Söder declares ambition to succeed Merkel as German chancellor

Both leaders of the centre-right parliamentary alliance have announced plans to run

Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria,  has announced he is ready to enter the race to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

Markus Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, has announced he is ready to enter the race to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

 

Germany’s race to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel began in earnest on Sunday when both leaders of her centre-right parliamentary alliance threw their hats into the ring.

After months of speculation, Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder announced that he was interested in becoming only the third leader of his Christian Social Union (CSU) to lead a federal election campaign.

“I declared my interest today... that I am prepared to run and taken on this responsibility,” he said.

No final decision, timetable or decision mechanism was presented but Mr Söder signalled he would respect the decision of the larger sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

“You can’t just wimp out, you have to take on the responsibility,” said Mr Söder. “If the larger sister says it is not their proposal... that is a clear signal we would accept.”

Though appearing to defer to the CDU, Mr Söder has insisted that the bloc’s MPs, members and even Dr Merkel be part of a final decision, triggering a zugzwang situation for the CDU and its leader Armin Laschet.

Unlike other parties who choose leaders in a vote of MPs or even the wider membership, the CDU/CSU prefers closed-door decisions among a small circle of grandees.

Two months after he was elected, precedent and political heft give Mr Laschet first refusal on running for chancellor.

The CSU has just a quarter of the seats and only twice in the past has a Bavarian leader fielded the federal election campaign. Neither Franz-Josef Strauss in 1980 nor Edmund Stoiber in 2009 were able to transform their considerable Bavarian appeal on to a national stage.

But the ongoing pandemic has scrambled old certainties and Mr Söder has cut a more decisive figure, reflected in opinion polls.

A recent survey by public broadcaster ARD showed that 54 per cent of Germans see the Bavarian leader as a good candidate to secure a fifth term for the CDU/CSU, compared to just 19 per cent for Mr Laschet.

In Mr Laschet’s home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a new poll on Sunday showed just one in five happy with his performance. That poll for public broadcaster WDR showed that, even among his own CDU voters, 68 per cent are in favour of rival Mr Söder leading the campaign.

‘Unity’

Many of Germany’s five other CDU minister-presidents are said to favour Mr Laschet, but a growing number of CDU Bundestag MPs – wary of losing their seats in the autumn – are quietly coming around to backing Mr Söder.

They are wary of speaking out against their leader as is Dr Merkel. A week ago she dented his credibility with a televised swipe at his pandemic approach. On Sunday she told MPs she regretted how her comments hit him harder than others.

After lengthy private talks with Mr Söder and Sunday’s CDU/CSU parliamentary party, Mr Laschet insisted on Sunday that responsibility for Germany and Europe took priority over any personal ambition. “Given the situation in which the country finds itself, with a chancellor leaving office, our goal is [to] get as much unity as possible between CDU and CSU,” he said.

As Germany’s centre-right bloc debate how to choose their election candidate, the influential Bild tabloid urged them to make up their mind.

“This has to end if the [CDU/CSU] union want to be taken seriously,” it warned. “Every additional day that the secret election campaign continues damages the future candidate.” Meanwhile, Germany is this week expected to agree its first nationwide lockdown, steered by Berlin, to tackle its third wave of Covid-19.