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February 26, 2020

Laschet/Spahn vs Merz vs Röttgen

Two of the candidates in the CDU’s leadership contest have jointed forces. Armin Laschet, the state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, has teamed up with Jens Spahn as his running mate. The duo Laschet/Spahn will run against Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen. Polls among CDU members have put both Merz and Röttgen well ahead of Laschet and Spahn, indeed ahead of the sum-total of the two. Nevertheless, as FAZ points out, the Laschet/Spahn team must now be considered the frontrunner in the contest because the decision will be taken by CDU delegates, not by members. Laschet’s North-Rhine Westphalian branch is the largest in the party. While all three candidates stem from the region, Laschet controls that section of the party. He and Spahn straddle a broad spectrum of the party and are likely to follow the policies of Angela Merkel. 

There is no point making predictions at this stage. It is more useful to think about developments that might favour either Laschet/Spahn or Merz, who we think is the other significant contender. The big issue for delegates will be which of the teams will be best placed to arrest the CDU’s decline in the polls. The party is hopelessly split on the issue of how to confront the AfD. Laschet sees the Greens, not the AfD, as his main competitor. Merz believes that there are more votes to be won on the right than on the left.

Laschet has two issues around his neck that might come to haunt him. One is his support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Laschet’s decision to commission a new coal-fired power station also casts doubt on previous beliefs that he would be the ideal partner for a coalition with the Greens. He also caused surprise with his comment that he does not understand why climate change has risen to the top of the political agenda. The biggest risk to Spahn, who is the federal health minister, would be a badly-handled coronavirus outbreak.

Röttgen’s candidacy is refreshing for its pro-Europeanism and transatlanticism, but it is unlikely to be successful. He does not have a strong support base among the party's rank-and-file. If he loses out, most of his support will go to Laschet/Spahn. 

The decision will be taken at a special party conference on April 25. It will be a knock-out contest. If no candidate has an absolute majority in the first round, the two best-placed candidates go into a second round where the winner is chosen by a relative majority.

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February 26, 2020

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael explore compatibility

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael met for exploratory talks yesterday. It is still too early to talk about a coalition between the two. After the meeting Leo Varadkar continues to hammer the message that he is preparing his party for opposition. He is unlikely to ask for a mandate to start coalition talks when he meets his MPs today. But both parties also leave the door open for a coalition to emerge eventually.

If the two parties were to form a coalition it would be a historic event. It is not so much that their policies are incompatible, as both have moved considerably towards the centre and worked together under the last Fine Gael minority government. But their cultures are different, as they used to define the opposite sides of the political landscape for decades all the way back to Ireland's civil war. 

Now Sinn Féin is mixing the cards anew, with a more radical agenda and more votes than any of the two parties. But Mary Lou McDonald lacks the numbers to form a government. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could get the numbers together with the Greens and some independents.

But old habits die hard. Ireland could also face a prolonged gridlock before a government emerges or new elections are called.

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