Armin Laschet, the coal-supporting state premier of Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), has won a power struggle within the conservatives of Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead them into general elections in September.
Given Germany's massive influence on EU policies and the economic block's Green Deal, who becomes the country's next Chancellor is vital for progressive climate policies.
Laschet from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main conservative party in 15 out of 16 German states, fended off a challenge from the more popular Bavarian state premier Markus Söder from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. Merkel in 2018 had decided not to run again after four terms in office will end this year.
The 60-year-old centrist politician will run for Chancellor against the Green’s Annalena Baerbock, and the Social Democrats’ (SPD) Olaf Scholz, who is currently vice-chancellor and finance minister.
While Baerbock in opinion polls is more popular than both Scholz and Laschet, it is unclear how much the 40-year-old politician will profit from that as the Chancellor of Germany is not elected directly, but in the country’s parliamentary democracy is chosen by the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, after general elections.
In a snap survey after Laschet was confirmed as candidate, the Forsa surveying institute saw the CDU/CSU plunge in voter intentions to 21%, and be surpassed by the Greens that now poll 28%. The SPD came in a distant third with 13%, the neo-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) polled 12%, the far-right Alternative for Germany 11%, and the radical Left Party 7%.
In other recent opinion polls the CDU/CSU still had commanded a lead over the Greens.
As opinion polls are very volatile, a pact of the CDU/CSU with the Greens – and Laschet as chancellor - currently still seems to be the most likely outcome of the elections. But a three-way coalition with the Greens in the lead and the SPD and the Left as minor coalition partners – and Baerbock as chancellor - is also in the cards. Both the conservatives and the SPD have said they don’t want their current governing coalition to continue.
Laschet has previously said he is in favour of a coalition with the opposition Green Party, but his poor climate policy record most certainly will clash with the Greens’ impetus for a much more progressive policy in order to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement.
During a digital CDU party conference in January, Laschet placed the accent on this coal- and steel industry roots, giving an emotional speech and showing the ID tag his father had worn during his time as a coal miner, and declaring it is his personal 'talisman' and sign of reliability.
Strong links to heavy industry during his coalition in NRW with the FDP have prompted Laschet to make a series of policy choices abhorred by the Greens.
Laschet has been a staunch defender of utility RWE in its insistence on clearing the Hambach Forest near Cologne to make room for yet more lignite open-pit mining. Climate activists hold him partly responsible for the death of a photographer when the police tried to clear the forest from protesters in 2018.
He is also is seen as responsible for pushing through a harmful ’distance rule‘ for onshore wind farms in his home state, under pressure from the FDP.
It is unclear how far Laschet would be willing to change his climate and renewable energy policies in order to make sure the CDU/CSU stays in power.
The centrist politician in the past has usually struck a conciliatory tone and is known for his willingness to compromise.
After he prevailed over Söder, he granted the Bavarian state premier a central role in the CDU/CSU’s campaign. The day before, he congratulated Baerbock, who on Monday was declared the Green’s first-ever candidate for the chancellorship, guaranteeing her a “fair election campaign”. Baerbock returned the favour today.
UPDATES with new opinion poll data