Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet and survey results for his conservatives from Jan. 1 to Sept. 9, 2021. Photo: Julia Sellmann / laif

The Laschet Disaster The Slow-Motion Collapse of Merkel's CDU

Angela Merkel's conservatives could be facing an historical debacle at the polls in this year's election. Their candidate, Armin Laschet, has been anything but inspiring, and his stumbles could have deep consequences for the stability of German politics.

It’s the last Sunday in August and Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is in an excellent mood – a mixture of relief, happiness and a feeling of success.

It is shortly after 10 p.m. and Laschet has just completed his first televised debate with the two other leading candidates for Germany’s top political office, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens. As far as Laschet is concerned, it went extremely well, and he feels like he won. He is in a celebratory mood and wants to enjoy the moment.

Laschet walks into a tent next to the studio where a small group of CDU party allies is gathered around Volker Bouffier, the governor of the state of Hesse. Laschet walks straight up to Bouffier, stops in front of him and then leans his head against Bouffier’s chest, almost like a child. The stress falls away as the small group cheers for Laschet.

His performance, they believe, could mark the turning point, the moment when the CDU candidate’s campaign finally hits its stride.

Aus: DER SPIEGEL 37/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2021 (September 11th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

But then, the results from the first post-debate survey come in.

First place: Scholz.

Second place: Baerbock.

Third place: Laschet.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the scene wasn’t much different following the second debate. Laschet, to be sure, was far more combative this time around and managed to draw Scholz out of the calm, statesmanlike demeanor he has sought to cultivate as his lead in the polls has grown. In the end, though, viewers were not convinced: Laschet lagged 14 percentage points behind Scholz when it came to how convincing viewers found him and 13 percentage points back on credibility.

A Laschet campaign poster in Berlin: Some CDU candidates are no longer putting up Laschet posters because of his falling popularity.

A Laschet campaign poster in Berlin: Some CDU candidates are no longer putting up Laschet posters because of his falling popularity.

Foto: Stefan Boness / Ipon

Germany, in the late summer of 2021, has been witness to a surprising political drama: The high-speed erosion of perhaps the country’s last remaining big-tent party. Despite having occupied the Chancellery for the last 16 years, the CDU commands a mere 22 percent support in public opinion surveys with just two weeks to go before the election. And Laschet, the party’s candidate – a man who has long been seen as a capable politician, if not particularly charismatic – has been completely unable to gather any momentum. Indeed, in an Infratest dimap survey of 1,500 people following Sunday’s debate regarding which candidate was the most "likeable," Laschet was chosen by just 18 percent, far behind Baerbock (39 percent) and Scholz (34 percent).

There is still plenty of time for trends to reverse before voters cast their ballots. But the mere fact that the Christian Democrats have fallen as far as they have will have consequences for the party, for its direction and for the way in which it conducts future election campaigns. The year 2021 could be one that CDU campaign managers look back on as an example of how not to do things.

The question will ultimately be how someone like Olaf Scholz, who has long been seen as the embodiment of boring politics, could transform into a kind of political pop star in competition against Armin Laschet. It seemed initially as though Scholz didn’t stand a chance – at least that’s what the CDU thought. A few months ago, they didn’t even mention his name. And now? Now, they're afraid of him.

The Union – shorthand for the center-right alliance between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – is facing a disaster. And the reasons for that have to do both with the two parties themselves and with Laschet. With Merkel’s two-decade-long dominance of the party and with Laschets’s background and approach to politics.

The upshot is that the CDU looks nothing like the omnipotent party with an iron grip on the Chancellery and more like an aimless debate club with no ideas or solutions of its own. As a result, Armin Laschet looks anything but new and fresh.

Much will depend on the precise results. Indeed, Laschet could still win. But things could also go a different direction – and the CDU could soon find itself wondering what went wrong.

The consequences for Germany and the country’s political party system would be significant. Much has changed in recent years, with the center-left SPD shrinking from a big-tent party to a lost-in-the-woods niche group, the Greens becoming a force to be reckoned with and the right-wing radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) party developing to the right of the CDU. Through it all, though, the Union remained a bastion of stability.

