It’s easy to blame Armin Laschet for the German Christian Democrats’ slide in the polls. Since he was elected party leader in January, support for the center-right has fallen from 35-37 to 28-31 percent — still enough for first place, but the Greens, Social Democrats and liberal Free Democrats are all up.
The three might even win a majority between them, raising the prospect of the Christian Democrats being ejected from power when Angela Merkel steps down later this year.
Laschet bears some responsibility, but it’s hard to imagine how another leader could have avoided two disappointing state election results last Monday.
In Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s southwesternmost state, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) went down from 27 to 24 percent, although it defended its 42 seats in the Landtag.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, bordering Baden-Württemberg to the north, the CDU fell from 32 to 28 percent support and from 35 to 31 seats in the regional parliament.
In both states, the CDU has been on a losing streak, in Baden-Württemberg since 2006 and in Rhineland-Palatinate since 2011. In both states, the incumbents — Winfried Kretschmann (Greens) and Malu Dreyer (Social Democrat) — are popular.
The CDU was further marred by the resignations of two lawmakers from the Bundestag, who admitted they had personally profited from government contracts to procure face masks.
Those resignations did reflect on Laschet. As prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, he gave a €40 million contract for masks to an acquaintance of his son, a fashion model, without issuing a proper tender.
Laschet also fought Merkel on a national coronavirus strategy last year, arguing states should decide whether to close businesses and schools.
But Christian Democrats knew that when they elected him. They could have chosen either Friedrich Merz, a throwback to the pre-Merkel era who proposed to pull the CDU to the right, or Norbert Röttgen, a modernizer who appealed more to young and female voters. They chose the middle-aged, middle-of-the-road Laschet. Putting the party’s longer-term problems all on his shoulders, when he’s barely two months on the job, is unfair.
That’s not to say Laschet is the best chancellor candidate for the federal election in September. My view is that Christian Democrats should consider Markus Söder of Bavaria.
Söder, who leads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, CSU, is solidly center-right. He learned from his party’s failed attempt to outflank the far right to stay true to his principles. Unlike Laschet, Söder put his state on early lockdown. Voters rewarded him with a 90 percent approval rating.
Bavaria’s reputation for “laptops and lederhosen” is a cliché, but the rest of the country could do worse than learn from its marriage of technology and tradition. Germany has the worst 4G mobile network in Western Europe. Bavaria is an innovation hub with low unemployment and among the highest incomes in the world. Bringing a little bit of Munich to Berlin couldn’t hurt.