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German conservatives may have to pick their candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor sooner rather than later.
The two most likely contestants, Armin Laschet and Markus Söder, repeatedly said they would announce their decision between Easter and Whit Sunday (May 23), but with the Greens set to pick their candidate on April 19, pressure is growing on them to make up their minds.
Regardless of when the conservatives decide, the prevailing political wind suggests the candidate will have a Bavarian accent.
Laschet, the leader of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), was initially seen as the natural choice to run for chancellor, given the dominance of his party nationally and his close relationship to the chancellor.
But Laschet’s approval ratings remain poor and he has repeatedly stumbled over his management of the pandemic. In Germany, the 16 regional states take the lead on when and whether to introduce coronavirus-related restrictions. Over the past several months, Laschet has swung from one extreme to the other and back again, angering constituents frustrated by the confusing array of lockdown restrictions.
Söder, the leader of Germany’s second-most populous state, Bavaria, and head of the CDU’s regional sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), hasn’t had any better luck when it comes to bringing the pandemic under control. Nonetheless, polls suggest that most Germans perceive his management style as more resolute than his rival’s.
A towering man with a booming voice, Söder is also the more charismatic of the two, but he has been coy about whether he actually wants the job. He spent years vying to become Bavaria’s leader, a position he has only held since 2018. Even so, most conservatives are betting — and hoping — that he won’t be able to turn down the chance to secure one of Europe’s most powerful political positions.
Since last month, Laschet and Söder have engaged in a shadow campaign with dueling public appearances in which each has made his case for how to keep coronavirus infections from spiraling out of control.
Söder has consistently sided with Merkel and her insistence that pandemic restrictions not be eased while infection numbers are higher than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants over seven days in most of the country. Laschet, however, has been less clear, advocating a laxer interpretation of the rules and then a stricter lockdown, an approach that has earned him widespread criticism and even ridicule.
On March 29, after Merkel publicly reprimanded Laschet over his intention to lift some restrictions in his state, he insisted that he was indeed applying the coronavirus “emergency brake” as agreed by the chancellor and state leaders earlier in March, although he wasn’t.
On March 31, Laschet said on television that the country should “think together over Easter about where … further protective mechanisms can be introduced,” after Söder had already written an open letter to other state premiers, asking for a “short, hard lockdown.”
Söder emerged from the long Easter weekend as the one who put a clear agenda on the table alongside Merkel, while Laschet had to endure mockery on Twitter over his promise that he would think things through during the holidays, seeming to imply that there was no particular reason to hurry even as infection numbers were going up and progress with the vaccine rollout was still sluggish.
After Easter, Laschet realigned his course with that of the chancellor and Söder, calling for a so-called Brückenlockdown — a bridge lockdown — to bridge the time gap until more Germans have been vaccinated with tighter restrictions on public and private life.
However, here too Laschet was mostly ridiculed for adding yet another word to Germany’s ample coronavirus vocabulary while not really suggesting anything different from what Merkel and Söder had been saying for days.
Further adding to Laschet’s woes, earlier this week a number of CDU lawmakers from the state of Baden-Württemberg came out in support of a Söder candidacy, calling the Bavarian premier a “powerful and promising candidate.”
“The head of the CDU bears a special responsibility for the entire Union [of CDU and CSU] in Germany … including the obligation to put aside personal ambitions for the chancellor candidacy if it is evident that someone else has a higher acceptance among the population,” the MPs wrote in a statement.
Back in Munich, Söder has continued to bolster his image as Germany’s premier coronavirus fighter. On Wednesday, he even announced that Bavaria would sign a preliminary purchase agreement for the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V, a popular move in a country where vaccine supplies remain limited.
Back in March, Söder was already talking up the Russian vaccine. “In part, it’s better than those already approved,” he declared.