Like her or not, Angela Merkel has managed Germany’s response to the coronavirus pandemic commendably. The long-time chancellor usually appears to be anything but energetic, yet her serious demeanour is perfect for a leader during such an exceptional crisis. And Germany has benefited as a result.
Yet as much as Merkel's current crisis management has been praised, her time in office will certainly end following Germany’s general election in the autumn of 2021. Senior members of her party have tried to persuade Merkel into continuing for four more years, but given her health and the fact that she has grown tired of the job after 15 years on top with all the highs and lows, there is almost no chance she changes her mind.
The search for a successor started a while ago. If there wasn’t a pandemic, German media would constantly report about the ongoing race for chairmanship within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It has been assumed that whoever becomes chairman will also be the frontrunner for the chancellorship. Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, was the odds-on favourite before he clumsily started attempting to exploit the coronavirus crisis for political gain.
With Laschet slipping, all eyes are now on Markus Soder, the minister president of Bavaria and chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the little sister party of Merkel’s CDU. Soder was gaining the respect of his peers and the wider public already before the crisis. Now his decisive crisis management in his home state, where the infection rate has been comparatively high, has made him a favourite among conservatives and conservative voters. He was the first state-government leader to issue lockdown orders. When the coronavirus cases began increasing in Bavaria as vacationers returned from ski trips in Austria’s Tirol region, he quickly enforced strict rules, making clear that he would not wait for Berlin to make recommendations regarding public-safety measures.
That being said, the reason Soder has gained approval is not solely down to his strongman-like crisis management. Before the pandemic, he positioned himself among the more moderate conservatives, embracing social and environmental policies while also satisfying the needs of Bavaria’s major corporations. Once regarded as a textbook social conservative, Soder has successfully changed his image to make himself more attractive to a wider variety of constituents. Despite the CSU being tightly woven in the social fabric of Bavaria, he understands that his party would continue to lose voters if it does not add new layers to its Christian and market liberal profile.
Soder’s political instinct combined with his charismatic media appearances make him a qualified prime candidate for Germany’s conservatives at next year’s election. There are just a few hurdles in sight. Most importantly, Soder is ‘only’ chairman of the CSU, representing one federal state while the CDU is present in the other 15. Both parties run together at general elections, but only twice did a CSU leader serve as the joint candidate for chancellorship.
The first time was in 1980 when Helmut Kohl smartly renounced his ambitions to let CSU chairman, Franz Josef Strauss, unsuccessfully run against incumbent Helmut Schmidt. The second time was in 2002, with Edmund Stoiber leading the polls against controversial chancellor Gerhard Schroder before a flood disaster hit eastern Germany. Schroder’s effective crisis management improved his waning reputation, putting him back into the race and eventually securing his chancellorship. Soder would be the first CSU politico to conquer Berlin.
Only a few months ago, he told his peers that he intends to stay in Munich and rather act as the kingmaker among conservatives because a CDU chancellor could not govern without his approval. His reluctance appears to be of tactical nature, as he intends to veil his true ambitions as long as possible. Once the pandemic is over, he will come forward and announce what is already on his mind.
Soder certainly does not lack the self-confidence to think he can take over Merkel’s job. What he might lack is a sense for what people outside Bavaria think and feel. To rise through the ranks of the CSU – and, really, through Bavarian politics in general – one has to be all about Bavaria, its distinct culture and we-before-others attitude. CSU leaders have struggled to adapt and succeed at the national level. Soder, however, is probably astute enough to play chameleon, remaining the true Bavarian (or actually Franconian) at home and acting as an all-German everywhere else.
If Merkel and her CDU are not able to build up a successor in the next few months, Soder becomes the inevitable choice for Germany’s conservatives.