“SöderTM”: Bavarian leader in pole position to be Chancellor candidate

Forceful, ultra conservative and polarising, Markus Söder, Bavaria’s Minister President and leader of the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the  CSU, is currently a strong contender to be the CDU/CSU Union’s Chancellor candidate for 2021.    Söder has seen his profile and popularity rise during the corona crisis and a recent survey showed that he was, with 30%, the most popular choice to be Chancellor candidate amongst party members.

Söder is a man with a strong brand image.  He is a passionate Bavarian and his role models are former Bavarian leaders Edmund Stoiber and  Franz Josef Strauß. According to the Zeit, “He is the German state politician who resolutely presents himself as a brand like no other…. Everyone knows Söder, you could call him SöderTM because he is known as a trademark, a McDonalds of politics, loved, hated, and definitely present.” The Tagesschau noted that he  “thinks primarily in pictures. They are usually tailored to him: Söder petting puppies, Söder feeding seals, Söder in a Venetian gondola in a Munich palace park. As chairman of the Youth Union, he had t-shirts printed with his portrait.”  Following the requirement to wear face masks to combat the spread of the corona virus – and Söder was one of the first Minister Presidents to introduce this   – he  has been pictured wearing a Bavarian flag mask.   

As the Tagesschau argued, Söder divides opinion: he “only knows black and white; you are for him or against him.” His enemies find him unscrupulous; one of them was the current Interior Minister, and former leader of Söder’s own party, Horst Seehofer.  In 2012, Seehofer publicly described Soder’s “character weaknesses,” accusing him of being “eaten by ambition,” with a desire for “dirty things.”

Söder was born in 1967 and brought up in a relatively poor district in the west of Nuremberg, the first child of a master bricklayer and a bank clerk.  He  joined the CSU as soon as it was possible to do so, at the age of 16.  After achieving a PhD in law, he went on to become an editor at Bavarian Radio  (Bayerischer Rundfunk), as well as working as working as head of central corporate communications at his father-in-law’s company,  Baumüller Holding, which manufactures electric drive and automation systems.

Söder was elected to the Bavarian State Parliament in 1994.  He was General Secretary of the CSU from 2003 – 2007, Bavarian Minister of State for Federal and European Affairs from 2007 to 2008, Bavarian Minister of State for Environment and Health from 2007 to 2008 and Bavaria’s Minister of Finance from 2011 to 2018.  

Following the  2017 election, Seehofer, who was at that time both Minister President and leader of the party, stepped down as Minister President and Söder was elected in his place in March 2018.   The following year, in January 2019, Söder also replaced Seehofer as leader of the CSU, winning 87.4% of the vote.

These changes in leadership came about as a result of weak CSU performances in the 2017 national election and the 2018 Bavarian state election; the CSU (which traditionally dominates in Bavaria, with over 50% of the vote being the norm) lost heavily. In 2017, the party dropped  around 10% of its vote and in 2018  it recorded its second lowest ever vote, sinking by over 10% to 37.2% and forcing it into a coalition government with the Free Voters of Bavaria (FW).   Before Söder’s election as Minister President, the Tagesschau quoted one party member as saying, “We don’t know whether we’ll win elections with Söder; but we know that we’ll lose them with Horst Seehofer.”    

The CSU has always positioned itself to the right of the CDU on law and order, religion and immigration and asylum: as Franz-Josef Strauss said in his campaign for the state election in Bavaria in 1986, ”No legitimate political party can be right of the CSU.”    Yet in the 2017 election, such a party appeared – the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won 12.4% in Bavaria – and set off a crisis of direction in the CSU.

In an attempt to fight off this challenge in the run-up to the 2018 state election in Bavaria, Seehofer tried to steal the AfD’s clothes on immigration. He  echoed the AfD by saying, “Islam does not belong in Germany” and that migration was the “mother of all problems”. He criticised Angela Merkel as being too far to the left on immigration, publicly opposing her on immigration policy.  He argued for quicker deportations for refugees who committed crimes, opened holding and processing centres for asylum seekers,  and instigated  a row over the issue of asylum seekers who have passed through another country on the way to Germany, a row which threatened the stability of the coalition government. 

This attempt to out-AfD the AfD failed. Ironically, polls found that the CSU was perceived to be a bigger problem than refugees, while Merkel’s work as Chancellor won wider approval than Söder’s as Minister President. 

On his election as leader in January 2019, Söder, who had relentlessly toured the state  with, as the Deutsche Welle said, a “flashy oratory style”,  signalled some changes.   While reaffirming his populist credentials – he said he wanted to strengthen the CSU, making it a “protector for the people” during the uncertain times of globalisation – he also promised to make the party more attractive to voters with immigrant backgrounds, imploring party delegates to “talk with them as well.”  The paper quotes him as saying, “You become Bavarian not only by birth, but also through attitude and conviction.” 

Yet, despite their animosity, Seehofer and Söder are very similar in outlook; their rivalry was attributed by the Zeit as “the classic hierarchical struggle between young and old.” Söder’s position is not so very different from Seehöfer’s: he too was a severe critic of Merkel’s immigration policies and was even reported be rejecting any campaign appearances with Merkel in June 2018;  and he has reinforced the conservative-Christian image of Bavaria by introducing an obligation to display crosses at the entrance of public buildings.

This year, Söder has taken a lead in the efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. An early advocate of  lockdown restrictions, Söder implemented measures in Bavaria before any national agreements were reached between the 16 German states.  Merkur wrote, “It seems as if Söder is the captain, who has been successfully steering Germany through the pandemic so far,” and the  Welt that, “In the Corona crisis, he embodies like no other the strong state that leads citizens with determination and at the same time relies on their insight.”

Not only has he won public support for his line – an Infratest dimap poll in April found that he had an approval rating of  58% (+16) – he is increasingly being talked of as the Chancellor candidate for the CDU/CSU Union. A  power battle between Söder and CDU leadership contender Armin Laschet has been fought out publicly in the last two months, with Laschet arguing for an early debate about ending the restrictions, with Söder, always hardline, a powerful voice in favour of strict restrictions.

Merkur noted, “And so the 53-year-old uses the crisis to sharpen his political profile and …… to position himself for the successor of Angela Merkel in Berlin.” Politicians from the CDU have even floated the idea of him, instead of a CDU politician becoming Chancellor candidate:  Minister of Culture Susanne Eisenmann, for example, said that   Söder is the best possible candidate for Union chancellor: “But of course you have to say clearly that Markus Söder stands out the most among all prime ministers, with clear leadership, clear concepts, a clear attitude and also the courage to justify unpleasant things,….. This is the time when you have to give answers. He does. That’s why he also convinces in the CDU.”

How this may change in the next months is unclear;  German public opinion is increasingly divided about the lockdown measures, and as the news agenda moves away from corona, Söder’s popularity ratings could change. But it is clear that the corona crisis has given him the boost to put him clear of his Union rivals in the race to become Germany’s next Chancellor.

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