That stability contributed significantly to the image of the republic as a whole, a typical German mixture of reliability and boredom that has provided the foundation for economic and political success. That is why there is more at stake this fall than merely the fate of a single party and its candidate. Far more significant change may be afoot.

What happened?

What Else Are We Going to Do?

It’s an afternoon in mid-August in the northwestern city of Osnabrück and Armin Laschet is again running behind schedule. He has frequently been late during this campaign, often significantly. Some whisper that it has to do with the frequent smoke breaks he takes, though Laschet denies it.

Once he finally arrives, he briefly greets his party allies before they all start moving. Just that it’s not entirely clear what exactly the campaign event is supposed to achieve. The format makes no sense.

It seems a bit like a mini parade, with a group of campaign helpers, passersby and journalists following Laschet through a narrow shopping strip. The CDU candidate stops every now and then to chat with someone before the group continues on its way. They stop for photos with the cathedral in the background, and then Laschet lingers in front of a couple of shops. At some point, a woman from the CDU says: "I don’t think he wants to be here either." She says it loud enough for those surrounding her to hear.

Afterward, a video begins circulating of an interview Laschet gave to a reporter from the newsmagazine Focus as he was walking. The reporter asks Laschet what he would do first if he became chancellor. Laschet says it is important to move digitalization forward and to "quickly convert public administration."

Beyond that, says Laschet, reaching the country’s climate goals are important while still maintaining Germany’s status as a country of industry. To do so, he says, we must "cut bureaucracy and reduce red tape."

"Is there a third thing?" the reporter asks. Laschet purses his lips and thinks about it, looking into the distance as he walks. "Hmm," he says, "what else are we going to do?" Apparently, he can’t think of anything. "We will be presenting a 100-point …, errr, 100-day plan when the time is right." The question, he adds, was rather spontaneous.

Hmm. What else are we going to do?

Over the course of the last decade and a half, the CDU has been something of a campaign machine – professional, efficient and largely mistake free. The competition has had a hard time keeping up. This time around, though, it looks as though the party has forgotten what it once knew.

And Laschet seems to be in way over his head – like a non-swimmer in the deep end, or a chess player on the rugby pitch. There is a rather generous explanation out there for his missteps, and his team has been repeating it for months: Laschet is simply true to who he is, and he won’t change just because of the role he is currently playing. He is, they say, authentic, which is why you can immediately see when he’s not comfortable with a certain situation.

Laschet together with Merkel in Düsseldorf to celebrate the 75th birthday of his state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Laschet together with Merkel in Düsseldorf to celebrate the 75th birthday of his state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Foto: Federico Gambarini / dpa

The problem, though, is that these same people were selling Laschet’s authenticity as a strong point several months ago, as his advantage in the battle for the Chancellery. In contrast to Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, who competed against Laschet to become the Union’s chancellor candidate, you always know where you are with Laschet, his team insisted. In hindsight, it almost sounds like a threat.

Copying Merkel's Recipe

A recent, sunny August evening finds Laschet at the horse racing track in Düsseldorf. He strides into the arena, Chancellor Merkel at his side. The two are there for the celebration of the 75th birthday of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state that Laschet has governed for the last four years.

Laschet takes his place on the white grandstand, with Merkel and the British trade minister on his left and the president of Ghana on his right. A few horses race around the track as part of the celebrations and the symphony orchestra of public broadcaster WDR plays folk music. Laschet seems happier than he has been for several months.

The tragic summer flooding, the miserable poll numbers, the chaos in Afghanistan: All of that is far away. Laschet has scooted forward on his seat, where he perches throughout, clapping and holding his hands up at head height, almost as though he’s at a rock concert. Sometimes he’ll wave down to the performers on the stage. He is completely in his element.

