Three Middle-Aged Catholic Men Vie to Succeed Merkel

Despite the superficial similarities, there are substantive differences between the candidates.

Armin Laschet
Minister President Armin Laschet of North Rhine-Westphalia makes a speech in the German Federal Council in Berlin, December 14, 2018 (Bundesrat/Sascha Radke)

Three middle-aged Catholic men from North-Rhine Westphalia are running to succeed Angela Merkel, postwar Germany’s first female and Eastern-born chancellor and the ruling Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) first Lutheran leader.

The CDU, which has governed Germany for fifty of the last seventy years, is holding a leadership election in April, triggered by the resignation of Merkel’s handpicked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, a former premier of Saarland, failed to match Merkel’s authority in the party. She stepped down after the CDU in Thuringia defied her instructions and made common cause with the far right.


Although socially more conservative than Merkel (she opposed gay marriage), Kramp-Karrenbauer was seen as likely to defend the outgoing chancellor’s middle-of-the-road legacy.

Armin Laschet will have to carry the same mantle. He too is considered close to the center. Laschet returned the CDU to power in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in 2017 by winning over center-left voters. Like Kramp-Karrenbauer, he opposed marriage equality — but he has teamed up with Health Minister Jens Spahn, a married gay man.

Spahn ran independently in the last leadership election and won 16 percent support. He takes a hard line on immigration and the EU. By joining forces with Laschet, the two are hoping to unite the moderate and conservative wings of the party.


Friedrich Merz, a former CDU parliamentary group leader and longtime rival to Merkel, also appeals to the right. He shares Spahn’s criticism of Merkel’s immigration policy and is something of a Thatcherite on the economy. He argues the CDU should not be moored in the center but rather on the right and take the fight to the far-right Alternative for Germany.

Merz’ weakness is that he has been out of politics for almost two decades and served on various corporate boards since. He will need to convince the 1,000 party delegates who will gather in Berlin in two months that he can still appeal to ordinary voters.


The third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, looks like a long shot.

In another era, the chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, who grew up in a suburb of the old West German capital Bonn and worked his whole life in politics, could have been an establishment pick. But he is seen as out of touch and not a winner. When he led the Christian Democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012 — before Laschet took over — he lost the election by 13 points.