Laschet Must Let Soeder Run For German Chancellor
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By tradition, Armin Laschet, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s largest center-right party, has dibs to run as the conservative candidate for chancellor in the upcoming federal election of Sep. 26. But he shouldn’t, because he’s not the best choice. Instead, Laschet needs to make way for his colleague Markus Soeder, the premier of Bavaria and wily leader of the CDU’s conservative sister party, the Christian Social Union.
If he needs an excuse, Laschet can cite the CDU’s terrible showing on March 14 in two regional elections. In both Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland Palatinate, the party remains the second strongest in the state assembly, but with the lowest share of the vote it’s ever received in those states. In the former, it remains to be seen whether the CDU can stay on as the junior partner in government. In the latter, it will stay in opposition.
Laschet isn’t primarily to blame for his party’s setbacks. The main factor was the great popularity of the incumbent state premiers — Winfried Kretschmann of the environmentalist Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Malu Dreyer of the center-left Social Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate.
Nor does Laschet bear much responsibility for a scandal that’s recently engulfed the CDU and CSU, which are jointly known as the Union. Several of their politicians have been accused of graft, not least in profiting from brokering government contracts to make face masks against the coronavirus. Laschet, who became the CDU’s boss only in January, wasn’t the one to let standards slide in the first place, but he has to do the cleaning up.
Yet Laschet is the wrong man to run to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor for even simpler reasons. First, as I’ve said previously, he has the charisma of a middle-management bookkeeper. He uses the excuse of “centrism” and “compromise” to waffle on about any topic without clarity, vision or courage.
Second, as part of this pattern, he’s in the past raised eyebrows in Germany and abroad for equivocating on what should be clear-cut foreign-policy preferences. He’s been relatively soft on Russia and (like Merkel, but unlike the Greens) wants to complete a controversial gas pipeline between it and Germany’s Baltic coast. He’s been equally wishy-washy in his statements on China. He’s even been surprisingly “nuanced” about condemning Bashar al-Assad, the murderous dictator of Syria.
Admittedly, the alternative candidate, Soeder, also has weaknesses. In the past, he’s displayed an opportunist streak, changing his stances to fit the zeitgeist — on migration or climate change, say — with suspicious fluidity. If he’s raised fewer eyebrows than Laschet on foreign policy — which tends to play a marginal role in German politics — it’s because he’s said hardly anything about it at all.
But Soeder, unlike Laschet, has a knack for being likable and jocular while also getting confrontational when the occasion calls for it. As a campaigner and politician he’s the tougher and wittier of the two.
One argument that the thinning ranks of Laschet fans hold against Soeder is irrelevant. The two Union parties, which form one group in the federal parliament, always agree on a joint contestant for chancellor. But the only two CSU candidates both lost, in 1980 and again in 2002. Bavarians, or so the chestnut goes, can’t appeal to northern Germans.
This neglects a crucial difference. Both of the previous Bavarian candidates were Catholics from the southern part of the state, with thick Alpine accents. Soeder is a Protestant from Nuremburg, which is in the northern part of the state and culturally part of central Germany.
The strongest argument for Soeder and against Laschet is made by opinion polls. In Germany’s parliamentary democracy, voters don’t elect their chancellors directly. But if they did, their preferences would be clear. In a poll taken this month by Forsa, 37% would plump for Soeder, whereas only 18% would pick the likely candidate of the Greens and 15% the Social Democrat. By contrast, Laschet would get 22% of the vote, just one percentage point more than the Green would, and two more than the Social Democrat.
Soeder can’t be seen to grasp the candidacy too ambitiously; he’d prefer it to be offered. After the elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, he therefore dropped a sly hint to his fellow conservatives. What those two defeats showed, Soeder said, is that the outcome of the upcoming federal election is wide open, and even if the conservatives are still ahead in the national polls (see chart), a government without them now seems conceivable. In short, every percentage point matters.
I’ve been arguing since 2019 that Soeder has the best odds of succeeding Merkel as chancellor. The exact reasoning has changed in the tumultuous time since, but it still holds. If the conservatives want to stay in power, they need the strongest candidate they have. For the sake of the party he leads, Laschet must step aside and throw all his support behind Soeder.
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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