As the Bavarian CSU party holds its party conference this Friday, all eyes are on the powerful Premier Markus Söder. Many see him as a strong contender to replace Angela Merkel as a conservative chancellor.
Few German politicians have seen their fortunes rise in public opinion during the coronavirus crisis as much as Markus Söder, Bavaria’s state premier and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative Bavarian allies to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He also chairs the council of state premiers, which has been instrumental in guiding Germany's coronavirus lockdown measures — and, as such, has been one of the few faces to have appeared regularly alongside the chancellor following the crisis meetings.
Söder began his latest tenure in April 2018, following his reelection, with a hymn to his home state: "Bavaria is seeing golden times. Bavaria is strong. Bavaria will grow. Bavaria is solid. Bavaria is safe. Here the world is still in order, and it will stay that way." The subtext of that speech was the CSU's age-old message: Bavaria is fine as long as the CSU is fine.
A political all-rounder
But Söder's rise to the top was a long struggle that has seen delays, patience, haggling and probably a fair bit of skullduggery and backroom dealing. Söder, CSU general secretary as long ago as 2003 to 2007, never made a secret of his sense of a higher calling.
After 2007, he took on a string of posts in the Bavarian Cabinet: minister for federal and European affairs, minister for environment and health, minister of finance, development and Heimat – that untranslatable patriotic German word whose closest equivalent is homeland. It was only in March 2018 that he finally took over from his longtime rival Horst Seehofer, the current federal interior minister, as head of the Bavarian government.
Ambition and patience
The name Markus Söder comes up hundreds of times in Roman Deininger's new book "The CSU — Portrait of a Special Party," but the first adjective attached to it, at the politician's very first mention, is "ambitious."
In recent years, at party conferences, Seehofer would take the stage, teasing delegates with his leadership fatigue before throwing himself into his job with renewed vigor, as the younger Söder waited in the wings.
When the pair met in the halls before the party conferences began, the mood was dominated by a chilly heartiness and a slightly too demonstrative laugh for the cameras. And long before the official handing over of power, the younger man had shown himself to be the better public speaker. Söder, once a journalist, knows how to play a crowd.
Representing both the traditional and the modern
Söder has also been able to encompass the whole spectrum from the traditional to the modern. "We want to be modern but stay Bavarian," he said in his first government declaration in April 2018. "We will manage the future and care for the problems of every individual. Do and care — about the broad strokes and the small worries: that's our philosophy." But since the Bavarian state election in October 2018, which brought a historically poor 36.7% for the CSU, he has had to share his government with conservative rivals, the Freie Wähler (Free Voters).
Yet he quickly became a strong partner for Merkel, ending the days when the Seehofer-led CSU occasionally appeared to act as the strongest opposition party to their CDU partners. Söder led the center-right attacks on the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), opposing both left and right-wing extremists.
As the coronavirus crisis began, it was Söder who rose to be among the most popular politicians in Germany. His quick, clear declarations — from closing schools to stopping professional football — left other state premiers trailing behind him, particularly Armin Laschet, leader of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, who has already announced his candidacy to succeed Merkel as party head.
When it came to loosening the public restrictions, it was Söder again who led the way. "We have seen hard times in the last few weeks, and the danger for Bavaria was great," he said. "We just have to see how other countries in the world have fared, neighboring countries, more distant countries. And we can see that we were very, very lucky." Of course, he added, that luck didn't come "by chance," but was "achieved together" through "quick and consistent measures" by his government, the local authorities, and the population at large.
It is now up to Söder to lead the CSU out of the coronavirus crisis, following a "little party conference," to be conducted virtually on Friday. The CSU will no doubt celebrate its own achievements and attempt to take its momentum into the next general election, set for the autumn of 2021.
Read more: What you need to know about the CSU
The youngest of pretenders
Of course, Söder's candidacy for chancellor, representing the CDU/CSU alliance, is far from assured. The battle in the CDU camp — between veteran party heavyweights Laschet, businessman Friedrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen — has been quiet in recent months, but all three politicians have now started giving interviews again.
And what of Söder? The Nuremberg-born politician continues to insist that he is not available for the candidacy. But the 53-year-old would be the youngest of the candidate quartet: Merz is 64, Laschet 59, and Röttgen is 54. Of course, he has time on his side — but one day he might face Jens Spahn, currently the country’s health minister, who has only just turned 40 and has also expressed interest in the leadership.