The race to succeed Angela Merkel sank into disarray on Monday when the two parties in her center-right bloc endorsed rival candidates for chancellor in the Bundestag elections in September.
The Christian Democratic Union has put its weight behind Armin Laschet, the party’s leader, while its small Bavarian twin party, the CSU, has said it supports Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder.
The competing endorsements paved the way for a showdown between two parties whose alliance has been one of the pillars of the German political system since the end of World War II.
Laschet, who is also state governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, told reporters on Monday that with Germany still in the grip of a pandemic and its intensive care wards filling up with Covid-19 patients, the time intestinal rivalry was over. The CDU and CSU must, he said, decide quickly which candidate they will present in the September elections.
“We can no longer spend all our time solving internal problems of our party,” he told reporters. “We have to face the enormous tasks that Germany faces today, tomorrow, this week and in the months to come.”
He was speaking after the ruling CDU executive unanimously backed him as a candidate for chancellor, dramatically increasing her chances of succeeding Merkel once she steps down this year after 16 years in the power.
But Söder showed no sign of dropping his candidacy. He said the decision of the CDU leadership was an “important signal”, but there were other signs from the regional branches of the CDU and the CDU / CSU parliamentary group that it was impossible to ignore. “It is important to listen very carefully to what the parliamentary group is saying,” he said.
Indeed, in recent days, a number of Christian Democrats have spoken out in support of Söder, who, according to polls, is much more popular than Laschet. Many believe that the CDU / CSU has a much better chance of winning the September elections with Söder leading their campaign.
“There is massive discontent at the base of the party and in the parliamentary group,” said a backbench Christian Democrat MP. “The party leadership simply ignored their opinion. They seem to live in a sort of parallel universe. “
Söder said the decision on the candidacy should be made taking into account the relative popularity of the candidates. “The CDU / CSU has never sank so quickly in the polls,” he said. “Polls aren’t everything, but they are. . . a clear indication of what the population thinks. And we cannot separate ourselves from the majority of the population of this country. ”
Laschet said he would try to speak to Söder on Monday to try to sort the issue out once and for all. But Söder said he was in no rush to decide on the candidacy issue.
Markus Blume, CSU secretary general, told reporters that the issue should not be decided by the leaders of the two parties alone, but by a “negotiating team that reflects the diversity and breadth of our parties”.
Until this weekend, the race to succeed Merkel seemed to go in the direction of Laschet. In January, he won a narrow victory in the CDU presidential election, a position which, under normal circumstances, would allow him to run as the undisputed candidate for chancellor of the CDU and CSU.
But since winning the leadership contest, the CDU’s vote rate has plummeted, with voters blaming him for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly the slowness of vaccinations against Covid-19. The revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs have earned huge commissions on face mask purchase deals have also seriously damaged the party’s image.
The malaise within the CDU was highlighted last month when it fell to the worst election results ever in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades were Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls put support for the CDU / CSU between 26% and 28%, down from 33% in the last Bundestag election in 2017.
The decline in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens, who won 8.9% of the vote in 2017 and now vote 23%. It is seen as absolute certainty that the Greens will be part of the next German government.
The CDU’s slide in the polls provided an opportunity for Söder. The Bavarian governor and head of the CSU has emerged in the pandemic as a capable and decisive crisis manager, and his approval rating has defied gravity. Backed by such poll data and by cheering for rumors from CDU MPs, Söder announced on Sunday that he was also ready to run for Chancellor. He stressed, however, that he would accept the CDU verdict.
Some commentators said on Monday that he broke that promise by continuing to claim his candidacy even after senior CDU officials backed Laschet.
Laschet, meanwhile, dismissed claims that his low poll count portended disaster in the September election. He said that in all the key decisions of its past, the CDU had “never been guided by opinion polls”.
He cited Konrad Adenauer’s decision to integrate West Germany into the West after the war, the decision to place US medium-range missiles in the country in the 1980s, the euro bailouts during the EU sovereign debt crisis and Germany’s decision to take in 1 million refugees during the migrant crisis in 2015-16.
“You have to do politics from a grassroots understanding that doesn’t look at the polls,” Laschet said. “This has always been my guiding principle. . . and this will also be the case in the future. ”