Two conservatives declare bids in race to succeed Merkel

·3-min read

The head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party and its smaller Bavarian sister party both declared themselves willing to run for chancellor on Sunday, with the bloc poised to decide who will represent it in the race to succeed the veteran leader in September elections.

CDU chief Armin Laschet and Markus Soeder, the head of the smaller Bavarian CSU party, both told reporters they were open to being the centre-right alliance's candidate for chancellor during a crunch meeting of conservative MPs in Berlin.

"We have established that we are both suitable and both willing," Soeder said, confirming for the first time that he was open to the job after months of speculation.

Long-time Merkel ally Laschet, 60, took over as CDU leader in January, and would normally be first choice to lead the parties into the elections on September 26, when Merkel will retire from politics after 16 years as chancellor.

But the sister parties' backing is tumbling over their recent handling of the coronavirus crisis, and some have called for Laschet to step aside in favour of the more charismatic Soeder, 54.

Laschet said Sunday that he and Soeder had agreed in a long conversation that they would both stand, stressing: "Our goal is to provide as much unity as possible between the CDU and CSU."

Soeder had spent months avoiding showing any clear interest in the top job -- while doing little to dispel talk that he wants the chancellorship for himself.

- 'Weekend of truth' -

Heading into the Sunday meeting, the Bild newspaper declared it was "the weekend of truth" in the race to succeed Merkel.

"We have a great interest in the whole thing moving ahead quickly now," CDU parliamentary leader Ralph Brinkhaus said before the talks began.

In an interview with weekly Bild am Sonntag, Laschet had also called for a quick decision given "the mood across the CDU".

"Unity is very important. It would do the CDU and CSU a lot of good to make the decision together. And very promptly," he said.

The candidate will most likely be picked behind closed doors, with Laschet telling broadcaster ZDF that the conservatives would choose whoever "best suited our election programme".

Yet in an interview with Spiegel magazine on Wednesday, Soeder insisted that the candidate needed to be "accepted by the whole population, not just the party".

The Star Trek fan and fancy-dress loving Bavarian consistently beats Laschet in popularity polls, with a recent survey by public broadcaster ARD showing that 54 percent of Germans thought Soeder would be a good candidate, compared to just 19 percent for Laschet.

- 'New era is dawning' -

As leaders of Germany's biggest federal states by population and area respectively, North-Rhine Westphalia premier Laschet and Bavarian chief Soeder have exchanged blows over their leadership in the pandemic.

Laschet's reputation as the reliable continuity candidate took a hit at the end of March, when Merkel criticised his state's slowness to reimpose restrictions despite rising infection rates.

Soeder jumped on the opportunity, praising Merkel's handling of the pandemic and arguing that the Chancellor should help decide who would be her successor.

"A CDU/CSU candidate without the support of Angela Merkel will not be successful," he told Bild last weekend.

Laschet on Sunday praised Merkel in a Bild interview but also said a "new era is dawning" for the CDU/CSU.

The parties must learn from mistakes made in the pandemic and strive to "reduce bureaucracy, make decisions faster, drive forward the digital transformation of administration and the economy", he said.

While Laschet remains more likely to win over party bigwigs, Soeder has also already drawn the support of several CDU lawmakers, as conservative MPs eye falling poll ratings with growing nervousness.

Trust in the CDU/CSU has been severely hit in recent months by a sluggish vaccination programme and a corruption scandal over mask procurement, leaving the conservatives at record lows of less than 30 percent.

With the once fringe Green Party now just a few points behind them, the CDU/CSU could face the real prospect of losing the chancellery for the first time since 2005.