Laschet loves the representational role of his office. In his four years governing his state, he has often seemed more like a head of state than a head of government. He has consistently tried to avoid political conflict to the degree possible and let his ministers take care of them. Usually, Laschet has only spoken up on controversial issues when he absolutely has to.

It is a method with which Angela Merkel has led the country for the last 16 years. And herein lies Laschet’s first miscalculation: He thought he could copy her recipe.

What he missed, though, is the fact that Merkel only settled on that approach after she had already been in office for a few years. When she ran for re-election against the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück in 2013, her campaign strategy of "with me, you know what you’re going to get" was more than enough.

But outside of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, people didn’t really know Laschet before this campaign season got going. And what they did know about him, such as his zig-zagging in the pandemic, wasn’t always particularly convincing.

When Merkel’s hand-picked successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer proved unsuited to the office of CDU party chair and announced her resignation one-and-a-half years ago, Laschet saw his opportunity. And that opportunity was rooted in a rather simple calculation, one that his people didn’t even try to disguise.

It went like this: Once I become CDU chair, I will almost automatically become the Union’s candidate for chancellor. And once I become the candidate, I will win, since the Union is far stronger than the other parties. At the time, of course, that was true: the SPD was polling in the teens and the Greens looked like they could manage second place at best. What could possibly go wrong?

Laschet was essentially acting as though his role was that of accepting an inheritance – and not that of winning over the voters. His approach had little to do with the demands of a democracy.

Instead, it was informed almost exclusively by Germany’s political party tradition. And it might have worked, back when the country’s political parties were more or less representative of society at large. That, though, is no longer the case. The parties are far, far less meaningful than they used to be. No longer is it enough to just convince party members of your abilities. The SPD co-leaders, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, took that lesson to heart when they both declined to become their party’s chancellor candidate and chose Olaf Sholz instead – the very man they had defeated in the battle for SPD leadership.

That was Laschet’s second miscalculation: His faith that he could find success with a political model from a bygone era.

It’s not like there weren’t any alternatives. Bavarian Governor Markus Söder was standing by and a large share of the CDU saw him as the better candidate. Ultimately, though, the senior CDU leadership opposed the Bavarian – and in the power struggle between Laschet and Söder this spring, two things proved particularly indicative of the state and mindset of the CDU.

First was the primary argument Laschet’s supporters used in their efforts to beat back Söder: You can’t just let the public opinion polls guide your every decision, they said. It is true, of course, that surveys tend to be moody and they can change quickly. What, though, should you use as a guide in a democracy if not approval ratings? The argument made it sound almost as if Söder’s popularity was somehow obscene, something he should be ashamed of.

The second indicator was the supporting cast behind Laschet – the fact that his two most fervent backers, the two that worked hardest to stave off Söder, were Volker Bouffier and Wolfgang Schäuble.

Laschet together with his staunch supporter Volker Bouffier after the first debate.

Laschet together with his staunch supporter Volker Bouffier after the first debate.

Foto: Michael Kappeler / REUTERS

Bouffier will turn 70 years old in December. Schäuble, for his part, turns 79 this week. The CDU essentially let two men from its past determine its future. Two men whose political understanding is rooted in the certainty that the CDU always wins.

There are plenty of things to criticize about Markus Söder, of course – his shiftiness, his lack of scruples. But at least he has understood that the era of automatic victory for Germany’s conservatives has passed. He has seen, for example, how concerned people are about climate change and has responded by becoming even greener than some Greens and made global warming his primary focus. The fact that he has had to perform an about-face to do so? Not a problem for Söder.

Laschet, by contrast, has reacted to the issue of climate change by having his party develop a plan. Such an approach isn’t necessarily bad, but in a democracy, it is essential to convince voters of your effectiveness. With Laschet, it sometimes seems as though he doesn’t care so much about the issues. He’s chairman of the CDU, after all.

Setting the Right Priorities

It’s the middle of August, and Laschet has just completed a campaign appearance at a brewery in the northern German town of Oldenburg. He is standing outside and reading the draft obituary for Kurt Biedenkopf, the former CDU governor of Saxony, on a staff member’s mobile phone. The obituary is to appear in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the next day and Laschet wants to have a look before it is submitted. Someone says that the bus to Laschet’s next appearance will be arriving in one minute.

