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The Laschet Disaster: The Slow-Motion Collapse of Merkel’s CDU

  • September 15, 2021

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.

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