In the last thrilling instalment we left Germany waiting for a meeting of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group that was going to “recommend” a candidate for chancellor. What happened next was an astonishing week of extremely public in-fighting, as part of the CDU tried to find a way to pick the CSU’s Markus Söder as candidate, more of the CDU tried to block them, and quite a few tried to get Söder picked without letting on that was what they were doing.
A major part of the problem was precisely that the “CDU/CSU” doesn’t really exist. There are two separate political parties in a form of permanent coalition, but they have their own identities, organizational structures, and legal personalities. The decision was one that could only be taken separately. The CSU, obviously enough, supported its own guy, but the only way he could prevail would be for the CDU leader, Armin Laschet, either to step aside voluntarily or be forced into it by his own side. Söder’s supporters in the CDU pointed to his polling – he’s considerably more popular than Laschet, whose poll numbers are positively terrible – while his opponents countered that the CDU membership had voted and their opinion must be respected. After all, they had elected Laschet, and were being asked to see him pushed aside at the behest of top leaders in favour of someone who wasn’t even a member of the party. They could also respond that Bavarian politicians rarely do well outside Bavaria, and that the CDU base offered more of a foundation of democratic legitimacy.
To begin with, the CDU leadership offered a “recommendation” for Laschet, which satisfied nobody. Söder responded by saying that he would be willing to run, or to stand down, if a “broad” majority wanted him to, leaving the definition conveniently vague. This led to a week of frantic canvassing down to the district level. Söder upped the ante by denouncing “backroom manoeuvres”. This Tagesspiegel ticktock fills in much of the detail – although, for example, the party chief in Rheinland-Pfalz, Julia Klöckner (another person who used to be a Merkel successor) apparently called all her district chairs and very few wanted Laschet, when it came down to it, 9 out of the 31 members of the federal executive committee were willing to vote for Söder.
This may be down to Wolfgang Schäuble, for it is he, who was the penultimate speaker and the first to demand a roll-call. Schäuble apparently feared an even more divisive solution in which the joint parliamentary group – the only institution that binds the two parties in a formal sense – would pick a candidate, probably stacking up a whole lot of side-deals in the process. The only other option, really, would be to ask the membership to vote – although everyone claimed to know the members’ minds, as pointed out here, nobody wanted to risk consulting them.
With the decision made, this SZ piece argues, the best thing Söder could do would be to seize the brief remaining window of opportunity to be a team player and step back with both good grace and the promise of a major federal ministry. Astonishingly, though, he’s continuing to rock the boat. Having promised that he would support the winner without making a fuss (“ohne Groll”), he’s giving newspaper interviews saying that the party doesn’t need a “Helmut Kohl 2.0 from the 1990s”, while also setting a target of 35% of the vote, ruling out a three-party coalition, and declaring that the Greens are the most intellectually interesting competitor.
What Söder is up to isn’t clear. It’s possible he still hopes Laschet, or the regional barons on the executive committee, will crack and give in and he’ll eventually get it. Or he may be positioning for the blamestorming exercise after a bruising defeat. Or perhaps he’s effectively running as a spoiler candidate out of spite. Both parties are making noises about recruiting members in each other’s territory, the nuclear option in their relationship, and Söder has gone so far as to drum up custom on Twitter.
If it’s a spoiler it’s quite the spoiler. The whole drama is doing the CDU incalculable damage. A first polling shock landed with Forsa’s survey on the 20th of April, putting the Greens in first place on 28 per cent and the joint CDU/CSU on 27 per cent. The much respected pollsters from the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen responded by saying that this was unrealistic, whereupon it promptly happened again in Kantar/Worldpanel’s survey. As I keep saying, given the CSU’s special powerbase in Bavaria, this implies frankly horrific numbers for the CDU in the rest of Germany.