Markus Söder had spent months answering the question of whether he wanted to be the German Conservative candidate for election with a laconic: “My place is in Bavaria.” A short and clear phrase of the house that he used to accompany with a telegenic smile, typical of the television journalist who was at the beginning of his career. Whoever interpreted those words as a lack of interest in the Foreign Ministry was wrong. And how. Söder, leader of the CSU, Angela Merkel’s Bavarian party-brother of the CDU, has embarked the German Conservatives in the worst crisis in remembrance in decades. Last Sunday, the 54-year-old politician, president of prosperous Bavaria – his GDP exceeds that of Catalonia, Madrid and the Basque Country together – announced his willingness to be a candidate for the Union, the name by which the coalition between the CDU and the CSU, which has been in charge of the German Government for more years since the end of the Second World War. Söder’s challenge has opened a battle that is tearing the partners apart.
As incredible as it may seem, five and a half months before the general elections that will decide the future of a Germany without Merkel, the Conservatives have neither program nor candidate. The chancellor says goodbye after 16 years at the head of the first European economy and her legacy is in question. His contested management of the pandemic in recent months has plunged the party in the polls and now his replacement at the head of the Conservatives is up in the air. Armin Laschet, 60, the other contender in the fight for the nomination, is in a very delicate position. He had all the ballots to be the candidate: he was elected president of the CDU in January, which traditionally had been enough to lead the Conservatives in the race for the chancellery. He was called to be Merkel’s heir. But Söder’s ordeal, at the head of the coalition’s little brother, who only has a presence in Bavaria, has turned everything upside down in a week of chaos. They both want to be candidates; neither seems willing to give in. Laschet has the support of the party structures. Söder has the polls in his favor and a good part of the bases. Conservatives decide between popularity – and populism – and stability.
“If not for the pandemic, Söder would never have been considered to lead the Conservatives,” says journalist Roman Deininger, the author of several books on the CSU and a biography of Söder published last year. The Bavarian politician has shone during the coronavirus crisis. His popularity has grown as he carved out an image of a serious manager who does not tremble when it comes to imposing harsh restrictions. 44% of those polled by ARD public television consider him the best candidate. To Laschet only 15%. That image of success is very recent, recalls Andrea Römmele, professor of Political Science at the Hertie School. A few years ago the Bavarian was among the most unpopular politicians in the country. Söder won his first election in Bavaria in 2018, but the CSU dropped more than 10 percentage points, the party’s worst result since the 1950s.
From critic of Merkel to aligning with her in the pandemic
“Söder was very conservative and very rigid in his positions, but he learned his lesson,” says Ursula Münch, a political scientist at the Bundewehr University in Munich. The regional elections showed him that the right-wing discourse no longer permeated his electorate. Münch recalls that Söder was one of the fiercest critics of Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. One of its expressions, ‘asylum tourism’, was especially bad for voters in the center, who considered it more typical of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. Söder thus referred to those who moved to Germany when their asylum application had been rejected in other European countries. The summer before the elections, when the polls already showed that the CDU was losing weight, the politician began to turn: he was trying to find “a balance” between helping those who had the right to asylum and quickly deporting those who did not.
Deininger defines Söder as a “political animal”, a guy with an overflowing energy capable of giving speeches on Sunday afternoons in remote corners of Bavaria, and also as an efficient “salesman of himself” who sometimes seems “more concerned for the packaging than for the product ”. Able to change his mind depending on how the electorate breathes, Söder is above all “pragmatic, although there are those who would define him as opportunist”, says Deininger, editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the most prestigious newspaper in Bavaria and one of the most influential in the country. His stance on the environmental challenge is a good example. When he was an advisor in the regional government of Horst Seehofer (now Minister of the Interior in Merkel’s government) he went from ignoring the issue to turning to green policies when he sensed that society was asking for more ecological commitment. “Suddenly it was Söder the green one. What are your true convictions? It is not known ”, sums up his biographer.
For years Söder was comfortable with Merkel’s policies. When it wasn’t the refugees, it was the rescue of Greece or European politics. In the last year, however, the Bavarian has aligned himself with the chancellor, a supporter like him of tough measures to curb the pandemic. While Laschet thought for days which establishments he should close in the state he presides over, North Rhine-Westphalia (the most populous in the country, 18 million inhabitants), Söder decided at the time that he would close them all in Bavaria (13 million inhabitants). That resolution, that strong hand against the coronavirus, is what has made Söder a possible candidate for chancellor, the experts consulted agree. His political nose and communication skills have done the rest.
