Bavarian governor emerges as the front-runner to be next Chancellor

Opinion polls show Marcus Söder as a surprise possible successor to Angela Merkel

Markus Söder

A German politician until recently seen as a rank outsider to replace Angela Merkel as  Chancellor is suddenly the frontrunner, according to a series of opinion polls. Markus Söder, state leader in Bavaria, is seen by the public as the best candidate for the job, with 64% of voters saying he is suited to the role, ahead of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz on 48%.

A separate poll released over the weekend also found that in a head-to-head against Scholz or popular Green leader Robert Habeck, Söder would come out on top.

The other two leading conservative contenders, Friedrich Merz and Armin Laschet, both members of Merkel’s CDU, would lose to left-wing opposition in next year’s election, the poll found.

Söder, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, has been sending out mixed messages for weeks. While sticking to an insistence that his “place is always in Bavaria”, he has said that the next Chancellor “needs to have proved himself during the pandemic.”

Merz has had no official role during the crisis, while Laschet is widely regarded to have botched the pandemic response in his state, North Rhine-Westphalia. The only conservative other than Söder to have come out of the crisis well, Health Minister Jens Spahn, is supporting Laschet’s candidacy.

Despite Bavaria's prominence as the wealthiest federal state, a Bavarian has never held power in Berlin.

Bavarian candidates have only run for the Chancellery twice - in 1980 and 2002 - but on both occasions, young CDU leaders gave way in the belief that they faced likely defeat to a sitting Social Democrat Chancellor.

In 1980 Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was able to defeat Franz Josef Strauss when Helmut Kohl sat out the race, and in 2002 Gerhard Schröder won against Edmund Stoiber, with a young Merkel choosing not to run.

The circumstances in 2021 would be markedly different. The next candidate would take over from a popular Chancellor, with the party on close to 40% approval, far ahead of the Greens on 20% and the Social Democrats in the doldrums on 16%.

Reputedly fiercely ambitious, the 53-year-old Söder maneuvered himself to power in Bavaria in the wake of the refugee crisis by lambasting Berlin for failing to stem the number of refugees crossing the border. While previously a polarising figure with a low national approval rating, his handling of the corona epidemic has seemed decisive.

He was the first state leader who announced a comprehensive lockdown, pushing the rest of the country to follow suit. He has also made national headlines by offering a coronavirus test to any Bavarian who wishes to have one, a break from the national policy of targeted testing.

With the Chancellery there for the taking, CDU politicians have failed to impress. 

Merz, a business-friendly candidate who left frontline politics at the start of the century, has struggled for attention during the pandemic. Laschet, whose state has faced repeated local outbreaks, is seen as having pushed too aggressively for an end to the lockdown.

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