Berlin - On Saturday, in an online party conference, Angela Merkel's CDU will elect a new leader and he will be a middle-aged man from North Rhine-Westphalia: Armin Laschet, Norbert Röttgen or Friedrich Merz. Whether one of them will then lead his party into the election campaign as a candidate for chancellor is another story.

The Berliner Zeitung's political team has been following all three closely. Before the CDU delegates make their choice, they've picked apart each candidate on a number of key issues. 

Photo: AFP/Thomas Schwarz

Armin Laschet, Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, 59

Can he handle a crisis?

Laschet's contradictory approach to the corona crisis has cost him points. First he rang the alarm bells  ("It's a matter of life and death."), then he was one of the first to open up his state after the spring lockdown last year. His statement on the "toughest Christmas ever experienced by the post-war generations" was also rather shrill. But the corona numbers in North Rhine-Westphalia are no higher than those in stricter Bavaria.

Popular with women?

He's popular among members of the Frauenunion, the party's female wing, but he's not exactly distinguished himself as a feminist. Last summer, a photo of Laschet surrounded by all-male CDU candidates for mayor posts caused ridicule and there is no surplus of women in his cabinet either.

Green cred

Not stellar. Laschet ensured Germany's exit from climate-killing coal was extended to 2038, and he had police expel eco-activists from the Hambach Forest, which is being swalled by a strip mine. His states is home to the largest lignite mining region in Europe and thousands of people are employed in the coal industry.

International experience

At the Munich Security Conference last year, Armin Laschet participated in a talk with Anna Baerbock (Greens) and switched to German after a single English sentence. The Green politician had been answering questions in English. But plenty of foreign ministers and EU commissioners have been monolilngual. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine Laschet at a G20 summit.

A man of the people?

In the Rhineland - yes. Laschet loves carnival, the main factor when it comes to connecting with the Volk in the region. For the rest of Germany, it's irrelevant. His "simple" origins - his mother was a housewife, his father first a miner, then a primary school headmaster - imbue him with a down-to-earth aura. Plus: he once had a cameo role in an episode of über-German crime series, Tatort

Does he understand the East?

The Netherlands and France are closer to North Rhine-Westphalia, geographically speaking. But this hasn't prevented him from diagnosing the success of Pegida in the East from afar. After the botched German Unity Day in Dresden in 2016, he said on a talk show that "whole swathes of the country have not learned to have respect for other people." And spoke of an "educational deficit", which didn't go down so well.

Government experience?

His clear advantage over his competitors, which he never tires of emphasising. Unlike his opponents, he already governs: for three and a half years he has led North Rhine-Westphalia in a coalition with the FDP.

Team player?

In the NRW state government, Laschet is considered an agreeable opponent with few real enemies. As someone who commands a mere one-vote majority in his state parliament, Laschet knows that confrontation is not always the smartest thing to do. Laschet is seen as open-minded when it comes to potential partnerships. He'd have been fine with a coalition with the Greens on the national level.

Likeability factor

He has no problem in the Rhineland (see point 5). He comes across as amicable wherever he goes but also a little harmless. He occasionally loses his temper. See points 1 and 6.

Photo: imago images/Sammy Minkoff

Friedrich Merz, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, 65  

Can he handle a crisis?

Let's put it this way: He's capable of elbowing his way back into the limelight following political defeats. After the chancellor parked him at the head of the parliamentary group, it took him almost 20 years to run for the CDU chair again. After losing to current party head Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (better known as AKK) a good two years ago, he's jumped on the opportunity this time. 

Popular with women?

When the Bundestag voted in 1997 (!) on whether to include marital rape in the penal code, Merz was in the minority that voted against it – he claims because of a missing objection clause. But it's still a cloud over the Merz train. He now says he's open to a quota for women in the party, something he has always rejected. He sees it as a last resort to support women. One could expect more from a father of two daughters.

