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Markus Söder: The Natural

Two years before the next elections for the Berlin Bundestag, none of the major parties has named candidates for Chancellor yet. And they have good reasons to wait. But in the conservative camp, there is one rising star who might have big ambitions.

Berlin, October 20th, 2019 (The Berlin Spectator) — If Chancelor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition in Berlin survives the entire legislative period, the next general elections will take place in the fall of 2021. At some point next year, the major parties will have to come up with candidates for the Chancellery.

Low Profile

The way things stand right now, the Social Democrats (SPD) are not really a major party anymore, meaning they can refrain from choosing a candidate. They will pick someone anyway, but they do not even have a party chairman or chairlady at this point.

Looking at the polling numbers, the Greens have far more reason to pick a candidate for Chancellor. Who knows? It might be Annalena Baerbock or her colleague Robert Habeck. Most other parties are too weak to even consider what they would do in the Chancellery. They will not get there.

From today’s point of view, the conservatives (Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU) are trying to keep a low profile in this regard. And they know why. The CDU’s relatively new chairlady, Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (a.k.a. AKK), who would have the first opportunity to enter the ring, at least under normal circumstances, is not too popular these days, even inside her own party.

No Early Bird

Angela Merkel is getting ready to become a pensioner or an elderly stateswoman in two years from now. Within the CDU, there might be people with ambitions, such as its floor leader in the Berlin Bundestag, Ralph Brinkhaus. But since hardly anyone outside Berlin seems to know him and since he is a Merkel foe, he is definitely not at the top of the list right now.

All of this leads to the question whether the next conservative candidate for Chancellor should even be searched for in Berlin, or rather elsewhere. In a city called Munich, someone with a top post in the conservative camp might be ready to go for it. So far, Markus Söder rejects all questions in that direction, not necessarily because he does not want to do it, but because he has to keep quiet in this regard. It is too early.

Söder knows the risk of getting burned is high for any candidate who might try to be the early bird. As an admirer of his late predecessor Franz-Josef Strauss (German spelling: Strauß), he also knows that kind of thing has happened to a CSU leader before. So he is careful. At the same time, Söder does show off his expertise on a wide range of topics. It could be his intention to prepare the country for his candidacy step by step.

Quite a Show

Within the CSU, he insists on changes. Even the CSU has discovered a species which has not really been a priority so far: the woman. Söder wants his party to be more female and younger.

“Nobody will vote for us because we were good in the past”, Söder told the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ daily on Friday. Modernizing parties in this kind of direction is not exactly the strength of conservative men in general. But Söder, the natural, wants to be smarter in this regard, smarter than Seehofer, Strauß or even the late Helmut Kohl. The Reunification Chancellor was successful, but old-fashioned.

But back to Markus Söder. On Friday, he was reelected chairman of the CSU by more than 91 percent of the delegates at the party convention. That success was probably well-deserved since he had put on quite a show by generally convincing his party. But the quota for women he wanted was rejected by those delegates who are ‘conservative’ in the truest sense of the word. The outcome: There is no quota, but just a ‘recommendation’ to include more women.

A Broad Hint

Apart from blasting Turkey for its military operation in Syria and including other foreign policy fields which the governor of Bavaria usually has no say on, he talked about how united and strong the CSU was today, as opposed to a year ago, just before the last state legislature election, when the problems piled up and absolutely everything was doubted in Munich.

Söder used a very interesting sentence, about two minutes into his big speech on Friday. He stated, a year after the crisis “we are in pretty good shape. Some even think we are capable of more than only being successful in Bavaria.” If that wasn’t a broad hint, what is?

In the history of German politics since 1949, there were quite a few gifted rhetoricians, strong personalities who would shoot any opponents down with quick-witted responses. In the SPD, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder were people of this kind. In the conservative sister parties CDU and CSU, mainly one name comes into one’s mind, namely Strauss.

The Right Guy?

Today, things are different. Hardly any high-ranking or prominent Berlin politician has those traits. The exceptions would be Gregor Gysi from The Left (‘Die Linke’) and maybe, to a certain extent, Christian Lindner, the chairmain of the FDP. At the federal state level, there is one leader who fits the category well: Markus Söder.

