4 reasons Markus Söder should not be German chancellor
Bavarian contender may be more popular than his rival but that doesn’t make him a smart choice.
The race for the conservative nomination to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being widely caricatured as an attempt by an unpopular mediocrity, Armin Laschet, to manipulate the political machine to deny the candidacy to a popular, charismatic man of the people, Markus Söder.
Not so fast! This is a political choice about the future direction of Germany and Europe — not a beauty contest to be adjudicated solely by who is ahead in this month’s opinion polls.
Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, was selected by delegates to lead Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in January in preference to a more right-wing opponent, Friedrich Merz.
He embodies the Rhineland model of pro-European center-right politics in the tradition of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. He wants Berlin to work more enthusiastically with France to drive European integration forward.
Söder, the Bavarian state premier who leads the Christian Social Union (CSU), is a right-wing Alpine populist in the tradition of Franz Josef Strauß, the party’s historic strongman. His closest foreign buddy is Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, with whom he shares an irresistible urge to blame the EU, rile Merkel and call for closing borders whenever it is politically opportune.
To be sure, Söder has softened his rhetoric and segued towards the political centerground as he eyes power in Berlin. He likely realized he had to make himself more palatable to mainstream voters after his shrill attempts to outgun the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) in a regional election in 2018 led to the CSU’s worst result in history.
It’s worth recalling some of the positions the Bavarian conservative has espoused over the last decade before concluding that he should be a shoo-in to be the CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor.
Exhibit A: In 2012, Söder branded Greece a “money sink” and said it should be forced out of the European single currency. “I don’t think the solution lies in giving Greece more money, but that Greece should leave the eurozone,” he declared.
When wiser counsels prevailed in Berlin and Brussels, and Athens was bailed out, eventually returning to financial markets, Söder continued to play the Greek-bashing card in domestic politics, opining in 2017 that “Greece is unlikely to survive in the eurozone in the long term.”
Exhibit B: In 2015, when Merkel opened Germany’s gates to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who had poured into Europe from Turkey fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Söder called for a “massive restriction on migration” with quotas per country. “We can’t save the whole world,” he declared. Even the CSU’s then-leader, Horst Seehofer, felt obliged to distance himself, saying the party would not challenge the right to asylum.
A year later, Söder declared that Merkel’s policy of welcoming refugees was “not democratically legitimized” and that many Germans thought it was time to replace her “welcome culture” with a “culture of common sense” and close the gates. In 2018, he called for Bavaria to unilaterally turn away asylum seekers arriving from other EU countries before backing down.
Exhibit C: In 2013, as Bavarian finance minister, Söder filed a constitutional court lawsuit against the system of revenue-sharing among German states under which wealthy states such as Bavaria give a fraction of their tax take to poorer regions, notably the northern city-states of Hamburg and Bremen and the ex-communist states of eastern Germany. He called the system “a punishment for those who work hardest.”
Exhibit D: Söder has often appeared as Merkel’s right-hand man in the coronavirus crisis because he chairs the conference of premiers of the 16 federal states, which until this week held the real power over all public health restrictions. The role gave him an aura of statesman and consensus-builder, but it hasn’t stopped him beating up on the EU and negotiating a provisional side deal with Russia for a supply of Sputnik vaccines for Bavaria, if and when it is approved by the European Medicines Agency.
There are few issues on which Söder hasn’t changed position. A fiercely opponent of Merkel’s Energiewende, he was first against, then for ditching nuclear power, and recently called for the end of the internal combustion engine by 2035.
“As always with Markus Söder, the question is whether the freshly green-washed, tree-hugging, bee-protecting, women-promoting Mr. Serious up there on the stage is genuine, or whether it’s just a particularly attractive new costume,” journalist Mariam Lau wrote in the political weekly Die Zeit.
Personalities aside, there is a reason why Germany has never had a chancellor from the CSU. Neither of the party’s two previous candidates for chancellor, Strauß in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002, was elected because the CSU stands to the populist right of the mainstream. In the 1970s, Strauß even threatened to break away from the Union, as the CDU/CSU alliance is known, and form a national right-wing rival party. His motto was that there should be “nothing to the right of the CSU except the wall.”
That may go down well in Bavaria (even if Söder’s lurch to the anti-immigration right in 2018 didn’t stop the AfD winning 10 percent of the regional vote). But it doesn’t play well in most of western Germany, where the bulk of the electorate resides.
By contrast, Laschet’s middle-of-the-road policies helped him conquer a traditional Social Democratic heartland around the industrial Ruhr region for the CDU in 2017 despite public concern about Merkel’s welcome for refugees.
His main difference with Merkel has been over her cautious, often reluctant approach to European integration. He has called for a big Kohl-style initiative to put the European Union back on the rails after Britain’s departure, and complained: “Today, the French president makes proposals and it takes us too long to respond.”
On foreign policy, there is little to separate the two contenders for Merkel’s throne. Both have supported her efforts to maintain good economic relations with Russia and China for the benefit of German industry despite geopolitical differences.
So the real choice is about whether Germany’s conservatives want a pro-European moderate Rhinelander or a more right-wing Alpine populist as their leader. Whatever this week’s polls say, there’s no guarantee that the latter will deliver a better result in September.