Opinion

Söder 2021: Germany’s Christian Democrats Should Consider Bavarian

The Bavarian may be a better chancellor candidate than the three men vying for Angela Merkel’s job.

Markus Söder
Prime Minister Markus Söder enters the Bavarian State Parliament in Munich, December 15 (Bayerischen Staatsregierung)

Germany’s Christian Democrats are polling faraway in first place for next year’s election with close to 40 percent support, up from a low of 26-28 percent a year ago.

Yet none of the three middle-aged men vying to succeed Angela Merkel are wildly popular.

Germans would prefer the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder.

The candidates

The ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is due to elect a new leader in January. Merkel stepped down as party leader in 2018 and will not seek a fifth term as chancellor.

Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and home to its Ruhr industries, is the most Merkel-like candidate: consensus-oriented, pro-immigration, pro-EU and dovish on China and Russia.

His alliance with Jens Spahn, the more popular, and more right-wing, health minister, could bridge the divide between moderates, who look forward to forming a coalition government with the Greens, and conservatives, who believe Merkel has moved the party too far to the middle, particularly on the environment and immigration, thus enabling the return of the far right.

Friedrich Merz is their man. Unfairly lampooned in the left-wing media as Germany’s answer to Donald Trump, he does take a harder line on immigration and sometimes puts his foot in his mouth. When asked if he would object to a homosexual chancellor of Germany, Merz said:

Concerning the question of sexual orientation, as long as it is within the law and does not affect children — which at this point, for me, would be an absolute limit — it is not an issue for public discussion.

Spahn, Germany’s best-known gay politician, criticized Merz for associating homosexuality with “questions of law and pedophilia,” even though Merz spoke out in favor of gay marriage when the majority of Christian Democrats in parliament voted against it.

Laschet has somehow escaped criticism for opposing gay marriage.

Merz is more Atlanticist than European, but he supports a European army. His free-market, small-government politics feel out of tune with the times, which may have something to do with the fact that he’s been out of politics for a decade.

Norbert Röttgen, the party’s foreign-policy spokesman in parliament, is a Rhineland politician of the old school: Atlanticist, anti-Russian, pro-EU, consensus-oriented, a little bland. Which I think is fine, but voters aren’t impressed. When Röttgen ran for Laschet’s current job in 2012, he lost to the Social Democratic incumbent, Hannelore Kraft, by a margin of 13 points. He is behind in the polls.

Although polls are taken of CDU voters, not the 1,001 delegates who will choose the party’s next leader at a virtual congress in two weeks.

The alternative

Laschet was considered the favorite, but his mishandling of the outbreak of coronavirus in North-Rhine Westphalia has given Christian Democrats pause.

Laschet fought Merkel on a national strategy, arguing states should decide whether to close businesses and schools. He gave a €2 billion government contract for masks to an acquaintance of his son, who is a fashion model, without issuing a proper tender.

Whoever prevails, the CDU could find itself with a leader who is nowhere near as popular as Merkel.

But it’s not certain the CDU’s top man should lead the Christian Democrats into the next election, which is due in September.

The CDU competes in fifteen of Germany’s sixteen states. Bavaria, the largest state by land and the largest economy, has its own conservative party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which dominates local politics.

The CSU has only twice led the Christian Democrats in a federal election: Franz-Josef Strauss was the parties’ joint chancellor candidate in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both lost.

Bavaria’s current prime minister, and CSU leader, Markus Söder, could break the losing streak.

The case for Söder

Söder is hugely popular at home. His approval rating in Bavaria topped 90 percent earlier this year, when, in contrast to Laschet, he put his state in lockdown.

In the rest of Germany, Söder’s popularity is second only to Merkel’s.

The CSU, spooked by its worst election result in history in 2018, when it went down from 48 to 37 percent support, took a right turn under Söder’s predecessor, Horst Seehofer. He opposed Merkel’s open-doors immigration policy, allied with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, argued against sanctions on Russia and for putting Christian crosses in Bavarian classrooms.

Bavarians did not approve. 70 percent told pollsters the CSU had focused too much on asylum seekers at the expense of other issues. 55 percent said it was too confrontational.

Seehofer moved to Berlin to become interior minister in Merkel’s cabinet. (A typical Merkelian move to assuage dissent.) Söder dropped the immigration issue and talked up Bavaria’s green economy. When Europe agreed an historic €750 billion recovery fund to cushion the impact of COVID-19, Söder, rather than oppose it in a bid for Euroskeptic voters, welcomed it.

CSU secretary general Markus Blume told Die Zeit that his party U-turned when it realized, “You can never outstink a skunk” — referring to the far-right Alternative for Germany, which got 10 percent support in Bavaria.

Bavaria is not a bad model for the rest of Germany. Bavaria’s “laptops and lederhosen” are a cliché, but it really has managed to preserve its own culture and traditions while becoming an innovation hub.

The rest of Germany underinvests in education, innovation, infrastructure and scientific research. Germany’s 4G mobile network is one of the worst in Europe. (A stain on Merkel’s legacy.)

At 4.1 percent, Bavaria has the lowest unemployment rate in Germany, and one of the lowest in the EU. Its economy is larger than those of 22 of the EU’s 27 member states. The region has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world.

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