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Race to succeed Merkel heats up as Bavarian leader throws hat in ring

Bavarian leader Markus Soeder (rear), and North Rhine Westphala leader Armin Laschet in Berlin on Sunday. The two are trying to decide which will lead the country's centre-right bloc into national elections set for September. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa
Bavarian leader Markus Soeder (rear), and North Rhine Westphala leader Armin Laschet in Berlin on Sunday. The two are trying to decide which will lead the country’s centre-right bloc into national elections set for September. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa

(dpa) – The range of choices for a successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel widened on Sunday, when Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder said he would compete with Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Armin Laschet to top the centre-right ticket.

The two presented the choice as an amiable race after what Soeder described as a friendly exchange on Saturday.

“We have both declared we are ready,” said Soeder.

But the move adds another wrinkle to Merkel’s succession plans, which have already taken several hits. Her initial choice, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, removed herself from the running after a series of gaffes.

In doing so, Kramp-Karrenbauer also gave up as CDU leader, but it took the better part of a year to replace her because of the logistics of staging a party conference during a pandemic.

Then Laschet’s win presented a different problem. Although he is, in many ways, on the same political page as Merkel, he has proven divisive because of his tendency to support a faster reopening of the economy, despite the fact that coronavirus infection rates were never fully brought under control. Germany is now facing a third wave of infections, but leaders have yet to present a new plan on how to control the disease.

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That presents a stark contrast with Soeder, who has spent most of the last year calling for more strict shutdowns to counter infections.

But picking Soeder also carries some political risks. First and foremost, the CDU does not exist in Bavaria, meaning he is from the more socially conservative CDU sister party, the Christian Social Union. Although the two work together, Soeder can only top the ticket if he convinces members of another party to back him.

Soeder said the race was about the success of the bloc overall and the best for the country, and if the CDU was ready to support him, he would step up. He also called for participation of the parliamentary faction in making that decision.

The two used their joint appearance to play up the collegiality of their new race. Both agreed that either is prepared for the job and well-suited to be chancellor.

Soeder said he would stand by whatever decision the CDU/CSU members make. Laschet also stressed unity.

“Our goal is, given the situation the country is in, with a chancellor who is leaving office, to show as much unity between the CDU and CSU as possible, because a lot is at stake.”

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Speaking to broadcaster ARD, Laschet said he would ask CDU leaders for their “trust” when he met them on Monday. The leadership would not try to sway the vote, but would try to assess where the CDU stands on the question and then offer recommendations.

On the same show, Soeder repeated that he had never planned to seek national office.

But then he noted a point that could complicate Laschet’s candidacy: Many polls show Germans would prefer Soeder to Laschet.

“It wasn’t my life’s plan to prepare for this kind of candidacy,” he said. “But the reactions and the expectations of many people in Germany, as well as the surveys, while not playing an absolutely decivise role, do play an important role.”

Pressure is mounting in the CDU to name a candidate for parliamentary elections on September 26, in which Merkel will not stand at the helm of her party for the first time in 16 years.

“If I consider the broad sentiment in the CDU, the decision should come quite quickly,” Laschet told newspaper Bild am Sonntag on Sunday.

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Other leading party figures also called for a swift decision. “We have a great interest in the affair going ahead quickly,” said CDU parliamentary faction leader Ralph Brinkhaus.

CDU members are increasingly nervous as the party’s support is shrinking in the polls. Some therefore seem to support Soeder as chancellor candidate, who has been a favourite of the public for the job, according to surveys.

It is unclear when exactly the decision will be taken. Soeder and Laschet had initially agreed to decide who would head into the elections in May at the latest.

The conservative bloc is considered to have the best chance at naming the next chancellor candidate. However, regardless of whether the party chooses Laschet or Soeder, that person will have to be able to cobble together a majority coalition before being able to claim the chancellor’s office.

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