The standoff in the alliance of the CDU and CSU is coming to a head this week. In a show of loyalty, each party supports its own leader as chancellor candidate. The alliance's long-term prospects are in the balance.
The race to succeed Angela Merkel as the 2021 chancellor candidate for Germany's biggest political bloc has come down to the two men who also happen to be the two most powerful state premiers in Germany: North Rhine-Westphalia's Armin Laschet and Bavaria's Markus Söder. The stakes could not be higher. Whoever wins this week would likely become the favorite to be Germany's next chancellor after September.
Both are the current leaders of the two parts of the conservative alliance that has dominated German politics since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949: Laschet heads the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while Söder runs its Bavaria-only sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). A week of tense negotiations is now underway, with observers wondering who will break rank first.
Their personalities are different. Laschet, much like Merkel, has built a reputation on careful compromise in his premiership of North Rhine-Westphalia, a huge state that is home to almost a quarter of Germany's population. He is a staunch CDU loyalist, who for many years was seen as Merkel's ally, defending her less popular policies.
Söder's political career, meanwhile, has largely been defined by his bitter rivalry with his predecessor as Bavaria's state premier: Horst Seehofer. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, Söder carved out a profile as an independent premier who was the first to declare a state of emergency in his state in 2020.
This is a very unusual situation for a conservative alliance that has been largely stable over the past seven decades. In most German election years, the choice of CDU/CSU chancellor candidate has been quickly decided in the CDU's favor: Even it does not already have a chancellor in power, it is much larger than the CSU — representing as it does 15 states to the CSU's one — and so can claim a nationwide mandate.
In fact, only twice has the CDU consented to get behind a CSU candidate for a general election: Franz Josef Strauss in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both failed to win the chancellery, but Strauss came closest and later assumed titanic status in Bavarian politics. In 2015, Söder posted a photo on Facebook showing himself as a teenager pointing at the poster of Strauss he once hung on his bedroom wall.
But, in uncertain years such as this, when the CSU has produced a leader with a strong nationwide presence, and when his CDU counterpart remains unproven (and largely unloved) on the national stage, all bets appear off.
At least that is how Söder sees it, and he has reason to be confident. Recent popularity polls for individual German politicians show Söder comfortably ahead of Laschet. An INSA poll published on Tuesday even put Söder in the first place, ahead of Merkel on the question: "Which of these politicians most represents your interests?" Laschet was in 12th place.
Söder also has the advantage of party unity and unequivocal support in his home state. Laschet, meanwhile, has only been CDU leader for three months and had to get through an uncomfortably close CDU leadership election in January.
Though the CDU leadership was keen to present a show of unanimity, rumors and media reports suggest that many rank-and-file members think that they have a better chance of winning with Söder as the candidate. One regional CDU branch, representing the state of Berlin, has already publicly declared its preference for Söder, and he has vocal supporters in other regional CDU groups. So, observers say, time is on the Bavarian's side.
Peter Altmaier, another CDU heavyweight and Germany's current economy minister, suggested on Monday that the deal was far from done: "It doesn't matter so much what the presidiums of the CDU and the CSU say, because the presidiums always get behind their leaders," he told the RTL/ntv TV channel. "It matters that we find a solution that can be supported by broad sections of the Union."
For many outsiders, the alliance between a national party and a single regional party seems odd, and it means that, when the CDU/CSU is in power, leaders who have only been elected in one state are suddenly elevated to Cabinet positions.
Though the parties are separate both legally and structurally, they do share some common organizations, such as the Junge Union youth wing. Politically, the CSU has often been seen as the more conservative of the two, particularly on domestic and security issues.
The CDU/CSU pact was originally made in 1949 and means essentially that, in exchange for not running any candidates in Bavaria, the CDU can count on the CSU's total support on legislative matters in the Bundestag, where the parties form a parliamentary group.
The alliance has occasionally cracked in the past: In 1976, the CSU voted to break up the CDU/CSU Bundestag group and briefly threatened to field candidates across the country after a fallout between CSU leader Strauss and the future CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl.
More recently, the CSU threatened to break up the parliamentary group when anger in Bavaria about Merkel's asylum policy turned into an open row between the chancellor and Seehofer, who was the party leader and state premier at the time. Ultimately, though, both parties have been deterred by the potentially damaging consequences should their votes be split in their respective regions.
The argument over who should lead the CDU/CSU into the next election is fraught with an existential threat: Opinion polls and recent regional elections have shown that support for the CDU/CSU, which has for so long represented traditional German centrist conservatism, is at its lowest ever.
The conservatives have been losing voters in all directions, but especially to the surging and confident Greens — who themselves are expected to choose their own chancellor candidate at the end of the week.
This could turn out to be a momentous week in German politics.
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