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German conservatives mull Merkel succession

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With less than six months to go until general elections, Germany’s conservatives are mulling who to pick to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel when she steps down Tobias SCHWARZ AFP/File

With less than six months to go until a general election and their poll ratings plummeting, Angela Merkel’s conservatives are meeting for crunch talks Sunday as pressure builds to pick their chancellor candidate.

Long-time Merkel ally Armin Laschet, 60, took over as leader of the chancellor’s CDU party in January, and would normally be first choice to lead the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate CSU into the elections on September 26.

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Yet as the conservatives’ poll ratings plummet over their recent handling of the coronavirus crisis, some are calling for Laschet to step aside in favour of the more charismatic CSU leader Markus Soeder, 54.

After several rounds of shadow boxing on talk shows and in the press, the two men will have the chance to stake their claims when they each deliver a speech to conservative lawmakers on Sunday.

Though neither Laschet nor Soeder has officially announced their candidacy, Bild newspaper declared Sunday’s meeting “the weekend of truth” in the race to succeed Merkel.

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A final decision is not expected on Sunday, but CSU parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt told reporters ahead of the meeting that the moment of truth would come “in the next two weeks”.

“We have a great interest in the whole thing moving ahead quickly now,” his CDU counterpart Ralph Brinkhaus added, noting that the first step was to talk with the two party leaders about “how we can forge a path in the future”.

– Popularity contest -In an interview with weekly Bild am Sonntag, Laschet also called for a quick decision given “the mood across the CDU”. 

“Unity is very important. It would do the CDU and CSU a lot of good to make the decision together. And very promptly,” he said. 

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The candidate will most likely be picked behind closed doors, with Laschet telling broadcaster ZDF that the conservatives would choose whoever “best suited our election programme”.

Yet in an interview with Spiegel magazine on Wednesday, Soeder insisted that the candidate needed to be “accepted by the whole population, not just the party”.

The Star Trek fan and fancy-dress loving Bavarian consistently beats Laschet in popularity polls, with a recent survey by public broadcaster ARD showing that 54 percent of Germans thought Soeder would be a good candidate, compared to just 19 percent for Laschet. 

As leaders of Germany’s biggest federal states by population and area respectively, North-Rhine Westphalia premier Laschet and Bavarian chief Soeder have also exchanged blows over their leadership in the pandemic. 

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Laschet’s reputation as the reliable continuity candidate took a hit at the end of March, when Merkel criticised his state’s slowness to reimpose restrictions despite rising infection rates. 

Soeder jumped on the opportunity, praising Merkel’s handling of the pandemic and arguing that the Chancellor should help decide who would be her successor. 

“A CDU/CSU candidate without the support of Angela Merkel will not be successful,” he told Bild last weekend.

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Laschet praised Merkel on Sunday, telling Bild her “course and style have done the country good”, but also said a “new era is dawning” for the CDU/CSU.

The parties must learn from mistakes made in the pandemic and strive to “reduce bureaucracy, make decisions faster, drive forward the digital transformation of administration and the economy”, he said.

– Green envy -While Laschet remains more likely to win over party bigwigs, Soeder has also already drawn the support of several CDU lawmakers, as conservative MPs eye falling poll ratings with growing nervousness. 

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Trust in the CDU/CSU has been severely hit in recent months by a sluggish vaccination programme and a corruption scandal over mask procurement, leaving the conservatives at record lows of less than 30 percent.

The once fringe Green Party now just a few points behind them, the CDU/CSU could face the real prospect of losing the chancellery for the first time since 2005. 

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