April 12, 2021 - 10:30am

The gloves are off in the race to become the next chancellor of Germany. On Sunday, the Bavarian Minister-President, Markus Söder, declared that he would like to stand as chancellor candidate for the conservative bloc — “if the CDU were willing to support me”. The curtain is raised for a showdown with fellow conservative Armin Laschet, who also wants the job.

Laschet told the Bild Zeitung this morning that he fully expects to get support from his party. The German media also favour him but his polls have been in free-fall for weeks. His candidacy for the chancellorship would be a huge risk for the German conservatives.

Whether or not Angela Merkel’s CDU will endorse Söder’s candidacy instead is the question. He leads its sister party, the Bavarian CSU, and in federal elections both parties form a Christian-conservative alliance called the Union. In Germany’s post-war history, there have only ever been two CSU chancellor candidates, Joseph Strauß and Edmund Stoiber — both highly controversial, they were put forward because the CDU was struggling internally. Neither succeeded.

However, things may be different this time. Söder is far more popular than his rival Laschet, the leader of the CDU. Advanced as the continuity candidate, the latter has made rather half-hearted promises that things would change after sixteen years of Merkelism. It doesn’t help that the man’s mannerisms and speech are those of a career politician (uninspiring and lacking in new ideas). Most recently, he dug an even deeper hole with his reluctance to implement Angela Merkel’s Covid measures in North Rhine-Westphalia, which he leads as Minister-President. This was not only hugely unpopular with the German public but also earned him a rare rebuke from his boss in Berlin.

Söder, by contrast, has cultivated an image as the jovial Bavarian: personable, down-to-earth, a bit eccentric. He has earned himself a reputation as a straight-talker, who is not afraid to criticise the federal government or the EU, as he did over the recent delays with the vaccine roll-out. But he is also known as a joker, who once appeared in a full Shrek costume — green face and all — at a carnival in Würzburg.

Most importantly, Germans have been impressed with his decisive handling of the Covid crisis in Bavaria. When the public wanted a stricter lockdown, Söder implemented it and challenged his colleagues in the other 15 German states to do the same. Only last week, he announced that he had pre-ordered the Russian Sputnik vaccine to supplement the roll-out in Bavaria once approved by the EU — without consultation with the sluggish bureaucracy in Berlin (and Brussels).

The hesitation to commit to Söder does not stem from concern over public support. The latest survey showed that the CDU/CSU would gain 39% of the vote if they ran with him but only 17% if led by Laschet. It is mind-boggling that this race is still on; it speaks volumes about the CDU’s reluctance to accept a Bavarian candidate. Meanwhile, the Union’s popularity continues to plummet as Söder’s star is rising. The decision on the German chancellor candidacy is expected as early as today. But will the CDU accept that the Bavarian joker is the ace up their sleeve?

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.