Unable to concentrate among all the hectic activity, Laschet furrows his brow and hands the phone back to the staff member. "I’ll have to look at it again in just a sec," he says.

He then boards the bus and takes a seat toward the back for an off-the-record chat with journalists covering his campaign – an hour to demonstrate to the press his suitability to become Germany’s next chancellor. First, though, he wants to have another look at the Biedenkopf obituary.

He stares into the mobile phone again, looks up and says: "You could actually delete that last sentence." Then he asks if there is any coffee or water on the bus. He sounds annoyed.

Olaf Scholz is notorious for his attention to detail, but even he would be unlikely to spend valuable time in a crucial stage of the campaign to give his two cents on an obituary. Perhaps, though, it is sometimes a question of setting the right priorities.

Armin Laschet has long been seen as a modern conservative. He was the integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia back when many in his party thought integration was nothing more than a propaganda concept invented by the Greens. He stood side-by-side with Angela Merkel during the refugee crisis. But when it comes to his political habits and style, Laschet is more reminiscent of an old-school village elder.

On a Tuesday in early September, for example, the cabinet of North Rhine-Westphalia met for the 3,000th time – someone in the capital must have been counting. The governor’s office saw the occasion as a fitting one for a photo-op with journalists. The agenda of the actual cabinet meeting was of secondary importance.

Laschet, though, hasn’t always been so tradition-bound. In the early 1990s, he was a councilman for the CDU in Aachen and also worked for Rita Süssmuth, who was president of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, at the time. He had lofty political ambitions even then, but he also quite enjoyed writing. His father-in-law was head of the publishing company that printed the Catholic paper Aachener Kirchenzeitung and Laschet was named its editor-in-chief in 1991. When handing over the reins, his predecessor said that Laschet’s appointment "ensured and safeguarded the continuity of the Kirchenzeitung."

Laschet, though, had rather different ideas and wasn’t interested in keeping things the way they were. He reworked the paper and made it much more political and edgy.

For several years, he wrote an almost weekly op-ed that is likely to have upset a religious leader or two because of his strident clarity. When import restrictions for bananas were up for debate, he branded Europe a "banana republic." He demanded humanitarian interventions from the German military: "Is such a thing in contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount?" And he decried violence against asylum-seekers: "What is currently spreading in Germany is pure racism," he wrote. "The large German tabloid is inciting the mood in a particularly disgusting manner."

CDU Chairman Laschet in Berlin: His campaign lacks a grand narrative.

CDU Chairman Laschet in Berlin: His campaign lacks a grand narrative.

Foto: MICHELE TANTUSSI / REUTERS

Laschet seemed to enjoy conflict. He criticized public figures, he went after leaders of the Catholic Church in Germany and he took on other journalists as well. When DER SPIEGEL publisher Rudolf Augstein wrote critically of Catholics in the abortion debate, Laschet wrote: "In the past several months, I have rarely read such stupid and unqualified commentary on the abortion law than Augstein’s. His polemic is full of reheated arguments that make it sound like he is plagiarizing his past editorials."

His former boss Rita Süssmuth says today: "I saw him as a force for renewal." When he became integration minister later in his career, she says he was "much further along than others" and wanted nothing to do with Germany’s – and the CDU’s – ongoing debate about the so-called "Leitkultur," or leading culture, a renunciation of multiculturalism. "That was quite courageous. It introduced a new spirit into the CDU, opening it up and making it younger."

Where did that man go? What might he have been able to achieve in the 2021 election campaign?

Laschet has been difficult to grasp in this campaign. His appearances have focused on things like eliminating red tape, the concerns facing the agricultural industry and the phase out of coal-power in Germany – all important issues, to be sure, but he hasn’t offered a narrative for his vision of the country and for German society. He also, of course, wants to address climate change – a bit, not too much. His platform seems to be lacking ambition, inasmuch as one can even speak of a platform.

