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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Angela Merkel ally Armin Laschet wins race to lead Germany's largest party

Laschet had thrown doubt on support for rebels fighting to overthrow Assad regime

Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, choses Armin Laschet (C) over Norbert Roettgen (L) and Friedrich Merz (R) as its next leader.  EPA/Andreas Gora / POOL
Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, choses Armin Laschet (C) over Norbert Roettgen (L) and Friedrich Merz (R) as its next leader.  EPA/Andreas Gora / POOL

Germany's conservative CDU party on Saturday chose Armin Laschet, a state leader who has never held national office, as its new leader and the man most likely to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel at the next election.

The 59-year-old, who in 2014 questioned US policy to depose Syria's Bashar Al Assad, was elected as head of the CDU, beating corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz and foreign affairs expert Norbert Roettgen.

Mr Laschet, the premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia – Germany's most populous – won a final runoff vote against Mr Merz, securing 521 votes against 466 for his arch-conservative rival in a ballot of 1,001 party delegates.

The CDU chairman traditionally leads the party and its CSU Bavarian sister party to the polls, meaning Mr Laschet is in pole position to become Germany's next chancellor.

On Saturday, he pledged dialogue with all the country's democratic parties, adding that these were times in which democrats had to stand together.

"Especially in these days that we are experiencing in the world, the phrase 'unity, justice and freedom' is more topical than ever," he said with reference to the opening stanza of the German national anthem.

"Let us fight together for these principles against all those who want to endanger them."

Mr Laschet is a sworn Merkel loyalist who famously stuck by the chancellor in 2015, when Germany left its borders open to hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria and other hotspots.

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If anything, he is seen as even more pro-migration than Merkel, celebrating diversity as an economic and social boon to his state.

During his campaign to head the CDU, he positioned himself as the Merkel continuity candidate, telling Stern magazine that "a break with Angela Merkel would send exactly the wrong signal".

Mr Laschet emerged as an early favourite when the race to head the party was thrown open last year after the surprise resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

But his path to the top was anything but smooth, with critics accusing him of flip-flopping and poor leadership over his handling of the pandemic in North Rhine-Westphalia.

In the spring, Laschet pushed aggressively for the loosening of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus – only to backtrack after a huge outbreak at a slaughterhouse.

He also sparked a row when he appeared to blame eastern Europeans for importing new coronavirus cases to Germany.

In a recent interview with the Bild daily, he highlighted his experience as a state premier as a reason for CDU delegates to vote for him.

"It also doesn't hurt to have won an election before. And it is important to be able to bring people together," he said.

CDU members may also have been swayed by Mr Laschet's alliance with Health Minister Jens Spahn, whose efforts to steer Germany through the pandemic have made him a favourite with the public.

The pair wrote a joint article for Der Spiegel weekly promising to make the CDU "one of the most modern parties in Europe" and stressing that leadership "does not mean a one-man show".

In what appeared to be an endorsement for Laschet, Merkel on the eve of the vote called for a moderate leader for the party and said she wished for a "team" to be elected.

Mr Laschet was born in Aachen, the spa city in western Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands.

He is a great fan of Charlemagne, the king of the Franks credited with uniting Europe whose empire was based in Aachen. His family has even claimed they are direct descendants.

But playing up his everyday man image, Mr Laschet underlined in a speech before the vote that his father worked in a mine and taught him that "when you're down in the mine, it doesn't matter where your colleague comes from, what his religion is or what he looks like. What is important is, can you rely on him."

His wife is of French-speaking Wallonian origin and he speaks fluent French. The pair have three children.

Laschet studied law and political science in Munich and Bonn before working as a journalist for Bavarian radio stations and television, and as the editor of a Catholic newspaper.

Updated: January 16, 2021 07:28 PM


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