As an adolescent, he already was a big admirer of Strauss, who was something like a Bavarian father figure on an overdose of Red Bull. His supporters idolized him, many still do, in spite of the fact that Strauss was responsible for a long list of scandals which rocked the still relatively new Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950-s, 60-s and 70-s.

Strauss was suspected of accepting advantage several times during his long career. But none of those accusations ever stuck. The Starfighter Scandal did hit him though, when Strauss was Defense Minister in Bonn. So did the ‘Spiegel Affair’, which was a test for the then young Western German democracy. It was caused by Strauss who had to leave Bonn and return to Bavaria as a result.

The Other Side of the Camera

Markus Söder had a big Strauss poster on the ceiling of his bedroom when he was a teenager. “When I woke up, I looked at him”, he said in an interview years ago. Söder did admit that it was not easy when his girlfriend spent the night with him, because she would see Strauss as well, the minute she opened her eyes in the morning.

Armed with an excellent Abitur (the equivalent of the A-Level or high-school diploma) grade, Markus Söder studied law and became a trainee at Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Bavarian division of the nationwide ARD radio and TV network, meaning he was on the other side of the microphone and the camera, decades before becoming a politician. He knows how to make an impression in front of cams and mics.

Early on, he became a member of the CSU and its youth organization, which he led for eight years. With his rhetoric gift and sharp mind, he convinced many party friends and climbed up the ladder. Soon he would be part of the CSU’s leadership and got several minister posts in Bavaria. Then he was his party’s Secretary General, a job which gave him nationwide attention too.

Course Reversal

It’s not like Söder was always loved by all party colleagues. Some criticized his “politics style”, others accused him of concentrating on populist subjects and on himself too much. Also he disgruntled more moderate CSU members by defending ultra-conservative positions for a while.

For instance he suggested Germany’s national anthem should be sung at schools more, because this would help with the integration of immigrants. In an interview he once suggested the crucifix should be visible at schools rather than the hijab.

During the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, he called the fundamental right to apply for asylum into question. Just before his first election as Minister President, Söder first tried to sound at least as firm on immigration as the extremist right-wing party AfD. When he noticed that approach did more damage than good, he reversed course.

Long-Cherished Goal

His CSU then took a big hit in the elections. But he could not really be blamed, at least not alone, because of the general trend in Germany, where the very left and the very right became stronger while the big-tent parties were in trouble or already drowning, like the SPD.

Markus Söder, who is 52 years old, reached his long-cherished goal in January. He finally got the maximum amount of power anyone can have in Bavaria. Even though the former CSU chairman, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Söder himself kept on repeating they had gotten along with each other quite well, they had not.

For a long time, there was some kind of a feud between the two. At times they cooperated, e.g. when they endangered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, a year ago, with their rather stubborn position on immigration. But Markus Söder finally won. When Seehofer announced he would give up his party chairman post, Söder did not even have to fight in order to become his successor. His people at the Munich state parliament asked him to take over.

‘Greener than Green’

Söder says he wants unity in his party. Does he mean people should shut up, listen to him and approve everything he says? Not officially. But his claim to power, backed by the two powerful posts he is holding, and combined with his approach so far, suggest this is how things might work.

Söder is known for being an environmentalist. Several times he has said he wanted to be “greener than the Greens.” Stability, politically and economically, is something he wants as well. Now the CSU even wants to approach the LGBT community. This is almost sensational since the party is not exactly known for a lot of tolerance here either.

The CSU intends to get back into the 40 to 50 percent range at elections. If any party in Germany or in any German province might actually achieve that goal again, it is the CSU. While big cities in Bavaria, such as Munich, are being governed by the Social Democrats, the province as a whole has been ruled by the CSU since 1957, without interruption. At times they needed a junior partner for a coalition.

These are the times Markus Söder wants to revive by going ‘Back to the Future’, in a way. Women, young leaders, environmentalism and the convincing speeches and actions of one man, the natural himself, are supposed to make it happen.

Main photo by Superbass. License: CC BY-SA 4.0