The same is true of the people he has chosen to surround himself with. Initially, he didn’t want to present a team at all, but then did so at the last moment, a collection of eight people, most of whom are likely only familiar to political junkies. The only really recognizable face is that of Friedrich Merz, who was also a candidate to take over leadership of the CDU before Laschet beat him out.

The result is an eight-member campaign team that is lacking nothing so much as charisma and excitement, despite being carefully chosen. There are four men and four women, people from eastern and western Germany, a man from an immigrant family, a woman from the north and another from Bavaria in the south. Laschet managed to avoid all controversy with his choices. As has so often been the case of late.

At some point, Laschet apparently decided that it was impossible to get elected with acerbity and originality – his third miscalculation. The upshot is that this campaign is currently emulating the pattern seen in the last two campaigns, each of which saw a candidate – first Peer Steinbrück and then Martin Schulz – essentially degenerate into a kind of court jester. Toward the end, they could say and do whatever they wanted and the electorate simply didn’t take notice.

This time, that role appears to be reserved for Armin Laschet. Many CDU candidates around the country have apparently chosen to stop using campaign posters with Laschet’s image on them – or at least they are deploying fewer of them. In one of those campaign posters, Laschet doesn’t look like an aspirant to high office at all, instead appearing sad and melancholic. He apparently insisted that the picture be used over the objections of his campaign team. Some parts of the country aren’t even receiving enough campaign posters from CDU headquarters.

Indeed, party headquarters in Berlin should be bustling with activity, one might think, with everyone at their battle stations. Instead, though, it almost feels abandoned, with some visitors surprised by the quiet. As if everything was going as planned.

But what about the poor survey results? There is an explanation for all of them, the party insists. His popularity has plunged so far, it is said, that nobody dares to publicly voice their support for Laschet. CDU strategists have begun speaking of a "spiral of silence." On election day in two weeks, they insist, that spiral will finally be broken. Absolutely. For sure.

Inspirational Renewal?

Until recently, Laschet’s office in Düsseldorf was dominated by a French-made table with three drawers and gilded edges. Laschet had positioned it right in the middle of the room and enjoyed the quizzical looks of his visitors. He would wait a bit, and then launch into the story behind it.

The table stood in the Aachen city hall in January 2019. It was used by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron for the signing of the Franco-German Treaty of Aachen, a kind of renewal of the 1963 Élysée Treaty, which marked the beginning of the French-German friendship. Once the signing was complete, the table was to disappear into the basement of city hall.

Laschet, though, prevented that from happening and had the antique piece of furniture delivered to his office. Not because he intended to use it for work, but so he could use it to trigger his narrative about Germany, France and Europe.

Last week, Laschet was in Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Last week, Laschet was in Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Foto: Ralph Sondermann / dpa

Laschet was 28 years old when the Berlin Wall came down and he has spent just as much time in reunified Germany as he did in West Germany, but he is nevertheless a product of the old Bonn republic. Part of that is because of geography. There is hardly a location in Germany where the significance of the unification of Europe and Germany’s link to the West are more palpable than in the region surrounding Aachen, where neighboring peoples used to regularly battle for primacy.

That could be a political advantage: Laschet has a clear vision for Europe and passion for the project. But it can also be a disadvantage: Laschet, after all, is still fond of quoting Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor and not exactly a symbol of inspirational renewal.

It’s late May and Laschet is in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where state elections are approaching, to support the CDU governor, Reiner Haseloff. The two visit an open-pit lignite mine together before posing for a photo-op in front of the van that is driving them around the site.

On the side of the van is a coal-related aphorism, and as a photo is being taken next to the van later, Haseloff conceals the last letter of the German word for coal, "Kohle.” He then calls out: "Helmut Kohl 2.0!”

He is clearly referring to Laschet, but it’s not entirely clear whether he means it as a compliment. After all, Haseloff wanted Söder to become the Union’s candidate for chancellor instead of Laschet.

