Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

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Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder is known for a quick temper, but his outburst last week was exceptional even for his standards and reflected growing tension among Germany’s conservatives over Angela Merkel’s succession.

At a heated meeting of fellow regional leaders and key members of Germany’s cabinet to discuss pandemic policy, Soeder got into a confrontation with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats.

Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

“You’re not the chancellor of Germany,” Soeder barked at Scholz, who responded with a cool smile and nonchalant shrug. “You don’t have to grin like a smurf now,” the Bavarian added, according to participants on the video call.

While the clash was ostensibly about funding a coronavirus aid package, the bigger picture is the pending transfer of power after 16 years under Merkel. Her Christian Democratic Union is set to suffer historic defeats in two state elections on Sunday in the latest sign of the party’s wobbles.

It could get worse.

Just over six months before a national vote, the CDU-led conservative bloc -- the traditional anchor of German politics -- is faltering. It has no clear candidate for chancellor and is battling a corruption scandal just as it tries to position itself to lead Europe’s largest economy into the future.

Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

Scholz is running for Germany’s top job for the SPD in the federal election in September, and Soeder is maneuvering to be the candidate for Merkel’s bloc, but his chances are fading.

While Soeder, the head of the smaller Bavarian CSU sister party, is popular, Armin Laschet -- his rival to lead the ticket for the bloc -- controls the bigger political machine as CDU leader.

Even bruising losses in Sunday’s state elections in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate -- the CDU is headed for its worst results in the states since World War II, according to the latest polls -- might not be enough to knock him off course. Still, a poor showing would add to concerns that Laschet might not be a winning candidate because of a lack of popularity and charisma.

Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

Laschet subtly delayed the decision on the group’s chancellor candidate until as late as the second half of May, which could give him time to recover from Sunday’s outcome and lift his weak polling numbers.

A recent voter survey conducted by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen found that 53% saw Soeder as a suitable chancellor candidate, compared with just 28% for Laschet. A ranking of the country’s most popular politicians by Insa put Soeder just behind Merkel in second place, while Laschet was seventh and the SPD’s Scholz was third.

Both parties in the alliance, which coordinate campaigns on the national level, declined comment on the race between the two.

Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

Even as the unresolved chancellor candidacy hangs over the bloc, the CDU/CSU are contending with a widening scandal over claims that conservative lawmakers profited from the pandemic. Three parliamentarians have resigned in recent days because of allegations they made money from face-mask deals, and the party leaders have sought to distance themselves from it.

But Laschet -- also the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state -- has been drawn deeper into the scandal through his son Johannes, a model and fashion blogger, who facilitated a deal for local police. The premier canceled the order for 1.25 million masks after a parliamentary investigation of the case revealed there hadn’t been a tender.

That could burden Laschet in the coming months, even as he tries to bolster his image as the potential leader of Germany. Despite its challenges, the conservative bloc is still clearly ahead in national polls.

Merkel’s Party Heads for State Defeats and It Could Get Worse

Laschet supported the local candidates in the state elections. But his appearances -- forced online due to coronavirus measures -- were weak and marred by technical issues.

During a virtual event in Rhineland-Palatinate, Laschet couldn’t initially be heard and then confused his own state with the one where the election is taking place, underpinning concerns about his reputation as a lackluster campaigner.

In this context, Soeder’s attack on Scholz could have been a calculated performance aimed at presenting himself as the passionate champion of the conservatives -- and thus a better chancellor candidate. Both politicians have largely confirmed the nature of the exchange and said they’ve moved on.

While Soeder hasn’t openly declared his candidacy, he’s made it clear within party circles that he’s ready to accept the role, according to an official close to the discussions, who asked not to be identified.

To get the chance, he needs to be asked, and there are no senior CDU officials currently ready to take the step, a fact that makes the 54-year-old increasingly nervous, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

So for now, Soeder is restricting himself to shadow boxing with Laschet, 60, rather than a full-on challenge. The former Merkel critic has been playing the role of loyalist, even though the chancellor has already made it clear internally that she won’t pick sides.

At a recent party event, the Bavarian premier indirectly accused Laschet of diverging from Merkel’s strict coronavirus course by reopening schools in North Rhine-Westphalia and saying the government was treating voters like “under-aged children.”

“Everybody who plans to profit from Merkel in September must know that these votes will only come in combination with Merkel’s policy and not by positioning oneself against it,” Soeder said.

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