The two carnival kings vying to lead Germany's conservatives

Armin Laschet during carnival season in 2020, in Aachen

Armin Laschet during carnival season in 2020, in Aachen - Credit: Getty Images

Germany's conservatives face a big decision over Angela Merkel's replacement

Munching your Easter eggs may have drowned the sound of a rather significant clock that started ticking in Germany last Sunday. The conservatives pledged to give themselves between Easter and Pentecost (May 23 this year) to decide on their joint front runner for the general election.

If you wonder about the timing, it is only natural for Christian Democratic Party (Chancellor Merkel’s CDU) and its allied Bavarian version, the Christian Social Party (CSU), to turn to the church calendar for inspiration when setting political deadlines.

They had better not wait for a Pentecost miracle, however, because if conservative Germans hate one thing, it is party political infighting. The polls swing mercilessly at the slightest sign of disagreement. 

CDU/CSU have dropped in popularity from 38% to 24% within a couple of months, while the Greens, at 23%, are now dangerously close. And stable. The sharp decline is partly due to a few MPs having to resign over allegations of pocketing large amounts of euros for dodgy purposes. Another reason is that every single syllable uttered by the two presumed candidates is seen as an attempt to kick the other out of the race – in other words: the much-hated and verboten infighting.

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The stand-off is between Armin Laschet, 60, a coal-miner's son, head of Nordrhein-Westfalen and the CDU, and Markus Söder, 54, the first Protestant ever to run Bavaria and the CSU. Both studied law, both worked as journalists, both enjoy the festivities of Germany’s Carnival week in the run-up to Easter. And both seek Merkel’s throne. Here, the similarities end. 

Laschet, 1.70m tall (that’s 5ft 5ins for you imperial types), was dubbed a mini-me(rkel) until he opted for more business-friendly Covid measures. He is the chubby little guy, whose stamina you tend to underestimate. 

Markus Söder and his wife Karin at a carnival show in 2007 

Markus Söder and his wife Karin at a carnival show in 2007 - Credit: Getty Images

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No one underestimates Söder, who at 1.94m (that’s 6ft 4ins to you) and with some rhetorical brilliance, regularly impresses an audience.

Laschet embodies the Rhineland laissez-faire mentality. He is an integrationist, Söder a confrontationalist. Laschet stands for socio-liberal conservatism, Söder for whatever is most opportune at any given moment. If need be, he calls the press to witness him nailing a Christian cross to a wall inside an administrative building, leaving no doubt about where Bavaria stands in terms of Muslim integration. Laschet is a backslapper, Söder is a Machiavellian backstabber. Laschet does – in relative terms – a fairly good job steering his state through the pandemic, but Söder does a much better job in selling himself. Popularity polls are absolutely in his favour.

The tricky thing is this: Söder cannot just proclaim his candidacy. As leader of the much larger CDU, Laschet has the procedural upper hand. Informal rules mean Soder would need to be invited to be joint candidate by Laschet. Don't hold your breath. However, Some CDU members are already siding with Söder. But don’t mistake Laschet’s joviality for weakness. He’s every bit as power hungry and will fight hard.

So far, there hasn’t been a German chancellor from Bavaria – ever. Two tried and failed.

The last one, Edmund Stoiber, forced Angela Merkel to make way for him in 2002 (her own party didn’t trust her to win an election…). But when narrowly beaten by Gerhard Schröder, his career as head of Bavaria ended unceremoniously. 

The CSU doesn’t like the smell of defeat and that’s what Laschet’s team is counting on: With the fractured political party system there is a realistic chance that CDU/CSU will gain the most votes, but cannot form a coalition majority. 

Herr Söder would then run the risk of losing everything. He may well stay in Munich and follow the wise words of Bavarian CSU legend Franz Josef Strauss: “I don’t care who serves as chancellor under me.”

Tick tock. 

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