Laschet Should Let Soeder Succeed Merkel As Chancellor
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s late but not too late. Armin Laschet should face reality and — with barely more than a month before Germans elect their next parliament — step aside as the center-right candidate for the office of chancellor.
He should accept that neither Germans nor his own conservatives want him as their national leader — and make way for a more skilled politician. That alternative is Laschet’s notoriously sly frenemy, the premier of Bavaria, Markus Soeder.
As recently as April, the two men were still dueling for the chance to run. Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, had become boss of the Christian Democratic Union only in January after a bruising intramural contest that left him weak. Soeder, as unchallenged leader of the Christian Social Union, a party that exists only in Bavaria but forms one bloc with its “sister party” in federal politics, was strong. But the right of first refusal still lay with the candidate from the larger organization. Laschet seized it.
If he had performed well since then, I could live with him as the conservative standard bearer to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. But he hasn’t. He’s waffled and equivocated. He’s come across as frivolous when needing to show gravitas. Politically, he’s a welterweight.
Germans do not elect their chancellors directly but vote for parties. For a while it appeared that, even with Laschet, enough moderates would still check the box of the CDU, which will be on ballots in 15 of Germany’s 16 states, or the CSU, which is on Bavarian lists, to ensure that the next government will be conservative-led, in combination with at least one other centrist party.
Laschet even benefitted from a surprisingly weak showing by Annalena Baerbock, the candidate of the Greens, who for a fleeting moment seemed to stand a chance of winning. The Social Democrats in third place chose a recognizable and reassuring — if boring — face with their candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. But he’s stuck with a party whose leaders are old-style leftist firebrands and have turned off moderate voters.
This summer the mood turned. After devastating floods in western Germany, including his own state, Laschet showed himself to be tone-deaf. His favorability ratings tanked, pulling the party down with it.
According to an analysis by Forsa, a polling institute, the next government may now, for the first time since 1957, require three parties to achieve a majority. The conservatives could still lead one of these combinations. But the Greens and the Social Democrats could also form their own menage-a-trois, either with the pro-business Free Democrats or the post-communist The Left. The latter combination, though less likely, would be a disaster for Germany and Europe.
There is a better way. Forsa’s analysis also shows that voters in general and conservatives in particular blame the conservatives’ woes almost exclusively on Laschet. If Soeder became the candidate, the bloc’s problems would probably vanish overnight, as the following charts show.
Admittedly, this would be a radical step to take so late in the campaign. But many in the conservative rank-and-file are pushing for it, even for selfish reasons. If recent polls are right about Laschet’s lack of pulling power, some 54 parliamentarians of the CDU or CSU would lose their seats in the Bundestag. If the conservatives are also ejected from government, they’ll lose plush ministries as well.
That Soeder, a Machiavellian politician who’s never hidden his ambition, would jump at the chance is beyond question. But why should Laschet fall on his sword? Even after the conservatives’ slide, he’s still odds-on to become chancellor in some motley and rambunctious coalition.
But his own base, cut down by the losses, would be fuming with resentment. Laschet might govern for a four-year term, but he’d be damaged goods as a party leader and politician. It’s hard to imagine he’d be allowed to run again in 2025.
By contrast, if Laschet lets Soeder run — and win — he would look magnanimous. As part of a quid-pro-quo, he’d play a large role in Soeder’s government. Four years later, the world will look very different. Soeder will have made his own mistakes. Perhaps Laschet will by then be ready for prime time.
As it happens, there’s a role model Laschet could study. Merkel became leader of the CDU in 2000 and could also have insisted on being the conservative candidate in the election of 2002. But she calculated, correctly, that she was better off letting the Bavarian leader of the CSU, Edmund Stoiber, have a go. By the next election in 2005, she claimed her own turn — and has left a 16-year legacy to show for it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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