Armin Laschet boosted his chances of succeeding Angela Merkel as German chancellor by helping secure a decisive victory for his Christian Democratic Union in the country’s poorest state.
n the final regional contest before the national vote in September, the 60-year-old party leader showed he can successfully guide Ms Merkel’s party in a tight campaign. The outcome will help ease doubts about his suitability to lead Germany’s conservatives and take on the job of running Europe’s biggest economy.
The CDU halted its slide in recent elections on Sunday, winning 37pc of the ballots in Saxony-Anhalt, up more than seven percentage points compared to the last vote in 2016, according to preliminary results. The far-right Alternative for Germany, which was pushing for the lead in some recent polls, dropped more than three points to end up a distant second in the former communist region with 21pc.
“The national CDU under Armin Laschet now has the momentum on its side,” said Holger Schmieding, the London-based chief economist at Berenberg. “The concern that Laschet may be a hindrance rather than a help should be deflated.”
In the run-up to the vote, Mr Laschet appealed to the state’s mainstream voters to back the CDU, saying it was important to defend democracy from the anti-immigrant AfD. But most of the credit goes to Reiner Haseloff.
The state’s two-term premier was a reassuring presence throughout the coronavirus pandemic and won support as a national advocate for the former East – still less affluent than the West three decades after reunification.
Mr Haseloff, who had supported Mr Laschet’s rival Markus Soeder to be the bloc’s candidate for chancellor, credited the win to his own track record as well as support from Mr Laschet and other high-profile CDU officials in the campaign. When conservatives are united, “they’re unbeatable and will provide the next chancellor”, he said in an interview on ARD television yesterday before heading to Berlin for talks with Mr Laschet and other national party leaders.
Mr Laschet became the leader of Ms Merkel’s CDU in January and stumbled out of the gate, with the party suffering its worst-ever results in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March.
That set up a messy power struggle in April with Mr Soeder, head of the Bavarian CSU sister party. While Mr Laschet prevailed, he emerged with his reputation bruised.
After Sunday’s result, Mr Laschet can turn with renewed confidence to tackling the Greens and their candidate Annalena Baerbock, his main rival to lead Germany.
The environmental party’s momentum has stalled in recent weeks, and the trend was underscored by a smaller-than-expected gain in Saxony-Anhalt, which could cost the party its role in the state’s government.
“We gained but not as much as we’d hoped,” Ms Baerbock, the 40-year-old co-leader of the Greens, said on ARD.
Germany’s political establishment, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of relief. A victory by the AfD would have been the right-wing party’s first on the state level, triggering complex political maneuvering to keep them out of the regional government.
Instead, Mr Haseloff has a range of choices to form a coalition for his third term. His current government consists of a three-way alliance with the Social Democrats and the Greens. He could replace the Greens with the pro-business FDP party.