The German press has helped create a narrative that benefits him, Münch points out. For months he has treated Söder as a potential candidate, placing him at the same level as Laschet or even highlighting his virtues more because he is “a novelty” on the political scene, he points out. Headlines were read practically every week highlighting his popularity. It benefited him to go out at a press conference alongside Merkel after regular meetings between the chancellor and regional leaders. And he was hunting the headlines himself, like when he announced that he was buying 2.5 million doses of the Russian vaccine on his own. Deininger believes his ordeal was unplanned. During the pandemic, it has not bothered to seek allies in the CDU. Quite the contrary: he has criticized the management of other conservative leaders and angered conservative barons. Söder simply “saw a window of opportunity open up before him and took advantage of it,” says his biographer. That Laschet was weakened after poor results in two regional elections in March contributed to “the temptation growing.”
Until recently, Söder’s ambition was fulfilled. As a Bavarian politician, born in Nuremberg and the son of a couple who ran a construction business, his greatest aspiration was to become minister-president of wealthy Bavaria, home to companies such as Audi, Siemens and BMW. A Land that arouses admiration in the rest of Germany for its powerful economy and beautiful landscapes, but is also often ridiculed for its conservatism, its relationship with the Catholic Church and a certain nationalist provincialism. Its inhabitants boast of belonging to the Free State of Bavaria, a pompous historical name that does not translate into anything tangible. The deputies of the regional Parliament meet in an imposing building built on the banks of the Isar River by the Bavarian King Maximilian II. Their marital status, the number of children and the religion they profess are highlighted on their resumes before their academic or political achievements. There would be no greater honor for a CSU member – Söder has been since he was 16 – than to preside over Bavaria, recalls Deininger. He succeeded after his rival, Horst Seehofer, went to Berlin to be interior minister with Merkel. Only three years later, he is ambitious for the chancellery. He says many conservatives have asked him to come forward. Win or lose, says his biographer, he will win.
“Choose the one who has the best chance of winning”
The CSU supports Söder en bloc. And voices in favor of the Bavarian have been appearing in the CDU throughout this dizzying week. They raise a single argument: the polls, the popularity. “We have to make a candidate who has the best chance of winning,” said CDU Baron Reiner Haseloff to Der sppiegel, in an unveiled reference to Söder. Many MPs fear losing their seats if the Union performs poorly and stick to the polls. Haseloff, president of Saxony-Anhalt, has regional elections in June and wants the strongest possible CDU by then. The polls, recalled this week the Süddeutsche Zeitung, they are very volatile. If one listened to the polls at the beginning of 2017, it seemed that the Social Democrat Martin Schulz was going to send Angela Merkel to the opposition, and what happened next is known: a few months later the Chancellor’s party reaped almost 33 % of votes, the SPD stayed at 20%, and both formed the Great Coalition that governs today.
Several members of the CDU demanded this Saturday a quick solution to a crisis that is lasting too long, the experts consulted and sources of the conservatives agree that they ask not to be identified. A serious, reliable party cannot afford to give that image of a fierce fight for internal power. There is only one similar precedent. In 1979 both the CDU and the CSU were fighting to send their own candidate: Franz Joseph Strauss for the CSU and Ernst Albrecht for the CDU. None wanted to yield and the nomination was decided with a vote of the parliamentary group of the Bundestag, the only institution where both parties are represented. Strauss won, who despite getting 44% of the vote, failed to snatch the chancellor from the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. Only on one other occasion did the Union present a candidate from the CSU. It was in 2002. Merkel had been in charge of the CDU for two years and realized that she did not have enough support among the barons of the party. He stepped aside and the Bavarian Edmund Stoiber concurred, who lost.
Söder wants the rank and file to vote, in a “populist” strategy – that’s how Römmele describes it – that is bleeding the Union dry and creating many enemies for him. When he ran last Sunday, Söder said that if the CDU did not support him, he would respect that decision and they would continue to cooperate amicably. But just 24 hours later, when the CDU leadership gave its support to Laschet, Söder did not withdraw. He demanded “to listen to other voices” other than the “10 or 20 people” of the federal leadership of the party, in an attempt to equate them with an elite that does not listen to the popular will. On Tuesday he attended the parliamentary group meeting, where many deputies from the CDU spoke in favor of Söder with Laschet also present. There was no vote, but according to Der Spiegel two out of three CDU MPs support the Bavarian. That is why Laschet tries to prevent the conflict from being settled with the vote of the deputies. Because I could lose it.
In what situation would that leave the brand new president of the CDU? A very precarious one, analysts agree. “Söder does not seem to mind hurting the Union,” says his biographer, who believes he missed an opportunity to gracefully step aside on Tuesday. Angela Merkel has remained on the sidelines of the struggle. If one of the two adversaries does not leave this weekend, the parliamentary group would vote in the Bundestag on Tuesday. Meanwhile, with the Conservatives disoriented five months before the elections and falling in the polls, the Greens are emerging as a burgeoning force that could send Merkel’s Union into the opposition.
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