The next weekend, Haseloff wins the Saxony-Anhalt state election in a landslide. Nobody is really talking about the coronavirus pandemic any longer and the electorate seems relaxed. In late June, Laschet and the Left Party floor leader Dietmar Bartsch run into each other in the Bundestag in Berlin. Bartsch says to Laschet: "Everyone seems to want to form a coalition with you except for us." At that moment, it still looks as though Laschet’s strategy could still work out.

Is he perhaps being underestimated after all?

Helmut Kohl was also frequently underestimated. His dialect sounded rather crude outside of his native region of Palatinate and it was child’s play to make jokes about his appearance. Furthermore, Germans grew rather tired of him after just a few years. But then, the opportunity arose to reunify Germany, which Kohl then did, essentially elevating himself above the mockery.

Laschet may not have made German reunification possible, but he did defeat Friedrich Merz for the CDU leadership position. In fact, Laschet has managed on several occasions in his career to return to the main stage from apparently hopeless situations. His campaign team has made that ability into a central pillar of their narrative.

Laschet had been in German parliament for four years before losing his re-election bid in 1998. He made the switch to the European Parliament, which at the time frequently marked the end of the road for many a political career. But in 2005, he returned to German politics as the integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 2010, he campaigned to become his party’s floor leader in the state parliament, but lost, and he also lost out in the battle for leadership of the CDU state chapter. Then, in 2017, it looked as though he didn’t stand a chance in the state election campaign against Hannelore Kraft, the state governor from the SPD. But Laschet won.

He repeated the performance on two subsequent occasions, beating out Merz to become CDU chairman and then leaving Söder behind in the fight to become the Union’s chancellor candidate. But Laschet’s deep belief that he usually gets what he wants, that he is always able to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, could turn out to be his fourth miscalculation. And potentially the most harmful.

There is no higher political office in Germany than that of chancellor, and those who run for it must be prepared to be examined from all sides. They must expect nastiness, attacks and traps. And perhaps such a gauntlet isn’t the worst thing before you face off against Vladimir Putin or the Chinese. Or even against the media.

Laschet has clearly underestimated the campaign slog, as has Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock. She thought she could coast through by being the newcomer. He has tried to rely on the fact that everything had always turned out well for him in the past.

July could have been his moment. Heavy flooding had struck parts of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, many died and many more had lost their homes. Laschet could have presented himself as the capable crisis manager stomping through the flooded villages in rubber boots. But that’s not how things turned out. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a statement in which he offered his condolences and sought to give people courage, Laschet could be seen in the background shaking with laughter. The clip quickly made the rounds.

Politics can often be extremely complex, to the point that even informed citizens have difficulty understanding exactly what is going on. At other times, though, it can be quite simple: Every schoolchild knows that you shouldn’t laugh as others are facing tragedy.

Another thing every schoolchild knows is that you shouldn’t cheat, and you shouldn’t mislead people. Not if you want others to trust you.

Seven years ago, Laschet taught a course at RWTH Aachen University called "The European Policies of the Berlin Republic." In late July 2014, he had his students take a final exam.

When he still hadn’t submitted his grades by December, the department head for European studies asked Laschet about the delay. His reaction was one of complete surprise and he claimed that he had long since corrected the exams and sent them to the university. But they never arrived. In March 2015, Laschet wrote to his students that the exams "were lost in the mail." But, he added, he had taken notes on each of the exams and would try to reconstruct the grades. It was, he admitted, "not optimal."

Laschet ultimately submitted 35 grades, including for course participants who hadn’t even taken the exam. The students joked among themselves that Laschet had simply chosen the grades by rolling the dice.

Ultimately, the university vacated Laschet’s grades, with the testing committee writing that "fictitious evaluations" of the exams was not allowed. In May 2015, Laschet brought his teaching career to an end – "of his own volition," as the university’s press release noted.

One former student says of Laschet: "Because of him, I had to extend my studies. I needed that grade, those credits. And when the final exams disappeared, I had to take it again and prepare all over again. It was extremely frustrating."

