It was never her “life plan” to try to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor, Markus Söder told a TV interviewer on Sunday evening. But to refuse to do so now, he concluded, would simply be “shirking my responsibility.”
“The reactions I have received, the expectations of many people in Germany and the polls play an important, if not absolutely decisive, role,” the Bavarian Prime Minister told ARD TV.
Söder spoke hours later throw a curve ball which upset the entire German political establishment and threatened to plunge the post-Merkel succession into chaos.
The Bavarian has announced his intention to run as the Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in the Bundestag election in September. He will compete against Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union – previously considered favorite for the role.
By announcing his move, Söder reinforced his reputation as a major disruptor of German politics. It has long been common practice for the head of the CDU, and not the chairman of its sister Bavarian party, the CSU, to run for chancellor. But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the works – and gave Söder a once-in-a-lifetime opening.
Blamed for the government mismanagement of the Covid policy – and in particular the slowness of vaccinations – the CDU has collapsed in the polls, while Laschet’s approval rates are among the lowest of any German politician.
CDU MPs are increasingly concerned that the party is heading for defeat in September. “People are looking at the ballot box and think they might lose their seats if Laschet is our candidate,” one said.
Such fears lead many Christian Democrats to view Söder as a white knight who will come to their aid. “With each passing day, the mood changes in favor of Söder,” said the MP. “Laschet’s support within the parliamentary group is quickly crumbling.”
A turbulent populist With a reputation as a political shapeshifter, Söder, who two years ago was Germany’s least popular regional governor, has not coveted the post of German chancellor – not until recently, anyway. Most believed his ambitions stopped becoming head of the CSU, which he took over in 2019, and ruler of his home state.
But the pandemic turned him into a nationwide politician, with approval ratings that seemed to defy gravity. A highly effective crisis manager, he provided a stark contrast to Laschet, governor of the great state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who often appeared indecisive and hesitant.
“The temptation to become a truly historical figure is great, and Söder clearly gives in to it,” said Roman Deininger, author of Markus Söder: the shadow chancellor.
“The smell of power attracts him.”
On Sunday evening, Söder admitted that his strong poll scores influenced his decision to run. “They always play a role,” he said. “Make no mistake, there is an election in five months and the situation of the CDU / CSU is serious. You can’t just wipe it off. “
After 16 years with Merkel as chancellor, he said, voters were starting to feel it was time to elect another ruling party. “There is a danger that people are now in the mood for a change,” he said.
It has been a long road to Sunday’s decision. When asked previously if he wanted to succeed Merkel, Söder always said “his place is in Bavaria”. But gradually the rhetoric changed. Last week he told an interviewer that “today my place in Bavaria ”. Could it still be after the September elections, he was asked. “My place is everywhere,” he replied, enigmatic.
Söder’s coquetry was a disaster for Laschet, who had hoped his path to the top of power would be much easier. A cheerful and easy-going Rhinelander, he was elected boss of the CDU in January, normally an infallible springboard to the chancellery.
But he didn’t reckon with Söder, his constant punches, jokes and allusions to a chancellery race. It all came to a head on Saturday when he and Laschet spoke on the phone and, according to Söder, “realized that we were both fit and ready” to run.
The decision of who is the joint CDU / CSU candidate is now largely in the hands of the powerful ruling CDU executive, which meets on Monday. Söder himself said on Sunday that it all depended on “whether the CDU wants him” as a candidate or whether he is diving for Laschet.
On the other hand, this could be the moment when the CDU greats decide that Söder might be the better choice. If they do, Monday will be the day they make that decision.
Many remain loyal to Laschet. “CDU bosses are angered by Söder – his coquetry, his punches against Laschet and his know-it-all attitude about the crown.”
And Laschet, a liberal who offers continuity with Merkel’s middle policy, retains a large fan base within the CDU. “Everyone knew that his election as party president in January was also a decision Chancellor question, ”said a pro-Laschet MP, referring to the chancellor’s work.
“We can’t just change our mind now based on some polls – it makes us look really fluffy.”
Laschet faces a few agonizing days. Having only recently achieved a narrow victory in the CDU leadership race against the Tories Friedrich merz, he must now prepare for the fight of his political life, as he races to gain support from the ruling CDU bigwigs.
Some CDU deputies have already made their decision. “Whoever has the highest voter approval should be our candidate for chancellor,” CDU backbench MP Christian von Stetten said. “It’s clearly Markus Söder.”