Germany’s conservatives in disarray as scrum for Merkel job opens wounds

A bruising internal struggle to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel has left Germany's once stable ruling conservatives in disarray and on the brink of implosion less than six months ahead of elections in September.

Germany's conservatives in disarray as scrum for Merkel job opens wounds
Armin Laschet (l) and Markus Söder. credit: dpa | Michael Kappeler

The fight between long-time Merkel-ally Armin Laschet and his more popular Bavarian rival Markus Soeder threatens to further destabilise the once dominant CDU/CSU alliance, whose poll ratings have plummeted in recent months.

Elected head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in January, Laschet would usually be the first choice to lead both the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU into September’s general election.

Yet his claim to be chancellor candidate has been bitterly contested by CSU leader Soeder, who currently commands more support from both the public and conservative lawmakers.

The scrap for Merkel’s throne has opened up historic wounds between the two parties and could even loosen their 16-year grip on the chancellery.

With the clock ticking down to September 26 elections, the bitter divisions poisoning the conservatives spell a rocky campaign ahead for a post-Merkel era.

It also leaves them exposed, with the internal squabbles sapping attention at a time when Europe’s biggest economy is struggling to end a raging pandemic that has killed 80,000 and ravaged thousands of businesses and livelihoods.

Historic squabbles

“The CDU/CSU has not seen a showdown like this for more than 40 years!”
wrote Bild newspaper after Soeder and Laschet exchanged verbal blows in a meeting with conservative MPs.

Yet it is by no means the first time that the CDU and CSU have been at odds over who should take the top job.

In 1980, CSU leader Franz-Josef Strauss was nominated ahead of CDU candidate Ernst Albrecht and his then unpopular party leader Helmut Kohl.

In 2002, meanwhile, the newly appointed CDU chair Angela Merkel stepped back to allow Bavarian rival Edmund Stoiber to run.

In both cases, the CSU candidate was widely seen as a more charismatic and voter-friendly option, before being ultimately beaten in the polls by the incumbent social-democrats.

Both Kohl and Merkel then defied their critics at the next elections, going on to become Germany’s longest-serving chancellors.

That could bode well for the currently unpopular Laschet, who has been praised for his ability to “sit out opponents”.

 Yet while Kohl and Merkel emerged with the conservatives in opposition, Laschet has a tougher job of keeping the CDU/CSU in power as they squabble over the vacuum left by Merkel’s departure.

SEE ALSO: What you need to know about the two men vying to replace Merkel as Chancellor

The chancellor has held the alliance together throughout her reign, maintaining her authority even when the CSU openly challenged her handling of the refugee crisis in 2015.

“If the party has nobody behind which it can unite, then things become brutal. It was like that after the Kohl era, and it is like that now at the
end of the Merkel era,” wrote weekly Der Spiegel in an editorial last week:

The magazine argued that the CDU/CSU would be better off going into opposition, and “finding a new king or queen in peace and quiet”.


With the surging Green Party snapping at their heels, the prospect of losing power now looms larger than ever for the conservatives, who have hit new lows in the polls amid a corruption scandal and anger over the pandemic.

Divisions may remain even if they retain power, with lawmakers said to favour Soeder and CDU grandees having already backed Laschet.

If Laschet prevails, he will have work ahead of him to win back support within his own party ranks.

If Soeder gets the nod, it spells questions for the authority of the CDU’s leadership which has thrown their backing behind Laschet.

“There are wounds that will remain, or in any case, that won’t heal so quickly as to not leave a mark during the election campaign,” said Spiegel.

READ MORE: Merkel party leaders back Armin Laschet as chancellor candidate

On Friday, MPs from both parties were collecting signatures to force a vote on the issue next week if a unanimous decision could not be reached behind closed doors.

“This is already the third power struggle in the CDU/CSU in the last three years. That shows that the party has lost its orientation, its centre,” wrote Die Zeit newspaper this week.

Yet others insist that the ever-pragmatic conservatives can still bounce back.

“Whatever happens, both parties will go into the election campaign in a united way” political scientist Nils Diederich of Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

“The alliance will not break down just because two people are competing to be chancellor.”

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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”.