Most of his former students believe that Laschet never put their exams in the mail. They think he just lost them. One says that the content of his class was "super well organized," but that the necessary formalities had "annoyed" Laschet.

A chancellor doesn’t need to know all the details. Gerhard Schröder wasn’t much of a file studier either, he had chief of staff and now German President Steinmeier for that. Laschet has Nathanael Liminski, a smart, conservative 35-year-old, who serves as his chief of staff at the state capital.

Germany's Crumbling Political Stability

It’s late June, and the state parliamentary groups from the CDU and the Free Democrats (FDP), which govern North Rhine-Westphalia in a coalition together, are holding a barbecue at a youth hostel in Düsseldorf where the two parties hammered out their coalition agreement in 2017. On this occasion, the head of the hostel has a question for Laschet and takes him aside.

"Mr. Laschet, when will school classes be able to take trips again?" he asks. "We need the money they bring. Otherwise we might go broke."

Laschet thinks about it for a moment before turning around: "Nathanael, can you come over for a moment? What’s up with the school trips?"

Liminski hurries over and tells the hostel keeper that the government has just introduced new rules that will make it easier for school classes to take trips. And Laschet moves on to the next conversation.

Liminski wasn’t with Laschet when he toured the areas hit hardest by the summer flooding. Indeed, he hasn’t been with Laschet much at all on the campaign trail. It’s not his job, after all. His task is that of keeping the government running back in Düsseldorf.

And perhaps that is miscalculation number five – the fact that Laschet is largely on his own, or dependent on staff members that he doesn’t know well or just met. Several months ago, he added Tanit Koch – the former head of the tabloid daily Bild – to his team. Things got worse after that rather than better.

And now? Can Laschet turn the tide and eke out a victory over Olaf Scholz after all? Couldn’t he end up in the Chancellery even if the SPD ends up with the most votes? Wouldn’t it be enough if Christian Linder, the head of the FDP and Laschet’s old acquaintance from Düsseldorf, decided to join a coalition with the Greens and the CDU instead of with the Greens and the SPD?

That would be a rather typical Laschet move, but there aren’t a lot of signs at the moment pointing toward that scenario becoming a reality. And even if the Union were to end up with a slightly larger share of the vote than current surveys are prediction: This election is going to be a turning point for the party. Indeed, the post-mortem and jockeying for position has already begun.

Markus Söder of Bavaria has never tired of presenting himself as the better alternative to Laschet, gently at times, more forcefully at others. If Laschet does end up in the Chancellery, Söder would almost certainly make his life difficult from Bavaria. And if Laschet doesn’t end up in the Chancellery, Söder will attempt to take ownership of the Union.

Friedrich Merz, meanwhile, is biding his time. He has remained remarkably quiet throughout the campaign, providing his support to the man who beat him out for control of the CDU. If Laschet becomes chancellor, Merz will end up with a ministry. If Laschet fails, Merz will likely make a grab for the position of CDU chairman. It is an office he held once before, 20 years ago.

And then there is Jens Spahn, the current health minister whose reputation hasn’t exactly been helped by his twists and turns in the COVID-19 pandemic. Spahn doesn’t have an overabundance of friends in the party, but still feels he has good chances of playing an important role. There are others as well, young men and older men who are hoping to continue climbing the ladder. There aren’t, though, many women waiting in the wings, except for perhaps Julia Klöckner, the current minister of agriculture.

The fight over the future direction of the party might end up being even more bitter than the fight for positions. For the next several years – and probably decades – politics in Germany as elsewhere will likely be dominated by the climate. A party with Christian roots whose core focus is the preservation of Creation could have had a nice head start on the issue, but a lot of opportunities went unused under Merkel’s leadership. The CDU will first have to spend valuable effort to rebuild trust on the climate issue.

Particularly since the party’s aura of invincibility and unerring competency has largely evaporated in recent years.

