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February 19, 2020

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Röttgen's candidacy for CDU leadership is more important than it appears

That somebody whom you didn't know did something that had little chance of success would normally not qualify as a page-turner. Fully aware of that risk, we would like to impress on our readers that the candidacy of Norbert Röttgen for the CDU leadership does matter.

First of all, the candidacy may not be as hopeless as it appears at first. Röttgen used to be the rising star of the early Merkel years. He faltered in 2012 when he ran a hopeless campaign to become state premier in North-Rhine Westphalia and then Merkel fired him as minister. He has since made a quiet comeback as chairman of the Bundestag's foreign-affairs committee.

The consensus among German political observers is that his candidacy is hopeless, but significant nonetheless because of how it might affect the contest. Last night Bild came up with a poll of 100,000 of its readers that had him ahead of Friedrich Merz, with Armin Laschet and Jens Spahn polling in the single digits. This is not a representative poll, and clearly feeds on the announcement effect. But what it shows is that the situation at the top of the CDU is extremely unstable. The respondents said they liked the direct way in which Röttgen announced his candidacy. He really has a different agenda. 

Röttgen is a radical centrist: very pro-European, open to dialogue with Emmanuel Macron, and taking a principled stance on China in contrast to the mercantilist chancellor. Röttgen would be the only candidate of the four whom we could see in a coalition with the Greens, the CDU/CSU only realistic post-Merkel power option. As we reported before, Laschet is a coal guy. Laschet and Merz are closet climate change deniers. Also, Röttgen is the first candidate to declare his candidacy openly. The other three have not openly come out yet. They are in conversations with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to form a joint leadership team to succeed her. What also complicates the process is the role of the CSU. Markus Söder, the CSU chief, is not pitching for the job himself but wants a say on Merkel's succession. He could live with a leadership team for now, but fears that a strongman like Merz at the top of the CDU might become unstoppable.  

FAZ and Welt both noted this morning that Röttgen's candidacy is a real problem for the CDU and especially for Laschet. Laschet is the Merkel-continuity candidate, but not all CDU moderates believe this to be the right course. Röttgen is the only of the two CDU centrists who offers change. Among the other two candidates, Merz is clearly the favourite. Interestingly, all four men are from North-Rhine Westphalia. 

Merkel and AKK favoured a backroom stitch-up. We are always amazed how fearful German commentators and politicians are of democratic contests. The fact that the SPD chose two outsiders as leaders is now widely cited as evidence that such a disaster must be avoided at all costs. There were CDU politicians who yesterday criticised the fact that Röttgen put himself forward as a candidate, on the grounds that the party needs stability. Previously, we noted that Germans did not take the Brexit referendum seriously because, in their view, the electorate gave the wrong answer. Germany is a stable constitutional democracy, but its political elites are hugely distrustful of electorates.

We think this could ultimately end up in a Macron-style movement, but probably not yet. Merkel is leaving behind a country that has lost its technological edge and can no longer afford to muddle through crisis after crisis. This is why we think strong characters like Merz or Röttgen are potentially interesting. So is Kevin Kuhnert, the young Socialist whom we see as future SPD leader. The Greens have already leaders of a new generation. Laschet may superficially look to be the ideal CDU candidate, as he is closest to Merkel in his political style. But he is potentially the riskiest candidate for the CDU. Unlike Merz he will not gain back voters from the far-right. And unlike Röttgen, he is not going to get voters back that deserted the CDU for the Greens. We agree with Merz' analysis that the CDU has more to gain by repositioning itself on the right. But we don't think that he would have any good coalition options. We expect that this dilemma will crystallise as the contest advances. And this is why we are taking Röttgen seriously.

Our other stories

We also have stories on Bulgaria getting cold feet about euro entry; on how the simple idea of a universal pension scheme turned into the Hydra of all reforms in France; on local activists halting Tesla's plans in Berlin; on Matteo Renzi's waning powers; and on growth and climate change.

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