Merkel Starting to See Former Troublemaker Could Be Chancellor

Each Monday morning at the state chancellery in Munich, officials run through the week’s events and cherry-pick the best PR opportunities for Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder.

Whether it’s a technology conference, a highway opening or the ceremonial tapping of a beer keg, Soeder’s people routinely sideline members of his cabinet to burnish their boss’s image, according to people familiar with the process. Such uncompromising ambition has made the 54-year-old former TV journalist the frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor after September’s German election.

Among potential candidates from the center-right bloc which is leading in the polls, Soeder is the firm favorite with voters. While they’ve clashed in the past and she still has her doubts, the chancellor herself has been impressed by his hunger for power and willingness to fight, a quality she sees as lacking in other candidates, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

When it comes to appealing to voters, “Soeder is far, far ahead,” saysOskar Niedermayer, professor emeritus at the Free University in Berlin.

But Soeder still has to get past the fact he’s from Bavaria.

The wealthy and deeply conservative southern state stands apart from the rest of Germany due to its dialect, its attachment to traditional clothing like lederhosen and, most importantly for Soeder, its political structure. Soeder’s Christian Social Union has been firmly allied with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union since 1949. But it’s a separate party all the same.

So when the CDU picks a new leader on Saturday, Soeder’s name won’t be on the ballot. Twice in 70 years the CDU/CSU has picked a Bavarian candidate for chancellor rather than a CDU member, and both times they lost.

To buck that trend, Soeder will need to persuade the CDU to set aside its new leader just a few weeks after his election.

His unlikely rise would be unprecedented in Germany. But the traditional mechanisms of political advancement are already breaking down across other western democracies. Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson all bypassed party establishments as they rose to power by appealing directly to voters.

Soeder joined Bavaria’s conservative party as a teenager. In his bedroom he had a poster of its former leader Franz Josef Strauss, who failed in his own bid for chancellor in 1980. After briefly working for the state’s public broadcaster, he devoted himself to politics, demonstrating pliable convictions, a knack for self-promotion and making a lot of enemies along the way.

“I regard him as a ruthless power seeker, intriguer and opportunist,” Peter Dilling, a former mentor and early victim of Soeder’s ambition, said in a recent book. Soeder himself declined requests to be interviewed for this piece.

During the 2015 immigration crisis that roiled German politics, Soeder was the driving force behind CSU attacks against the government’s open-door policy that left Merkel wounded, according to party officials, who asked not to identified. Just two years ago, he mocked refugees as “asylum tourists.” He’s also called for blasphemy to be made a crime and proposed having crucifixes installed in public buildings in Bavaria.

That made Soeder almost a comic-book villain for many Germans — a TV movie aired last year depicted him as a ruthless, power-hungry upstart who aimed to stop the flow of Syrian refugees and topple the chancellor.

“The script portrayed him as a real scumbag,” said Matthias Kupfer, the actor who played him. “To portray someone like that is, of course, a lot of fun.”

But Soeder has done an about-face in recent months, broadening his appeal for voters in the rest of the country.

In September, he called on Merkel’s government to take more children from the burnt-down Moria refugee camp, telling the tabloid newspaper Bild it was a Christian duty. Earlier in his tenure, he held a cabinet meeting outdoors to focus on the environment and posed for photos with a tree.

That’s not just about softening his image — the most likely coalition partner for the CDU/CSU after September’s vote will be the Greens.

Soeder emerged as a potential candidate after a rousing speech at the CDU convention in November 2019. But the coronavirus crisis cemented his position.

In December, he decried the country for being “half asleep” in the face of the pandemic. Less than two weeks later, Soeder got his way and a hard lockdown was imposed across Germany.

By allowing Soeder to set the tone in the fight against the pandemic, Merkel herself is signaling that her former critic may be the best contender from Germany’s conservative bloc.

She still disagrees with him on many issues, and she has an obligation to publicly support the CDU leader. But she is impressed by his transformation and his willingness to adapt to political reality, according to a person familiar with her thinking. She also sees him as more of a fighter than Armin Laschet, a candidate for the CDU leadership with whom she agrees on most policy issues.

When the CDU on Friday kicks off itstwo-day virtual convention, Laschet, a moderate state leader from North Rhine-Westphalia, will be up against long-time Merkel antagonist Friedrich Merz and Norbert Roettgen, a foreign policy expert and former cabinet member.

Merz has made it clear that he wants the candidacy for himself, while Laschet and Roettgen have indicated they might step aside when the bloc makes its decision after two state elections in March. Laschet presented a biography of Soeder in December and said at the event that theCSU option should be on the table.

Soeder himself will speak to delegates on Friday and is likely to remain coy. When asked about a run for chancellor, he regularly says his place is in Bavaria, despite his efforts to build a national profile.

“Soeder has learned a lot in the corona crisis,” said Thomas Goppel, a former CSU secretary general. “He has become much more thoughtful and acts in a more statesmanlike way than he used to.”

— With assistance by Raymond Colitt

Source: Read Full Article