Germany’s conservative death match

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BERLIN — After months of polite jousting, soft jabs and gentle ripostes, the friendly duel over Angela Merkel’s succession finally reached its inevitable final round: a battle to the death.

The two men vying to become the conservative standard bearer in the race for chancellor – Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet and Markus Söder, head of the center-right alliance’s Bavarian wing, the Christian Social Union — squared off on Monday (from afar), each claiming he was the rightful heir to Merkel’s mantle. 

“My position is clear,” Laschet said after receiving the strong endorsement for his candidacy from the CDU’s executive committee. “I want a modern Germany!” 

The bigger question is whether German voters want him.

In addition to leading the CDU, Laschet is the premier of Germany’s biggest state, North Rhine-Westphalia. But his poll numbers are sagging, both nationally and at home, fueling doubts over whether he is the right candidate. 

“This is the most important job there is in Germany,” Söder, who enjoys broad popularity both at home in Bavaria and across Germany, responded later in the day. “I’m ready for it!”  

For months, the two had insisted a final decision would be taken after somber reflection between Easter and Whit Sunday (May 23) in some form of amicable tête-à-tête. That plan hit a wall over the past couple of days, however, as both men acknowledged the only conclusion they’ve been able to reach is that they both want a chance at the brass ring.   

Yet time is of the essence. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on public support of the conservatives and many in the party rank and file want a candidate sooner rather than later in the hope the selection will give the bloc a boost as the campaign for the September 26 election gets underway. 

The Greens, which polls suggest have become the center right’s most formidable rivals, are expected to announce their candidate for chancellor on April 19. 

On Monday, both Laschet and Söder sought and received the support of senior functionaries in their respective parties. Though the two sides insisted on Monday that they wanted a quick resolution, it’s not clear how nor when the question of who will lead the center right into the coming election campaign will be decided.  

The best guess by most party officials was “by the end of the week.” The problem is that the parties have never agreed on a formal process for choosing a joint candidate, partly because it was usually clear. The CDU is several times larger than the CSU, which only operates in Bavaria, and the two have long had a tacit understanding that the “big sister” would have the final say.    

Longstanding alliance

The alliance of their two parties, known to Germans simply as “the Union,” has dominated German politics since the war, led by the likes of Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl and Merkel. No CSU leader has ever become chancellor, but two have been the bloc’s candidate, only to lose — in 1980 and in 2002.

In 1979, Franz Josef Strauß, the godfather of Bavarian politics, edged out the premier of Lower Saxony — Ernst Albrecht, the father of Ursula von der Leyen and an ally of Kohl’s — in an acrimonious contest to become the candidate. The victory was short lived. Strauß not only recorded the conservatives’ worst result since the war, his feud with Kohl, who would go on to win the chancellory four years later, left a deep rift in the alliance that took a generation to repair.

Söder has taken pains to point out that he and Laschet get along famously and aren’t at all similar to Kohl and Strauß. Even so, the risk of a deeper split is serious enough that Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the German parliament and the only senior conservative to work closely with Kohl and Strauß, has warned against holding a vote on the candidacy in the Union parliamentary group, as happened in 1979.  

Yet Söder’s camp is eager to do just that, knowing full well that their man would have a good chance of winning. While Laschet has the support of the party mandarins, his backing among conservative MPs, whose jobs depend on his success in the fall, is less secure.

Last week a group of CDU MPs from Baden-Württemberg issued a statement urging Laschet to make way for Söder, whom they called a “powerful and promising candidate.” CDU chapters in Berlin and Hamburg added their voices to those calls on Monday, endorsing the Bavarian over the leader of their own party for the chancellor job. 

That support explains why Söder has decided to stand his ground and fight. If the cohesion of the Union were his primary concern, he could have made a graceful exit over the weekend after Laschet made clear he wouldn’t step aside.   

Truth is, Söder has been eying the chancellor job for years and quietly waiting in the wings as the CDU struggled to sort out its leadership for the post-Merkel era. The CDU’s first choice, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned suddenly last year after a short stint, saying she didn’t feel she had the necessary support to continue. What followed was a lengthy contest to find a replacement that was further complicated by the pandemic. 

Even before Laschet prevailed in the race to succeed Kramp-Karrenbauer and lead the CDU in January, many questioned his suitability as a chancellor candidate. 

Söder was and remains vastly more popular. The Bavarian led the field of potential candidates to succeed Merkel in a poll released Sunday, recording 37 percent, compared to just 13 percent for Laschet. Söder has even overtaken Merkel as Germany’s most popular politician, according to another poll published by Bild on Monday. 

The overwhelming public preference for Söder, steady for months, is the reason Laschet tried to make his candidacy a fait accompli on Monday by securing the backing of his party apparatus and then quickly announcing it to the world in a press conference. But, as Söder’s camp pointed out, the functionaries who populate the CDU’s decision-making bodies don’t represent the “breadth” of the party or its base. What’s more, many of them are beholden to Laschet in his position as party leader. 

The Union’s parliamentary group is due to meet on Tuesday. Laschet said on Monday that the assembly wouldn’t vote on a chancellor candidate, but as pressure rises, he may be powerless to halt such a step.

Even if there is a ballot, however, the result wouldn’t be binding. Ultimately, the two parties have to come to an understanding, meaning that one of the men will have to back off. 

Söder said Monday he didn’t expect a decision until later in the week, when he planned to organize a small CSU delegation to meet with Laschet and his team. 

In the meantime, he’s betting that the public support he enjoys will convince the CDU it has no choice but to back him.

“What matters is what the voters think,” he told Bild Live in an interview on Monday.



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