Potential Merkel Heirs Spar Over Pandemic in Campaign Kickoff

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The two leading conservative contenders to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor took contrasting approaches to exiting Germany’s coronavirus lockdown, as campaigning ahead of September elections gradually gains steam.

Armin Laschet, the newly elected head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, took an unusual swipe at Merkel’s pandemic policy, saying at a party event earlier this week that the government shouldn’t treat voters like “under-aged children” incapable of making their own decisions. His chief rival, Markus Soeder, fired back on Wednesday in a veiled attack.

Potential Merkel Heirs Spar Over Pandemic in Campaign Kickoff

“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,” said Soeder, the head of the Bavarian CSU sister party.

Based on current polls, the two allies are the frontrunners to succeed Merkel, after she steps down after 16 years in power following the vote. The heads of the two conservative parties will decide who will run for chancellor after Easter. Laschet leads the bigger group, but Soeder is more popular.

Potential Merkel Heirs Spar Over Pandemic in Campaign Kickoff

The Ash Wednesday speeches -- a traditional fixture of German politics used to attack opponents and fire up supporters -- served as an opportunity for the politicians to sharpen their profiles. The two conservatives have often sparred over the coronavirus -- with Soeder favoring a hard line, while Laschet wants to ease restrictions faster.

Laschet, a guest at the CSU’s digital event, refrained from an open assault. Instead, he lauded Soeder’s leadership and urged solidarity between the two groups.

“If CDU and CSU stick together, we will surely win the election in September,” Laschet said. “I cannot imagine Germany without the CSU.”

Germany’s other leading parties also outlined their pitches for voters. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz -- the only official chancellor candidate so far -- gave a fiery appearance. The Social Democrat vowed to lift the minimum wage and defend the social welfare state.

Potential Merkel Heirs Spar Over Pandemic in Campaign Kickoff

“The SPD is united, the SPD has a chancellor candidate, the SPD has a plan for the future,” he said. “All the others are still working on all that.”

The Social Democrats -- traditionally Germany’s second-largest political force -- have faded badly in recent years, hampered by its junior role in Merkel’s government. The Greens have supplanted them and could conceivably seek to lead a three-way alliance with the SPD and the Left party.

Annalena Baerbock, a contender to be the Greens’ chancellor candidate along with fellow co-leader Robert Habeck, attacked Merkel’s leadership for holding back the country’s pandemic fight and efforts to tackle climate change.

“We need to finally end the politics of wait-and-see and conciliation,” Baerbock said at the virtual event for Germany’s second-strongest party. “Creating climate-friendly affluence for all is the task of our generation.”

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