The internal battle for the chancellor candidacy of the Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) has drizzled out rather than culminating in a decisive standoff. CDU leader Armin Laschet has prevailed over his CSU counterpart Markus Soeder. Laschet’s main competitors in the September elections will be Finance Minister Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats (SPD) and especially Annalena Baerbock, who was announced yesterday as the Greens’ chancellor candidate.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU is the much larger member of the Christian alliance; it is present in 15 out of Germany’s 16 regional states. The CSU only runs in Bavaria (but traditionally wins stellar results there). Only if a majority of CDU regional associations consider a CSU leader to be more promising as the nationwide candidate will the CDU relinquish the chancellor candidacy. As Soeder’s high popularity ratings provided him with considerable CDU support, he kept the battle simmering for several days, rather than agreeing quickly with Laschet on who should run. Soeder hoped that this drawn-out battle would undermine his opponent and motivate a majority of CDU leaders to slowly rally around him. But Laschet stood his ground, forcing a vote at the end of a late-night CDU leadership meeting yesterday. With around 70% of CDU party board members supporting Laschet, Soeder was left with no choice but to admit defeat today.
There are several takeaways from this episode. Most importantly, both Laschet and Soeder stand for a broad continuation of the current centrist and pro-European course, likely in a coalition with the Greens. Their battle was, therefore, purely about personalities. After 16 years of Merkel’s ultra-pragmatism, the CDU/CSU lacks the programmatic substance for a meaningful standoff over policy. But this may also mean that Germany’s last catch-all party will have to decide on the go – perhaps during crises to be managed in the next government – how exactly it wants to position itself between the far-right AfD and the liberal Greens.
Soeder has promised to cooperate from now on, but the damage he has done to CDU/CSU unity might last. In the joint CDU/CSU Bundestag group, many MPs were betting on the popular Soeder as a vote winner in September. Just like many voters, the CDU party base also largely favored the CSU leader. In recent days, Soeder made every effort to highlight Laschet’s lack of support in these arenas. With his flamboyant personality, Soeder can, at the very least, be expected to remain a constant thorn in the side of Laschet and his CDU over the coming years, trying to maximize gains for Bavaria along the way. On the other hand, Laschet prevailed in true Merkel fashion, remaining unmoved in the face of the Bavarian onslaught, letting it run dry before eventually forcing a decision. Power-conscious steadiness has yet again prevailed in the CDU.
Going forward, the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock might pose the main challenge. While Laschet leads Germany’s largest regional state, Baerbock presents herself as a fresh alternative, precisely because she possesses no executive experience. Her co-leader Robert Habeck introduced Baerbock as the right candidate on Monday. The smooth and well-orchestrated way in which the two Green leaders decided on the chancellor candidature might create a powerful alternative for voters at the liberal center ground who value reliable management.