June 02, 2020
Watch out for Söder
The figure to watch out for in German politics is Markus Söder, Bavarian prime minister and CSU chief. Angela Merkel and Söder are the political superstars of this crisis. They are enjoying unprecedented personal approval ratings. The polls have support for CDU/CSU in the high thirties, but this is clearly a crisis phenomenon. The SPD has not benefited at all. Olaf Scholz is well-liked, but the people see him as Merkel's employee, not as a political leader.
Behind the good poll ratings for the CDU lies trouble, however. Merkel has said she would quit next year. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will quit as CDU chairman in December. The candidates for her succession are political lightweights. And, for the first time, Söder himself is hinting that he might be interested in the top job. He said the decision on Merkel's succession will not be made in December when the CDU is due to elect its next chairman, but in January. That timetable would keep him in the loop.
The decision is ultimately with the CDU. On two occasions in the past, the CDU accepted a chancellor-candidate from the CSU: Franz-Josef Strauss in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both lost. This time would be the first where a CSU candidate would have a chance of winning. The arithmetic of German politics favours a CDU/CSU chancellor because all other parties are weak. At one point last year the Greens managed to draw level with the CDU/CSU, but Covid-19 killed the Green policy issues. That might still change, but we suspect the dominant political theme for the next year will be the recession.
Armin Laschet, state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, remains the odds-on favourite to win the CDU leadership but has had a bad crisis. He favoured an end to the lockdown too early, for cynical reasons. He chose to distance himself from Merkel. This turns out to have been a mistake. It's even worse for Friedrich Merz, who holds no office and seems strangely out of place - from a different era. Norbert Röttgen is better-known in transatlantic policy circles than in Germany.
Of course, fortunes could change. It would be folly to make predictions. But the rise of Söder has constituted an unbroken trend so far. If he manages to keep that momentum, we think he has a chance.