CDU/CSU at odds over election campaign leadership

Markus Söder and Armin Laschet gear up for Merkel succession battle

Christian Social Union chairman Markus Söder and Christian Democratic Union party chairman Armin Laschet: efforts to jump start the post-Merkel election campaign have become a slow-motion political car crash. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Christian Social Union chairman Markus Söder and Christian Democratic Union party chairman Armin Laschet: efforts to jump start the post-Merkel election campaign have become a slow-motion political car crash. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

Chancellor Angela Merkel brought a big pile of files with her into the Bundestag chamber on Tuesday afternoon and worked through them wearing her best, neutral expression.

Like Tom Sawyer eavesdropping at his own funeral, Merkel listened as MPs from her centre-right alliance tied themselves in knots over who should lead their first federal election campaign without her for over two decades.

After four heated hours, the meeting broke up with neither a clear timetable nor a map out of their political dead end. Back in the chancellery, Merkel – who stood down as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader in 2018 – was asked about the succession battle under way. She remarked with a smile: “I wanted, want to and will keep out of it.”

For the last two decades, she was the election manifesto of her CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Their entire election campaign in 2013 amounted to three words beneath a picture of the chancellor: “You know me.”

For two years, the CDU/CSU parliamentary party have known that Merkel’s fourth term would be her last. And now, with her retirement beckoning, efforts to jump start their first post-Merkel election campaign in living memory have become a slow-motion political car crash.

‘Wimp out’

Months of simulating harmony have yielded to a battle royal, between two unequal contenders for control of Europe’s largest political bloc.

On Sunday, CSU leader and minister president of Bavaria Markus Söder emerged from the long grass to announce that he was prepared to leave Munich and become only his party’s third leader in German post-war history to lead a federal election campaign.

“I declared my interest today . . . You can’t just wimp out, you have to take on the responsibility,” he told journalists, promising to back off if the CDU decided against him. Countering his move on Monday was CDU leader Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, who secured backing for his candidacy from the CDU front bench and regional parties.

Instead of backing off, Söder turned up the heat again by inviting himself along to Tuesday’s CDU/CSU parliamentary meeting – forcing Laschet to follow suit.

Though the CDU has five times as many seats as its Bavarian ally, one backbencher told The Irish Times that at least twice as many parliamentarians – about 44 – backed Söder openly during an emotional debate, as spoke up for Laschet.

Popular Bavarian

Aware that political in-fighting in a pandemic looks bad, all sides want a solution – but how? Laschet wants a small, closed-door decision while Söder is pushing for as broad a vote as possible on the candidacy. Given a run of poor polls, many nervous Bundestag MPs feel the more popular Bavarian is a better insurance policy for their re-election.

Four scenarios are now circulating. The first would see Laschet defer to the CSU leader, a move with potentially devastating political consequence given he was elected CDU chairman only in January. 

A second option, would see Söder stay in Munich: at 54, he is still young enough to try again in four years. A third option would see both leaders agree to follow a secret vote by MPs, likely to swing in favour of Söder. Senior party figures on both sides are lukewarm to this idea given how, in the past, such votes left lasting damage to party unity on election day and beyond.

A final option would see senior CDU/CSU grandees asked to make the call. No matter how they decide, the identity crisis many Berlin political observers predicted in the post-Merkel CDU/CSU has already kicked in – five months before election day.

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