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CDU/CSU: the chancellor candidate debate amid growing pressure

Germany’s super election year 2021 with six state elections and national elections officially began in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg on March 15. Although largely driven by their popular reigning prime ministers (PMs), the state elections also served as a first nation-wide indicator of voter sentiment. Especially following months of lockdown, slow vaccine roll-outs, insufficient testing and therefore increasing popular discontent with the national government’s unorganised handling of the pandemic.

Yet, to come along on top in the run-up to the elections, the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in Berlin was struck by a corruption scandal involving several politicians accused of profiting directly or indirectly from procurement contracts of face masks. 

At the ballot box, the loss of voter confidence in the government, and the CDU in particular, was evident, as the party scored its worst-ever results in both Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden Württemberg. Plus, due to the high share of postal voters who sent their ballot weeks ahead of election day, the full impact of the face mask affair was not even reflected in the result.

Moreover, the result in Baden-Württemberg also meant the CDU could have been forced into opposition behind a majority of a so-called traffic light coalition, consisting of the Green Party, the Social Democrats (red) and the Free Democrats (yellow). Yet, to the surprise of some, the reigning PM Winfried Kretschmann decided to continue the Greens/CDU coalition government in Baden Württemberg.

However, the possibility itself sparked a debate about the before rarely discussed option of a traffic light coalition at the national level following the federal elections in September. The traffic light does not reach a majority in the Bundestag based on current polling, yet, amid an ongoing downward trend, the CDU/CSU nonetheless came to the realisation that being part of the next government is not guaranteed.

Hence, following the dismal state elections, the CDU/CSU looked to restore voter trust. Yet instead, before the Easter holidays, the CDU/CSU-led government reached a low point in crisis management. Only days after agreeing on an Easter lockdown in a lengthy meeting between the chancellor and state PMs, Angela Merkel reversed the decision due to massive backlash.

Against this backdrop, the conservatives are also in the midst of a dispute over the course of the party and the choice for chancellor candidate. Armin Laschet, PM of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has had a difficult start since being elected CDU chair in January. Similar to his predecessor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Laschet is facing the challenge of imposing his authority on the party while Chancellor Merkel is still in office.

Previously seen as a continuation of the Merkel-era, the NRW PM has increasingly made his mark by openly disputing with Chancellor Merkel regarding the pandemic management. Moreover, when Armin Laschet recently outlined the new CDU programme in his first keynote speech as party chair, he argued that ‘more of the same’ is not an option.

In his position as CDU leader, Armin Laschet naturally looks to become CDU/CSU chancellor candidate. However, his popularity among voters is low, especially compared with Bavarian PM and CSU chair Markus Söder. The latter finally threw his hat into the ring for the chancellorship on April 11. While many expected him to run, Söder previously did not explicitly communicate this intention, instead repeatedly referring to Bavaria as ‘his place’.

Initially, the CDU/CSU planned a decision for the chancellor candidate between Easter and Pentecost. However, due to increasing pressure resulting from a lack of orientation, unity and therefore declining voter confidence, the sister parties now aim to accelerate the process. Here, the contrast to their main political rivals, the Green party, certainly had influence.

The Greens are currently on an upward trend in national polls, benefiting from the conservatives’ woes, while showing unity, a clear direction and with a plan to announce their suggestion for chancellor candidate to the party on April 19.

For the CDU/CSU, a decision could possibly come on April 12 already, after the executive committees of both parties met. Whether this will quickly turn the tide for the conversations is questionable. Rather an effective vaccination campaign and a clear direction of the CDU/CSU could substantially improve its position ahead of the next state elections in Saxony-Anhalt on June 6. And its prospects for the federal elections in September.  

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