Bitter Rivals for Merkel’s Crown Go Head-to-Head in Berlin

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Officials close to Angela Merkel are worried that her conservative bloc risks losing the German chancellery in September’s election with the two contenders to lead the ticket heading for a potentially damaging showdown on Tuesday afternoon.

The 60-year-old leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union, Armin Laschet, is set to appear at a meeting of conservative lawmakers in Berlin to defend his claim to the nomination following the endorsement of the party leadership. His rival Markus Soeder, of the CDU’s smaller Bavarian sister party, unleashed a startling broadside attacking Laschet’s record on Monday and he’ll also attend to make his case to deputies from both parties.

Bitter Rivals for Merkel’s Crown Go Head-to-Head in Berlin

While Laschet has the organizational muscle of the CDU behind him, he’s struggled to connect with voters. Soeder, by contrast, was rated the most popular politician in Germany in one recent poll and with the bloc heading for the worst result in its history, he’s arguing that the conservatives can’t afford to ignore public opinion.

The bloc has “never lost so much voter support in such a short time,” Soeder, 54, said.

With the group’s chancellor candidate historically chosen behind closed doors, the conservatives find themselves in uncharted territory with no clear process in place to settle a battle that has now broken out into the open. Forcing Laschet into a direct confrontation already represents a victory for Soeder. With lawmakers’ seats at risk from the slump in support, the Bavarian state premier is betting he’ll be able to win backing from within the ranks of Laschet’s CDU as well as the representatives from his party.

Read More: CDU/CSU Set to Lose Ground From 2017 Election Result

There’s also a broader concern that voters see the governing conservatives are distracted by infighting at a time when the administration is struggling to get a grip on the coronavirus emergency.

“The problems that we have to solve this week are so big that we shouldn’t focus any longer on internal party issues but on the major tasks that Germany faces today, tomorrow, this week and in the coming months,” Laschet said.

Bitter Rivals for Merkel’s Crown Go Head-to-Head in Berlin

As the tone of the contest turns increasingly nasty, CDU officials are worried that it could damage Laschet, who is already under pressure because of his poor performance in the polls. The chancellor herself is concerned about the destructive character of 54-year-old Soeder’s attacks, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

The tense contest has even raised eyebrows among potential rivals. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was chosen as the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate in August, said he was “very irritated” by the protracted process.

“We have very serious business to take care of and now is not the time for vain power battles,” Scholz said Tuesday in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio. “Our position is clear -- we’re doing our job and making sure that the country makes progress.”

Bitter Rivals for Merkel’s Crown Go Head-to-Head in Berlin

The CDU/CSU caucus is due to discuss an emergency law to toughen lockdown measures when it gathers on Tuesday afternoon. Merkel’s cabinet approved the draft law this morning and will now send the legislation to the Bundestag. The bill would shift power to impose Covid-19 restrictions to the federal government from regional leaders to combat a surge in infections.

It would allow the chancellor to impose a 9 p.m. curfew and shutter stores in areas with high infection rates while schools would also be closed in places with the most severe problems.

The CDU and the CSU traditionally field a joint candidate and the process has almost always gone in the favor of the larger party’s chief. Only two candidates from socially conservative Bavaria have run for chancellor in the postwar period and both lost.

But in a new survey by the polling institute Insa for the tabloid Bild, Soeder even surpassed Merkel as Germany’s most popular politician, while Laschet lost further ground and ranked only 12th. CDU officials expect that Soeder will use that in the coming days as evidence of his strengths, damaging Laschet in the process. Soeder has insisted it will be several days before there is a decision.

Bitter Rivals for Merkel’s Crown Go Head-to-Head in Berlin

To underscore the challenges facing the conservative bloc in Germany, he said the current election would be the toughest since 1998, when the CDU’s Helmut Kohl lost to Gerhard Schroeder from the Social Democrats. Then as now, the party had been in power for 16 years.

Pressure is mounting to nominate a candidate and ramp up the campaign. The bloc’s lead over the Greens has shrunk to about six points, and the environmental party is set to announce its chancellor candidate -- likely between co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck -- next Monday.

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