Merkel's underrated heir | International

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Armin Laschet, during his speech at the CDU congress held on January 15 and 16, 2021.CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT / POOL / EFE

You see him in his sauce. Wearing a brightly colored cap and tucked into a gold cage in the middle of the stage, Armin Laschet gives a speech in verse during the Aachen Carnival in February last year. The public, including his rival Friedrich Merz, laugh at the jokes on current political issues. “Who will be the next mother in Germany?”, She asks with reluctance using the nickname Angela Merkel, mutti (mom, in German). The audience shouts: "You, Armin!" "No, no, what nonsense," he modestly dismisses. But Laschet had already been in the race for a few months to succeed the German chancellor, the most prominent European political figure in the last 15 years. The first section was overcome this weekend, when he took over the presidency of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Chancellor's party, after beating Merz, the candidate of the break that the CDU intended to list in a digital congress to the right in search of votes migrated to the extreme right.

An offer of centrism, a promise of internal cohesion and continuity with the Chancellor's ideological line gave victory to Laschet, a 59-year-old lawyer born in the border city of Aachen with Belgium and the Netherlands. After the first stage, he has another no less complex ahead of him: being the conservative candidate for the Chancellery in the elections on September 26, the first without Merkel. Markus Söder, the popular leader of the Bavarian brother-party of the CSU and Prime Minister of Bavaria, is right now sweeping the polls as the preferred electorate. Söder has gained popularity thanks to the management of the pandemic in his state, proposing tougher or more controversial containment measures and thus ensuring a lot of media presence. Laschet, on the other hand, has been criticized in the state he leads, North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous in the country, for easing restrictive measures too soon to try to recover the economy. But it wouldn't be the first time polls have been wrong with Laschet, a man known for being personable, conciliatory… and patient.

His political biography, full of ups and downs and setbacks, could be titled Laschet the unlikely. The biggest milestone, and the one that allowed him to take over the leadership of the party – he was the only candidate with government experience – was winning the 2017 elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. He did so against all odds, in a traditional SPD fiefdom state and with the polls in favor of the popular Social Democratic candidate Hannelore Kraft. The CDU placed him as a candidate without much hope after the fiasco of the previous one, Norbert Röttgen, the third in contention at the CDU congress this weekend. "It seems that being underestimated is a kind of hallmark of Laschet's career, as Angela Merkel did in the beginning," notes journalist Moritz Küpper, co-author of a recent biography of the Rhenish politician.

Laschet won a seat in the federal parliament in 1994, along with Röttgen and Merz, but lost it in the following elections. It was his first setback, but he entered the European Parliament in 1999. "It seemed that he had found his way, but then he was offered a post in the Government of North Rhine-Westphalia," recalls Küpper. It was his home. He accepted and returned. And he took his job as Minister of Integration seriously: he drew up a plan to integrate foreigners, put it into action, and in 2009 he wrote a book praising the benefits of immigration for Germany. The hawks His own party soon dubbed him Armin the Turk. He always justified his policies by appealing not only to Christian charity — Laschet was born into a practicing Catholic family that according to his biographers has marked his political decisions — but to pragmatism: “We must integrate; these are the only children we have ”. Laschet strongly defended Merkel's decision to open the borders during the refugee crisis of the summer of 2015, one of the most difficult moments for the chancellor, criticized by her own party and by her European neighbors.

Married with three adult children, Laschet continues to live in the same house in the Burtscheid neighborhood of Aachen where the couple raised their offspring. The home of his father, who worked in a coal mine before becoming a school teacher, is only a few streets away. During his career he has been accused of having little ambition, little drive, of being somewhat chaotic, that sympathetic Rhenish who is perhaps too provincial for the capitalized politics of Berlin. “His recipe for success is that he has a strong character and by now he knows that the race to the top is not a bed of roses. His motto could be "Wait and see," says his biographer.


"Laschet will continue Merkel's policy in the European Union," says Ursula Münch, Professor of Political Science at the Bundeswehr University. He is convinced, like her, of the need for Germany to be integrated into the EU and defends the idea of ​​European solidarity, she adds. But he points out: "We still don't know if she will have the same negotiating qualities as Merkel, and if, like her, she will be able to reach agreements that satisfy everyone." Laschet spent six years (1999-2005) as an MEP in Brussels, where he worked on foreign policy and budget issues. Only rarely has he criticized the Merkel Executive for being unambitious in Europe, as when he said last year at the Munich Security conference that Macron was making proposals, but Germany was "taking too long to respond."

"Polarizing is easy, anyone can do that," Laschet told CDU delegates Saturday, after naming the example of Donald Trump and the assault on the Capitol on January 6. The difficult thing, he added, what takes work, is to integrate. With that promise, he became president of the CDU. Analysts believe that he will fight to be the candidate for the Chancellery, because he has always associated one thing with another. Interestingly, it was his rival in that career, Markus Söder, who presented his biography last September. They asked him if Laschet had enough drive, the wood of a leader: "If someone wins an election in North Rhine-Westphalia, do not underestimate him."

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