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Merkel Succession Turns Nasty With Mudslinging and Threats

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 4/14/2021 Arne Delfs

(Bloomberg) -- Bavaria Premier Markus Soeder presented himself as a force for change who can revive the fortunes of Germany’s conservatives as he stepped up his bid to follow Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of the bloc’s election ticket.

His rival for the candidacy in September’s national vote, Armin Laschet, responded by saying that Soeder changes his views a little too easily, accusing him of opportunism and lacking principle, according to officials present at a private meeting Tuesday with lawmakers.

The battle to claim the mantle of Merkel’s successor is going down to the wire with the two contenders exchanging increasingly barbed attacks that have alarmed senior officials in their alliance. Both said the matter must be settled by Friday.

Markus Söder, Armin Laschet are posing for a picture: Markus Soeder Holds Press Conference After Declaring Intention To Become Chancellor © Photographer: Pool/Getty Images Europe Markus Soeder Holds Press Conference After Declaring Intention To Become Chancellor

Markus Soeder, left, and Armin Laschet.

Photographs: AFP/Getty Images

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party led by Soeder have seen their poll numbers tumble amid mounting concern over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Merkel is worried that the spectacle of a public brawl between the bloc’s two leading figures will do further damage to its standing, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

Johann Wadephul, a deputy leader of the CDU-CSU parliamentary group, said Tuesday’s four-hour caucus meeting went Soeder’s way, with many lawmakers from both parties citing support for him in their constituencies across Germany.

“There were a lot of members of my political group supporting Markus Soeder,” Wadephul said Wednesday in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “This is what they heard in their constituencies and this is what I heard in my constituency.”

chart: Tight Race © Bloomberg Tight Race

After initially balking at the prospect of a direct clash, Laschet, the leader of the much larger CDU, was goaded into joining Tuesday’s meeting after Soeder vowed to make his pitch directly. On Wednesday night, Soeder will appear on a popular German talkshow, highlighting his potential appeal to voters.

Polls have consistently showed that he would comfortably defeat his main rivals if there were a direct vote for chancellor, while Laschet would lose.

Among 2,500 people surveyed in a Forsa poll for broadcaster RTL published Wednesday, 39% said they would pick Soeder. That’s about double the result for Greens’ co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock and compares with 14% for Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz. In a similar vote, Laschet would score only 16% and come in third.

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Still, the CDU chairman has precedent on his side -- the Munich-based CSU has never elected a chancellor and the CDU almost always provides the bloc’s candidate -- as well as the organizational muscle of his party hierarchy. But he’s failed to strike a chord with voters.

“We need unity quickly,” Laschet said as he left Tuesday’s meeting. “This was a good discussion which we will have to factor into our decision.”

Soeder is betting that CDU lawmakers worried about losing their seats can be persuaded to back his claim and several spoke out to support him. One said that members in his district have indicated they won’t campaign for Laschet and read out emails from some who threatened to leave the party, officials said.

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Soeder also came in for criticism, with one CDU lawmaker saying he has no backbone and attacking him for flip-flopping.

In his speech to the caucus, Soeder argued that the CDU-CSU can’t afford to ignore the polling numbers that are projecting the worst federal election result in their history and business as usual will no longer work, officials present said. He pitched himself as a candidate who can connect with a new generation of voters via television and social media.

Laschet pointed to Soeder’s track record of imitating the anti-immigration stance of the Alternative for Germany before switching to attack the nationalists when it was politically expedient, sarcastically congratulating his opponent for the U-turn.

“You have really done a good job there,” Laschet said, according to one of the officials.

(Updates with deputy caucus leader, new poll from fifth paragraph)

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