The black Mercedes carrying the German politician makes an unscheduled stop in the middle of Paris. Its passenger, Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, wants to walk a little bit, taking time to enjoy the French capital and to smoke a cigarillo. “Lovely city,” the 57-year-old muses.

On Monday, Laschet was here to have lunch with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. It’s part of his new role as the special commissioner for French-German cultural cooperation and it’s taking him to Paris regularly, where he has dined at the Elysée Palace and gets a seat at the regular French-German government consultations, along with leading federal cabinet ministers.

Laschet also recently visited Israel, the US and Poland. And all this statesmanlike activity makes him seem almost, well, presidential. Which is why, when German chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would resign as head of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, at the end of December, more than a few party members wondered if Laschet was going to compete for the job.

Within hours of Merkel’s announcement, three potential candidates had stepped forward to declare their candidacy: Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn. The position, heading the country’s most popular political party, is usually seen as the fastest route to the most senior position of them all, Germany’s chancellorship.

Contrary to popular politicos’ opinions, Laschet was not among the candidates. The evening of Merkel’s announcement, Laschet spoke to the board of a bank. He looked nervous as he waited to speak, chewing his pencil and checking both his phones every few minutes, in case of any news. When he finally came to speak, he did not just talk about the future of North Rhine-Westphalia but also about the kinds of topics a chancellor might address: the consequences of Brexit, Donald Trump, European elections. But the only time he mentioned the word “chancellor” during the whole speech was while making a joke about the scandal that erupted around former spy chief Hans-Georg Maassen. “If he had made a couple more mistakes, he would have ended up chancellor,” Laschet joked.

Laschet admits that he thought about trying to compete for the job of party boss, but he wanted to take his time to make that decision. There was much too much to decide so quickly, he argues. Many phone calls and a day later, he was still unsure.

A resume for a Chancellor?

At an engagement at a Düsseldorf club, he was asked about his intentions again: “Are you the candidate or the kingmaker?” his host asked. Laschet’s non-committal, but perhaps also telling, answer: “The separation between the chancellorship and the head of the CDU is a new thing. And that’s why it is particularly complicated now.”  Traditionally in Germany, the head of the government has also been the head of their party.

In the end, Laschet dithered a bit more and then finally decided against candidature. But, insiders suggest, that doesn’t mean the popular and powerful politician does not have designs on the chancellor job in the long run.

Since his electoral victory in the summer of 2017 in a state that was previously dominated by the Social Democrats, Laschet has been working his way up the CDU ranks. The former radio journalist, who has been a member of the CDU since he was 18, cut his teeth as an aide to former Bundestag President Rita Süssmuth before becoming the youngest member of the Aachen city council in 1989.

In 1994, the career politician was elected to the Bundestag for the first time and, in 1999, to the European Parliament. In 2005, he returned to North Rhine-Westphalia, becoming a state cabinet minister and member of the state parliament, taking over as head of the state’s CDU chapter in 2012 and finally, in 2017, winning the state election and becoming prime minister. He currently heads a coalition state government made up of the CDU and the neo-liberal Free Democrats.

In all that time, Laschet has always been one of Merkel’s most loyal supporters, even in terms of her much-debated decision to allow refugees to enter Germany in 2015. This collegial respect may be why he could not make up his mind about whether to run for Merkel’s CDU job despite much pressure for him to do so. He was seen by many as the perfect centrist choice, somewhere in between Kramp-Karrenbauer, the “little Merkel”, and Merz, who is likely to take the party rightwards.

But Laschet demurred. “I am trying to do my job here in North Rhine-Westphalia to the best of my ability and I am not banging on the gate to the chancellor’s office,” he told a local newspaper. A local CDU member suggested that the first public poll of the candidates may also have put him off: Laschet didn’t do as well as the other contestants.

The king (or queen) maker

Asked whether he might still run for chancellor, even if he did not want the party job, Laschet simply replied that, “that question is not relevant at the moment.”

Even if he doesn’t want to head the party, there is no doubt that Laschet will have a big influence on whoever does get the job. He will be bringing the biggest delegation to the conference and could well end up being the king- or queen-maker.

Laschet has worked closely with Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was prime minister in nearby Saarland before Merkel picked her to be general secretary of the CDU in March. At the same time, he was also the first to open the door for Merz’ political comeback when he appointed him as his state’s commissioner for the Brexit transition. The only candidate that Laschet, who is generally considered a moderate, is not a big fan of, is Jens Spahn. Laschet considers his opposition to immigration too extreme.

“Merz is more EU-friendly, a lot less conservative than some think he is,” Laschet notes. “Kramp-Karrenbauer is also pro-EU and she also covers the social side.” But as yet, he is not favoring any single candidate. “It must be a decision for the delegates,” he insists, despite rumors that he will come out in support of one of the three shortly before the national congress.

Rumors in a local newspaper suggested that Laschet may have done a deal with Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer, promising them his support if they, in turn, supported Merkel until the end of her term in 2021, after which she would retire. That would ostensibly also give Laschet more time to build up his profile in any bid for national leadership. Those closer to Laschet dismissed this as idle political gossip.

His coalition partners say he is easy to work with and Christian Lindner, the head of the Freed Democrats, has even suggested Laschet would be a great chancellor. Even the opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia sing his praises. “He is like an extension of Merkel,” says the head of the local branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. “But unlike the chancellor, he can sell her politics in emotional terms.”

Should Laschet decide he does want more, the road to the Chancellor’s office, even in 2022, would still be long and hard – especially if Kramp-Karrenbauer becomes chairperson, because the two are similar in their manner and their politics.

Two routes to the top

Two scenarios would offer Laschet a genuine chance. If Merz gets the party leadership, he may well drive Merkel out of office, at which stage the current coalition government would break up because the Social Democrats would not want to be part of a more right-leaning, Merz-led government. This would bring new elections, but with Merz weakened for having pushed Merkel out of office, creating an opening for Laschet.

The other scenario would be for Merz to work with Merkel for another year or two, and then Laschet could replace Merkel as chancellor, as the only compromise candidate who has the potential to continue a coalition with the Social Democrats.

Back in Paris, Laschet has just met the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire. When he emerges from the meeting, he seems pleased. “We have already decided to meet again,” Laschet boasts. Le Maire has said he would like to come to Düsseldorf where the pair will dine together. The only question that remains now is whether Laschet will be meeting him in his role as the leader of Germany’s most populous state or as a man with one foot inside the chancellery door.

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