Armin Laschet: comeback king after Merkel's crown

·3-min read

Armin Laschet, the candidate from Angela Merkel's party to succeed her as chancellor, may have had a dismal election campaign marred by gaffes, but he also has a knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, which could still see him triumph in Sunday's polls.

The affable 60-year-old has a reputation for endurance and what Der Spiegel magazine has described as an ability to "sit out" his opponents, even when the chips are down.

Elected as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in January, Laschet was for some time the clear favourite to become Germany's next chancellor when Merkel bows out of politics after Sunday's election.

But recent polls have shown the conservative alliance of the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, trailing behind the Social Democrats (SPD) and on course for their worst election result since World War II.

A particular low point for Laschet came in July, when he was caught on camera laughing during a tribute to the victims of deadly floods in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he is the regional leader.

He has also been widely criticised over his dithering response to the Covid-19 pandemic in that region, with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper describing him as "indecisive, sometimes acting impulsively".

- Miscalculated? -

If Laschet does manage to bring his party home as the winner on Sunday, it would not be the first time he has defied expectations.

Laschet won the vote to become CDU leader against the odds, and went on to secure the conservatives' nomination to be chancellor candidate after a drawn-out battle with the more popular Markus Soeder of the CSU.

He also outperformed the polls to secure his impressive 2017 election win in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state.

Asked in a recent TV interview whether he thought he was often underestimated, Laschet replied that "many have certainly miscalculated".

A devout Catholic, Laschet was born in Aachen, a spa city in western Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, where his father fed the family digging for coal.

"When you're down in the mine, it doesn't matter where your colleague comes from, what his religion is or what he looks like. What is important is, can you rely on him," he told party colleagues in January.

Laschet initially studied law in Munich before working as a journalist, including for several years as the editor of a Catholic newspaper.

After first joining the CDU as a teenager, he was elected to the Bundestag German parliament in 1994 and to the European Parliament in 1999.

He became head of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012 and has been state premier there since 2017.

- 'Passionate European' -

A defender of multiculturalism, Laschet has a reputation for being even more pro-migration than Merkel and famously backed the chancellor during the fallout from Germany's 2015 refugee influx.

A self-described "passionate European", he is a fluent French speaker and met his wife and the mother of his three children, who is of French-speaking Wallonian origin, singing in a church choir.

In his office in Duesseldorf, Laschet keeps a golden bust of his hero and alleged distant relative Charlemagne, the king of the Franks credited with uniting Europe -- a fitting role model for a man often praised for his ability to unify.

"Polarising is easy -- anyone can do it," he told a party conference earlier this year.

"We have to speak plainly, but not polarise. We have to be able to integrate. Keeping a society together and bringing it together, that is hard work."

Known for his jolly persona, Laschet is a regular at the famous carnival celebrations in North Rhine-Westphalia and was even awarded a "prize against deadly seriousness" by the Aachen carnival club last year.

But he also showed his serious side when responding to the crisis in Afghanistan, accusing NATO of the "biggest debacle" in its history.

Afghanistan gave Laschet "the first opportunity to present himself as a statesman in the making", Die Welt daily said. "This was no longer the friendly Rhinelander."

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