It starts with the pandemic and the mistakes made by a number of CDU ministers. On top of that is the fact that some CDU and CSU lawmakers profited from some rather shady deals involving masks. Then there was the brutal power struggle between Laschet and Söder and, most recently, the strangely botched election campaign.

Voters have never opted for the CDU or CSU because they were the most likeable or most exciting party. Many people simply had the feeling that they were reliable. Should the CDU lose that trust from the voters, it could prove to be just as existentially threatening as the years following 2003 were for the Social Democrats. That was the year that the SPD-led government under Gerhard Schröder reformed Germany’s social welfare system, gambling away the party’s core selling point: social justice.

In June, Laschet was featured in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin (here), which is where our feature photo comes from.

In June, Laschet was featured in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin (here), which is where our feature photo comes from.

Like no other party, the CDU is intricately intertwined with the history of postwar Germany. At a time when the SPD was still focused on class warfare and hadn’t yet achieved the status of a big-tent party, the CDU was busy reconstructing the country under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer. As much as the SPD might not like it, German conservatives, and especially the CDU, have always been closely linked to the state. What will replace the CDU if it stumbles?

First of all, even more political confusion and complexity than is already the case. Should the election results more or less reflect the current public opinion polls, then the time of the large political blocks will have come to an end, at least for now. And this at a time of political polarization, when large, stable big-tent parties could actually be quite helpful for their ability to concentrate competing interests and unite conflicting viewpoints. The CDU of 2021 can no longer do that.

And there is a further danger. In a situation where several parties have aspirations of winning future elections with a total of around 20 percent of the vote, election campaigns will almost certainly become even more vicious and the temptations of populism even greater than they already are. Small nuances could determine who becomes chancellor.

Germany has long been admired, even envied internationally for its political stability. The CDU has been a huge part of that stability, having produced three chancellors who held the reins of power for a small eternity: Adenauer, Kohl and Merkel. That has, at times, produced stasis and complacency, but also continuity and reliability.

The CDU has often been disparaged for its focus on governing: Contrary to the SPD, the conservatives frequently sweep competing political viewpoints under the rug because they want to hold onto political power at all costs and don’t want to make life hard for their chancellor. But the precondition for this cease-fire agreement has always been success and election results north of 30 percent. This model may have outlived its usefulness for the foreseeable future.

That would have consequences for the country’s ability to reform. Major change is often accompanied by significant pain, at least for a part of society, and requires comfortable, stable majorities to overcome resistance. And it requires political coalitions that do not include too many different parties. For Gerhard Schröder in 2003, it was hard enough to get the SPD and the Greens behind his social welfare reforms. Had he been forced to get even more partners behind the plan, it likely never would have become reality. Or at least it wouldn’t have been as effective.

The more partners sitting at the table, the greater the likelihood that one of them will get in the way. For decades, the CSU has ably demonstrated how to leverage the greatest amount of power with a relatively small share of the overall, national vote. Once others learn that lesson in an unraveled political environment, real compromise will hardly be possible any longer.

And that isn’t good news in an era requiring some of the most momentous political reforms seen in decades. To overcome the climate crisis, the entire economy will have to be restructured, society will have to change and people will have to learn to live and work differently. Mini compromises hammered out in all-night negotiating sessions won’t be enough. Which is why the Union’s current weakness isn’t just a problem for the party, but for the entire country.

Alternative Reality

Its Wednesday of last week and Laschet is in Paris, where he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in private for just over an hour. It is a good day for Laschet, and he has a few minutes extra during the day for questions about his campaign and the state of his party – so-called off-the-record interviews. Laschet doesn’t want to be directly quoted. But, a rather concise summary is possible: Laschet is optimistic. He exudes confidence and even placidity.

What isn’t clear, though, is whether Laschet is just an extremely good actor, or whether he is simply deep inside that alternative reality that politicians must enter to withstand the rigors of the campaign trail. It is a well-known phenomenon: Candidates are often so gripped by that alternative reality that they no longer even see what is happening around them. Even if everything is collapsing.

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