Battle to be Merkel’s successor divides Germany’s CDU and CSU

A heated struggle is under way between two leading German politicians over who should stand as Angela Merkel’s successor as chancellor candidate in the next election, with the conservative alliance under pressure to choose between a consensual team player with a reputation for pliability or a charismatic political all-rounder in the populist mould.

The eyes of political commentators are fixed on a meeting of the CDU/CSU’s parliamentary faction on Tuesday afternoon, which insiders said would not yet vote on a candidate, but might produce more clarity, with the rivals Armin Laschet and Markus Söder expected to participate and to hold discussions on the sidelines.

The camps behind Laschet, the chair of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and leader of North Rhine-Westphalia and Söder, Bavaria’s state leader and head of the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, are so divided over the issue that questions are being asked as to whether the embattled conservative alliance will be able to restore its unity in time for September’s election.

There has been much criticism that the rivalry has diverted too much attention from the fight against the pandemic, now in its third wave.

Laschet, a 60-year-old Catholic coalminer’s son from Aachen, received the formal backing of CDU regional leaders as chancellor candidate on Monday. As the head of the dominant party in the alliance, which would have to have a convincing reason to let the smaller sister party steal the limelight, he ultimately has the better chance of being chosen.

But Söder, the 54-year-old Protestant son of a building constructor from Nuremberg who announced his candidacy on Sunday, has the support of an estimated 70 CDU MPs out of 245. He is the most popular among CDU voters and is the person the German population at large are most keen to see as the successor to Merkel.

According to a recent poll by YouGov, net 12% of Germans were in favour of Laschet as chancellor candidate, in vergelyking met 46% for Söder.

Laschet was chosen as the CDU’s new chairman in January, in an low-key poll following the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had been Merkel’s personal choice but failed to rise to the challenge. But subsequent historically low election results for the CDU in regional elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, and Laschet’s perceived indecision during the pandemic, have reflected badly on him. His recent proposal for a so-called “bridge lockdown”, to help span the time gap between the current rise in coronavirus infections and when the effect of vaccines will kick in, was widely ridiculed.

In contrast, Söder’s no-nonsense crisis management, in which he has often pushed ahead with lockdown restrictions as the federal government has appeared to dither, have earned him praise, even if Bavaria has not fared better in the crisis than elsewhere. He is also adept at stealing the headlines, including last week by announcing a pre-contract deal to procure of 250m doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which has yet to receive official approval.

Söder said this week his greater popularity should be decisive. “The real crisis would be if we were outperformed in the election.” Currently the alliance has less than 30% in the polls. “Our goal has to be to reach a much better result than thatwe have the potential to secure 35 plus," hy het gesê.

Paul Ziemiak, the CDU’s general secretary, gesê: “Armin Laschet has a broad supportthis is about the ability to lead, the ability to bring people together, in a team; it’s about the power to integrate the whole of societyand Laschet is the one best able to do this.”

The only two German general elections in which a CSU chancellor candidate has appeared did not go in the Bavarian party’s favour. Franz Josef Strauss secured 44.5% of the vote in the 1980 verkiesing, but it was not enough to topple the coalition government of Helmut Schmidt. Twenty-two years later, the battle between Edmund Stoiber and the Social Democrat’s Gerhard Schröder ended in a 38.5% tie, but it failed to unseat the incumbent coalition.

The open warfare between Laschet and Söder is being referred to by the German media as the most important power struggle of the year, a political duel that threatens the parties’ delicate symbiosis. It could, na alles, decide who picks up the reins of Europe’s biggest economy after almost 16 years of Merkel. Even more importantly in most German minds, the person who wins will have to attempt to steer the country, including its embattled economy and society, into a stable and prosperous post-Covid 19 era.

Both men have said they want a decision to be made before the Whitsun bank holiday weekend in May. But the alliance is under pressure to make clear its direction before then, with the Greens, its biggest rival, set for a fanfare announcement on Monday of which of its two leaders is to stand as candidate.

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