What you need to know about the two men vying to replace Merkel as German Chancellor

Germany's ruling conservatives are locked in a bitter dispute over who they want to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor when Germany goes to the polls in September.

What you need to know about the two men vying to replace Merkel as German Chancellor
Combination photo shows Söder and Laschet. Photo: DPA/Michael Kappeler

Merkel, who is still immensely popular with voters, is stepping down this year after 16 years in power.

As head of the Christian Democratic Union, affable Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet would normally be the obvious choice to lead the party and the CSU, its smaller Bavarian sister party, into the election as their chancellor candidate.

But with support for the parties plumbing new depths amid anger over Germany’s pandemic management, Laschet has faced calls to step aside in favour of the better-liked Bavarian premier Markus Söder.

Here’s a look at the two men grasping for a chance at Merkel’s throne, with a decision on the candidate expected as early as this week.

Armin Laschet: slow and steady

Elected as head of the CDU in January, 60-year-old Laschet has since faced a series of setbacks including a damaging spat with Merkel over viruscontainment measures.

In a recent survey commissioned by business daily Handelsblatt, just 12 percent of Germans said they thought he would be a good chancellor candidate.

But coming back from behind has always been a speciality for Laschet, who has an uncanny ability to “sit out his opponents”, as Der Spiegel news magazine observed.

READ ALSO: Germany after Merkel: Does the new CDU leader have what it takes to be a future chancellor?

“He does not aim for a quick knockout, but wears down his opponents slowly, continuously, with great endurance,” the magazine noted.

A defender of multiculturalism and self-declared “passionate European”, Laschet famously stood by Merkel during the fallout from her decision to leave the border open to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in 2015-16.

Born in Aachen, the spa city in western Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, he has a reputation for pragmatism and an ability to unify.

The father of three is a great fan of Charlemagne, the king of the Franks credited with uniting Europe whose empire was based in Aachen, and his family has even said they are direct descendants.

But Laschet also plays up his common man image, telling party members in January how his father fed his family digging for coal.

“When you’re down in the mine, it doesn’t matter where your colleague comes from, what his religion is or what he looks like. What is important is, can you rely on him,” he said.

Laschet studied law and political science in Munich and Bonn before working as a journalist for Bavarian radio stations and television, and as the editor of a Catholic newspaper.

He was elected to the Bundestag, or lower house of the German parliament, in 1994 and to the European Parliament in 1999, and has been the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017.

Markus Söder: Southern eccentricity

With his brash posturing and a playful penchant for dressing up as Marilyn Monroe or Shrek, Bavarian leader Söder would not seem the obvious choice to inherit Merkel’s mantle.

But behind his rakish charm and passionate Star Trek fandom, there is molten ambition.

If he were to win the election, the 54-year-old would be Germany’s first-ever chancellor from the CSU, after two failed attempts by previous party leaders, bringing a dash of southern eccentricity to the often staid world of Berlin power politics.

While Laschet has faced criticism over his flip-flopping approach to virus restrictions, Söder has steadfastly advocated a hard line, marching in lockstep with Merkel.

READ ALSO: Bavaria’s Söder ‘ready’ to stand for German chancellorship

The strategy has served him well, with one recent poll naming him as Germany’s most popular politician — outpacing even Merkel.

But Söder, a former television journalist with a flair for showmanship, has not always seen solidarity with Merkel as being to his political advantage.

The trained lawyer has long had the reputation of a cunning political operator, skilled in exploiting the vulnerabilities of his opponents.

After Merkel came under fire during the refugee influx in 2015-16, particularly from the far right, Söder vocally distanced himself from her welcoming stance — something Laschet said would come back to haunt the Bavarian if he stood as chancellor.

Söder has been a fixture of his state’s politics for a quarter century, serving first in the state parliament before becoming CSU general secretary, a state minister and then successor to current federal interior minister Horst Seehofer as party chief and state premier.

As a Protestant from the Franconia region, Söder was something of an upstart for the traditionally Catholic party. He grew up in Nuremberg as the son of a couple who ran a small construction company.

He famously hung a giant poster in his attic bedroom as a teen of Bavaria’s larger-than-life arch-conservative premier Franz Josef Strauss, whom Söder called a “titan”.

His political rise was fuelled by media savvy pointed up by his extravagant carnival season costumes, with Shrek, Monroe and Homer Simpson among the highlights.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.