election
Armin Laschet (North Rhine-Westphalia): Laschet is the party’s deputy leader and he is the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia. He has served in that capacity since 2017.
Friedrich Merz (North Rhine-Westphalia): Well-known as a candidate from the right, Merz spent 15 years as a member of the Bundestag and stood for the leadership in 2018. He lost to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on the second ballot, falling 18 votes short of the mark needed.
Norbert Röttgen (North Rhine-Westphalia): Röttgen has served in the Bundestag for 27 years and was once CDU deputy leader. He chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and despite leaning to the right, he backed Joe Biden in the United States election.3
Who Will Win the Leadership?
Opinion polls in January 2021 and immediately prior peg this as a two-candidate race between Merz and Röttgen when it comes to popular vote. The more moderate Laschet lags behind in public surveys, but not by much depending on the survey, and some estimate he could come in second in delegate count.
Merz would seem to have the inside track based on his momentum from his prior leadership run. However, if he does win, he is unlikely to claim victory in the first round. A Merz vs. Laschet runoff would set up a conservative-against-centrist showdown with Röttgen as kingmaker. It will present a stark contrast of continuing Merkel’s centrist policies behind Laschet or taking a jog to the right under Merz.
One thing is clear: the winner will be from North Rhine-Westphalia.
CDU Leadership Further Reading
- Mark Hallam, “Why is everyone in Germany talking about Thuringia and AfD?” Deutsche Welle, 6 February 2020
- Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, “Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to quit as CDU leader amid far-right ‘firewall’ row,” The Guardian, 10 February 2020
- Matthew Karnitschnig, “Q&A: German leadership candidate Norbert Röttgen,” Politico.EU, 28 September 2020