Green cred

Climate change emerged as a topic during a digital Q&A with delegates on Friday. While his rivals politely argued, Merz looked as if his eyes were about to close. Beyond saying one should not lose sight of the economy, he had nothing to contribute.

International experience
As a corporate lawyer, Merz was active on various company boards. From 2016 to 2020 he chaired the supervisory board and worked as a lobbyist for the world's largest asset manager, BlackRock.

Man of the people?

Merz's statement that he sees himself as part of the "upper middle class" - his net worth is in the millions - is almost legendary. Of course, even a millionaire can have a connection to the average Joe. But that presupposes a certain understanding of their day-to-day reality.

Does he understand the East?

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This explains some of the sympathy shown towards Merz in eastern Germany. For many Ossis in the CDU, Merkel has moved too far to the centre, while Merz' conservatism seems to appeal to them. But the situation is no longer quite so clear-cut: eastern groups in the CDU have withheld forthright expressions of support for Merz.

Government experience
Merz has never held a cabinet position. As parliamentary party leader of the CDU/CSU he has experience mobilising majorities in the Bundestag, but that has been extent of his political responsibility.

Team player?

Not really. Outgoing party leader AKK knows a thing or two about that. After failing to become CDU leader in 2018, it was hard to integrate him into the party. His philosophy seems to be: If you want to be boss, don't want join the rank and file.

Likeability factor

In an interview long ago, he confessed that he was a persistent troublemaker at school. Not hard to imagine. Merz is clearly not out to be liked by everyone: Confrontation is part of his brand. Nevertheless, some members of the Berliner Zeitung's political team would be happy to grab a beer with him.

Photo: imago images

Norbert Röttgen, 55, chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee

Can he handle a crisis?
After a crushing electoral defeat in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012, Merkel removed him from his post as environment minister. But he fought his way back on to the national stage as a foreign policy expert.

Popular with women?

As Laschet announced his candidacy, Röttgen upstaged him with a tweet that he wanted a woman as CDU general secretary. But Paul Ziemiak looks like he'll keep that office for himself and 38-year-old Ellen Demuth, the Röttgen ally that could have had the position, will become chief party strategist. The Frauenunion still prefers him over Laschet.

Green cred

By CDU standards, he's almost dark green. If elected, Röttgen wants to make climate protection a priority. He accuses the chancellor of neglecting the issue. As former environment minister, he is well-versed in the subject. Ideal for a CDU-Green coalition. Röttgen also favours green foreign policies that link trade agreements with climate protection targets.

International experience

Röttgen has been chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag since 2014 and, although he does not hold any other office, is considered a popular interlocutor in the media when it comes to world politics. The Rhinelander regularly apppears on CNN and his English is excellent. It's not hard to imagine him on the world stage.

Man of the people?
You probably won't find him down the pub conversing with das Volk. But he has a certain coolness in dealing with satirists. He went to Jan Böhmermann's show without being embarrassing. That's something.

Does he understand the East?

In the past, Röttgen didn't stand out for his affinity to the East. Lately, however, he's been making more appearances in the former German Democratic Republic. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung last year, he argued that the CDU deserved more attention in the East. Thirty years after unification, he said East and West needed to talk more and show solidarity.

Government experience

Röttgen was environment minister in Merkel's cabinet from 2009 to 2012.

Team player?

"Even those who don't vote for me could live with me as party leader," Röttgen said at the final round of introductions on Friday evening. He presents himself as a team player who wants to alienate no one. This makes him a good alternative for those who have had enough of the Merkel CDU but shy away from Merz's pithy conservatism.

Likeability factor

Gossip mag Bunte once compared him to George Clooney. That's about as good as it gets for a politician. Röttgen comes across as approachable, friendly and at the same time trustworthy. You'd buy a used car from him without a second thought – but it's hard to imagine the preening Rhinelander, who somehow doesn't seem to age, with engine grease on his fingers.