The race to succeed Angela Merkel descended into disarray on Monday when the two parties in her centre-right bloc endorsed rival candidates for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.
The Christian Democratic Union threw its weight behind Armin Laschet, the party’s leader, while its smaller Bavarian sister party the CSU said it was backing the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder.
The competing endorsements set the stage for a trial of strength between two parties whose alliance has been one of the mainstays of the German political system since the end of the second world war.
Laschet, who is also governor of the state 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 for internecine rivalries was over. The CDU and CSU must, he said, quickly decide which candidate they will field in September’s election.
“We can no longer spend all our time dealing with our internal party issues,” he told reporters. “We have to deal with the huge tasks that Germany faces today, tomorrow, this week and in the coming months.”
He was speaking after the CDU’s governing executive unanimously backed him as candidate for chancellor, vastly increasing his chances of succeeding Merkel once she steps down this year after 16 years in power.
But Söder showed no sign of giving up his claim to the candidacy. He said the CDU leadership’s decision was an “important signal”, but there were other signs from the CDU’s regional branches and the CDU/CSU parliamentary group that were impossible to ignore. “It’s important to listen very carefully to what the parliamentary group is saying,” he said.
Indeed, in recent days, a number of Christian Democrat MPs have come out in support of Söder, who polls show is much more popular than Laschet. Many believe the CDU/CSU has a far better chance of winning the election in September with Söder leading their campaign.
“There is massive discontent in the party grassroots and the parliamentary group,” said one Christian Democrat backbencher. “The party leadership has just completely disregarded their opinion. They seem to be living in some kind of parallel universe.”
Söder said the decision on the candidacy must be made with an eye to the candidates’ relative popularity. “The CDU/CSU has never sunk so quickly in the polls,” he said. “Polls are not everything, but they are . . . a clear indication of what the population thinks. And we can’t decouple ourselves from the majority of the people in this country.”
Laschet said he would try to talk to Söder on Monday to try to settle the issue once and for all. But Söder said he was in no rush to decide the candidacy question.
Markus Blume, the CSU’s general secretary, told reporters the matter should not be decided by the two party leaders alone but by a “negotiating team that reflects the diversity and breadth of our parties”.
Until this weekend the race to succeed Merkel had seemed to be moving in Laschet’s direction. In January he won a narrow victory in the election for CDU chair, a position that in normal times would entitle him to run as the unchallenged chancellor candidate of both the CDU and CSU.
But since he won the leadership contest the CDU’s poll rating has slumped, as voters blamed it for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.
The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.
The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens, who picked up 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and are now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that the Greens will be part of Germany’s next government.
The CDU’s slide in the polls provided Söder with an opportunity. The Bavarian governor and CSU leader has emerged in the pandemic as a skilled and decisive crisis manager, and his approval rating has defied gravity. Buoyed by such polling data, and by encouraging noises from CDU MPs, Söder announced on Sunday that he, too, was prepared to run for chancellor. He emphasised, though, that he would accept the verdict of the CDU.
Some commentators said on Monday that he had broken that promise by continuing to lay claim to the candidacy even after the CDU top brass backed Laschet.
Laschet, meanwhile, has dismissed talk that his low poll numbers presage disaster in September’s election. He said that in all the key decisions in its past, the CDU had “never let itself be guided by opinion polls”.
He cited Konrad Adenauer’s decision to integrate West Germany with the west after the war, the decision to site medium-range US missiles in the country in the 1980s, the euro bailouts during the EU’s sovereign debt crisis and Germany’s decision to welcome 1m refugees during the migrant crisis in 2015-16.
“You have to do politics from a basic understanding that doesn’t look at polls,” Laschet said. “That has always been my guiding principle . . . and it will be in the future, too.”