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BERLIN — The contest over who should become Germany’s conservative nominee for chancellor took a dramatic turn early Tuesday after the Christian Democrats (CDU) backed their party leader Armin Laschet over his Bavarian rival, Markus Söder.
In a secret ballot that came at the end of a more than seven-hour-long virtual meeting of the CDU’s executive committees, Laschet won 77.5 percent of the votes cast to Söder’s 22.5 percent, with 40 ballots deemed valid and six abstentions. Though Laschet’s result looked impressive at first glance, it dropped to 67 percent when factoring in the abstentions — underwhelming, considering the voters were all colleagues from his own party.
That’s why some observers questioned if the poll, which came after midnight following a chaotic discussion among committee members over how or even whether to vote, would be enough to convince Söder, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, to end his own candidacy for the conservative nomination. Though the CDU and CSU are separate parties, they nominate a joint candidate for chancellor. Söder did not immediately comment on the result.
Given the conservative bloc’s status as Germany’s dominant political force, whoever wins the nod will become the favorite to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor as she plans to step down after September’s national election. The leader of the CDU, a national party several times the regional CSU’s size, is normally the natural choice to produce the bloc’s candidate. But Söder, a mason’s son from Nuremberg whose charisma has made him a political star well beyond Bavaria, is vastly more popular than Laschet, a behind-the-scenes operator whom many Germans regard as a conservative apparatchik.
Nonetheless, the CDU only elected Laschet, the regional premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, as its leader in January, and the party’s mandarins worry that nominating Söder as the conservative candidate for chancellor would undermine their new chairman’s authority. Many in the CDU’s leadership have also been put off by what they see as underhanded tactics on Söder’s part to circumvent the party’s decision-making bodies with a public campaign stressing his positive poll ratings.
Responding to that criticism, Söder signaled on Monday that he would stand back if the CDU executive made a clear choice for Laschet — but he didn’t spell out how he would make that determination. The Bavarian enjoys an underswell of support in the two parties’ joint parliamentary group, where some members have been agitating to hold their own vote on the nomination, a step that could come as soon as Tuesday.
One of the biggest hurdles toward selecting a candidate has been that the two parties don’t have a set procedure for deciding. Laschet and Söder originally said they would make the call between them, but that plan failed when it turned out neither was willing to make way for the other.
The midnight CDU ballot capped a dramatic, weeklong battle for the candidacy that has exposed deep divisions between the conservative alliance’s northern establishment, which stood behind Laschet, and rank-and-file MPs and conservative voters, who overwhelmingly back Söder.
If Laschet succeeds in securing the nomination, his immediate challenge will be to repair those rifts. If he fails to do that, his chances of winning the fall election are likely slim.
It’s easier being Green
At the moment, Laschet is so unpopular in Germany compared to Söder that some MPs have said they don’t even want him to campaign for them.
Söder’s supporters in the CDU are betting his grassroots appeal — he recently overtook Merkel as Germany’s most popular politician in one survey — could propel them to victory. A populist politician with a colorful, outsized personality, Söder offers a stark contrast to the sober political style favored by both Merkel and Laschet, a longtime ally of the chancellor’s.
Even though the conservatives have been rocked in recent months by criticism over their handling of the pandemic and a series of corruption scandals, they’ve retained a substantial lead of as much as 10 percentage points in the polls.
No matter whom they nominate as their candidate, defending that advantage will be difficult amid a surge in support for the Greens. The environmental party announced its own candidate for chancellor on Monday: Annalena Baerbock, one of its two co-leaders. In contrast to the conservatives, the Greens presented a united front, rallying around Baerbock in a carefully choreographed virtual coronation on Monday.
“The Greens have set a high bar for us,” CDU MEP Dennis Radtke, a Söder critic who earlier in the week suggested his party consider expanding into Bavaria, told Bild Live late Monday.
After 16 years of conservative-led rule under Merkel, the Greens are urging Germans to embrace change.
In backing Laschet, the CDU may have inadvertently helped the Greens make their case.
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