Katja Hoyer

Why Merkel’s party is backing a political lightweight to replace her

Why Merkel's party is backing a political lightweight to replace her
Angela Merkel and Armin Laschet (Getty images)
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The run-up to the German federal elections in September was supposed to be dull and predictable. Merkel would name a successor and the German public would grudgingly vote for the chosen one as there was nowhere else to go. If this predictable drudge meant disaffecting voters further and losing another couple of percentage points here or there, so be it. The German conservatives would still come out as the strongest party and select its partners for a coalition, just as Merkel has done for the last four terms in office.

But things have changed. The gravity of Merkel’s own personality was what held many votes tied to a party that has been haemorrhaging support for a long time. After sixteen years of continuity, the dynamism in Merkel’s CDU has gone, they have run out of fresh ideas. The chancellor’s tight reign over her inner circle of power has made sure of that. The fact of the matter is that when you remove Merkel from the centre of her party’s orbit, what remains is a collection of yes-men circling around a big black hole in the middle.

The man the CDU has put forward to fill this Merkel-shaped hole is Armin Laschet. He has neither the personality, nor the political gravity to fill it. A career politician with a monotonous voice and professional look, he personifies the blandness and lack of ideas that Germans are beginning to resent. There is a palpable desire for freshness, creativity and renewal after four terms of Merkelism, and after Covid. A continuity candidate like Laschet is not going to cut it.

And yet, the CDU leadership have this afternoon announced they will support Laschet’s bid to stand as their candidate for chancellor in the upcoming federal election. Recent polls have shown this might well be political suicide for the party. When asked if they would vote for the party with Laschet at its helm, only 17 per cent said ‘yes’ in a recent survey. Almost all surveys indicate they would gain under 30 per cent, with a risk to fall behind the Greens.

But the CDU is only one half of the conservative bloc that Germans will find on the ballot paper. Their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, only stands in its own state for regional elections but pools its votes with the CDU for federal polls. Standing as the so-called Union or CDU/CSU, they always put a common candidate forward. At the moment, the CSU is still supporting its own leader, the Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder, to stand.

Söder is a textbook Bavarian: proud of his regional identity, jovial and more than a little unconventional. He is the chalk to Laschet’s cheese. This also applies to his Covid policy where he has driven a much tighter, and much more popular, regime in Bavaria compared to his rival’s refusal to implement federal guidelines in his own North Rhine-Westphalia. As a result Söder is now far and away the most popular chancellor candidate of all political parties, with recent polls indicating the CDU/CSU might get up to 39 per cent of the vote with him at the helm.

So why is there even a debate within the Union about the right candidate? There are potentially 20 points between the two candidates. Yet this does not outweigh the complex power-political considerations that weigh heavy on the minds of the CDU elite.

If a single-minded and popular CSU candidate like Söder wins a landslide victory in September that outshines Merkel and retains his popularity for another term (or even two, or three), the centre of Christian-conservative power would shift decisively southward. The Bavarian CSU would hold all the political cards for potentially a decade or more, with the Söderian joker to be played even in times of crisis. In the minds of the CDU leaders, this long-term risk is not worth the short-term gain of an election victory now.

The CDU has only twice made way for a CSU candidate. One was Franz Josef Strauß, who was Helmut Kohl’s rival and only allowed to run for the Union in 1980 because the SPD candidate Helmut Schmidt was (rightly) judged to be unbeatable. Kohl’s camp then used Strauß’s defeat to bolster Kohl’s candidacy. The other was Edmund Stoiber who outmanoeuvred Angela Merkel in 2002, lost against Gerhard Schröder and thus seemingly disproved the viability of the Bavarian chancellorship once more.

However, the CDU leadership senses that Söder is neither a Strauß nor a Stoiber. The latter two were both controversial from the outset and neither was overly popular outside of Bavaria. They were set up to fail to settle the power-wranglings between the sister parties. Try that with the hugely popular Söder and they might well find an entirely different and unpalatable point proven for all eternity: a CSU chancellor is not only a viable but potentially a more successful option. An uncomfortable political precedent would be set that would shift the power balance in Germany’s conservative bloc forever.

There are also powerful figures within the CDU who would not be averse to an electoral disaster under Laschet. Friedrich Merz, for example, who ran for the 2018 and 2021 party leadership elections, and lost both – first against the Merkel protege Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the second against Armin Laschet. Merz would all too happily take the opportunity to prove that the CDU was wrong to reject his bid for the leadership twice. A car-crash election would give him four long years to labour the point.

Another factor to consider is the long-standing complacency that has crept into the heart of a party that has provided all but three of the chancellors to have run the country since the war. Under Merkel, the CDU has already allowed itself to witness its worst election results since 1949 without any visible soul searching to follow. It is conceivable that there is still a belief that the CDU/CSU will emerge as the strongest party and be able to form a government with the Greens. The trouble is that if the latter win the election, they will get first choice and this might well be to run the country with the social democrats and the liberals if the numbers add up. If complacency is behind the Laschet backing, there may well be a rude awakening in September.

Now that the CDU and CSU have backed their own candidate respectively, it remains to be seen what the rest of the week will bring. Laschet favours a quick decision, while his rival Söder wants to slow things down. The latter might well be an attempt to let the anger and frustration at the potentially suicidal decision by the CDU leaders to back Laschet sink in with the parliamentary faction and grassroots politicians. In contrast to the inner circle of the CDU, many conservative parliamentarians, councillors and mayors depend on voting figures for their jobs. They might also not want their party to collapse just so power-political intrigues can play out at the top.

A grassroots rebellion might yet advance Söder’s case. German politics has suddenly got interesting again.