Germany’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic have upended the race to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the simmering contest to lead Europe’s largest economy, Bavarian Premier Markus Soeder has emerged as the uncrowned king of the crisis. His hard line to clamp down on the spread of the disease in the wealthy southern state has propelled him to the forefront of Germany’s conservative bloc.
Armin Laschet — the previous front runner, who leads industrial North Rhine-Westphalia in the west — has been put on the defensive, pushing instead to move faster to relax lockdown restrictions. Their next showdown will occur later on Thursday, when Merkel hosts another video conference with Germany’s 16 state premiers to coordinate next steps in the fight against the virus.
While Soeder still faces a long struggle to secure the chancellor candidacy for Germany’s conservatives, he’ll likely maintain the upper hand for now. The country’s contagion rate has ticked up slightly in recent days — new cases rose the most in four days on Thursday — and Merkel has repeatedly warned about the risk of second-wave infections if measures designed to contain the disease are loosened too quickly.
German officials signaled there won’t be significant steps to ease restrictions on public life for at least another week. Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, said limits on public contact will be extended for now until May 10, in line with a strategy already adopted by regions including Bavaria.
“We cannot yet tell from the figures whether a further opening is feasible,” Braun said in an interview with broadcaster n-tv, adding that relaxing curbs is possible at the next meeting between Merkel and state leaders on May 6.
While “one or two decisions” will likely be made at Thursday’s meeting, policy makers want to wait for data on the impact of this week’s reopening of some shops, Stephan Weil, the premier of the northern state of Lower Saxony, said in an interview with ARD TV.
Bavaria was the first German state to declare a lockdown last month after Soeder jumped the gun and ordered the closure of schools and businesses. Other state leaders, including Laschet, were left to play catch-up. Soeder’s initiative has paid off, turning him from a provincial leader into one of Germany‘s most popular politicians. Some recent polls even rank him ahead of Merkel.
According to a Civey survey for Spiegel magazine published on Tuesday, 46% of Germans think Soeder should run as the chancellor candidate for Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc in elections slated for the fall of 2021. Laschet only got 9%, trailing former caucus leader Friedrich Merz, who is supported by 14% of voters.
A YouGov poll on Thursday showed that 53% of Germans favorably view Soeder’s crisis management, compared with 18% for Laschet.
Laschet has reacted to his dramatic drop in the polls by openly opposing both Soeder and Merkel, calling for a quick reopening of shops and schools.
Behind closed doors, he has openly attacked Merkel’s strict lockdown policy and complained that the chancellor is repeating her mistakes from the refugee crisis by choosing an inflexible course without outside input, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.
Merkel, who has said she won’t seek a fifth term as chancellor, has condemned such calls as “discussion orgies” and warned that a renewed outbreak could cause the crisis to be longer and deeper.
Laschet came under fire after he complained during a talk show on public broadcaster ARD on Sunday that many schools in his state weren’t prepared to reopen. The issue is state governments are responsible for education policy, making Laschet look like a politician ready to make announcements without taking responsibility for their implementation.
An ARD commentator subsequently called his tone “too shrill and erratic,” saying he was “massively” damaging his chances to become chancellor.
Such fumbles carry a lot of weight as Germany braces for its worst recession in the post-war era. Gross domestic product is forecast to shrink by 6.3% in 2020, more than even during the financial crisis a decade ago, according to Economy Ministry projections published Wednesday.
Without the pandemic, Laschet might well have been anointed as the head of the Christian Democrats already. Before the outbreak halted large events in Germany, Merkel’s party was set to pick a new leader at a special convention on April 25. Laschet, 59, had the inside track after winning the endorsement of Health Minister Jens Spahn — a standard-bearer of the party’s right wing — and was widely expected to beat Merz.
The moderate leader of North Rhine-Westphalia may still be the leading candidate for that post, when the decision comes back on the table at a regular convention in early December. But with his popularity fading, the door is opening for Soeder to lay claim to the chancellor candidacy.
The 53-year-old from Nuremberg heads the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU. Traditionally, the CDU has fielded the group’s chancellor candidate, except for rare exceptions.
That decision will be critical for Germany’s future. On the back of Merkel’s crisis-management skills, the bloc has surged in the polls in recent weeks. With support of around 38%, the group has more than the Greens and the Social Democrats combined.
Risk While Laschet’s strategy is risky if infections again spread, Soeder’s hard line could also backfire if the mood shifts. He’s already canceled the Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich, dealing a 1.2 billion-euro ($1.3 billion) blow to the local economy. If the epidemic remains under control, public opinion could shift against him.
In such a scenario, Merz could mount a comeback. Merkel’s former antagonist was infected by the virus in March and has been low key ever since. The 64-year-old former BlackRock Inc. executive remains popular in the CDU and could lean on his business credentials to raise his profile, but he remains a long shot.
Publicly, Soeder — who gave a rousing speech at the last CDU convention in December — has cooled speculation that he’s targeting the chancellery in Berlin, saying his place is in Bavaria.
But in politics, it always looks better to be asked to take power than grab for it.