Markus Söder could be a happy man. The latest polls show the Bavarian premier and leader of the CSU has a comfortable lead in the race to succeed Angela Merkel. The Politbarometer by broadcaster ZDF has Söder at 63 per cent over Armin Laschet’s 29 per cent. But to count out Laschet, who became leader of the CDU, the CSU’s sister party, only in mid-January, would be premature.
The CDU leadership has made it clear it is backing Laschet, who as premier of Germany’s most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia also has the biggest regional CDU organisation behind him. Health Minister Jens Spahn – a key figure in the somewhat doomed fight against the Covid pandemic – has come out for Laschet, as have the CDU state premiers of Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein. Both called for Söder to drop out of the race for the Chancellery.
On the other hand, the rebellion among CDU MPs who are demanding a say in who the CDU/CSU union will put up for September’s national election is far from over. On Tuesday, Laschet took a battering after addressing the parliamentary party behind closed doors. According to reports, the majority of the 60 or so speakers at the meeting favoured Söder. But the CDU’s whips were quick to point out that there are 245 MPs in the CDU/CSU union. Most of them have not made their views clear.
Pressure is also growing on Angela Merkel herself. So far, Mutti has stuck to the line that she would not get personally involved in the fight to find her successor. But many senior CDU party figures now call for a “Machtwort“, or strong signal, from the Chancellor. Others in the Laschet camp are less inclined to get her involved. They fear Merkel might be so fed up with Laschet that she might put up with her former arch enemy Söder. Laschet has repeatedly flatly contradicted Merkel’s appeals for a more centralised approach to battling the pandemic, leading to a public dressing down by the Chancellor in the popular news talk programme “Anne Will“.
Friday’s revised economic forecast, which slashed growth expectations by a whole percentage point, is bad news for both candidates. The paper published by Germany‘s five leading economic think tanks puts the growth rate for the economy down to just 3.7 per cent for this year due to the poor handling of the third Covid wave. It will be a boost for the Greens which could become the largest party in the Bundestag for the first time in its 40-year history. Both Söder and Laschet have hinted repeatedly that they would rather be in government with the Greens than continue the unloved Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. The Greens, however, have plenty of options besides sharing power with the CDU/CSU union which most of the Green Party base still considers far too conservative and industry-friendly.
Söder’s team meanwhile keep insisting that their man has already proven himself to be the peoples’s choice. They can point at figures saying that 64 per cent of the Germans believe he would be a capable Chancellor. Among CDU/CSU supporters, this figure even rises to a whopping 84 per cent while Laschet scores just 43 per cent.
Hermann Binkert of the INSA polling institute says, “For the CDU and CSU, the chances to win the election are definitely higher with Markus Söder instead of Armin Laschet as candidate“. If the current in-fighting within the union continues – with the CDU accusing Söder and the CSU of dirty tactics – the chances of a majority in September could easily dwindle away, Binkert warns.
But Söder is far from undisputed even among his own CSU party ranks. Critics paint him as an egotist and the opposite of a team player. His hesitation to officially declare his interest for the top job in Berlin has backfired among CSU traditionalists who put Bavaria first. Söder has ruled in Munich with an iron fist and is far from having established a clear line of succession.
This seems to be the biggest dilemma of the CSU as well as Merkel’s CDU and will guarantee more mischief in the coming days and weeks.