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Angela Merkel is batting away the next generation of German conservatives as they vie for a spotlight toward the end of her long chancellorship.
The latest contender to be dealt with is Markus Soeder, the 53-year-old head of her Bavarian sister party. The chancellor called Soeder last week to signal her displeasure with his demands for a cabinet reshuffle but didn’t consider his move as a serious challenge, according to people with knowledge of the exchange.
Soeder argues that freshening up the government would boost the Christian Democrats’ electoral chances once Merkel steps down. Her spokesman said she has no plans for any personnel changes.
In the final act of her chancellorship, there’s no shortage of contenders vying for a chance to follow her as leader of Europe’s biggest economy. But despite speculation she might be forced out early after pledging to make her fourth term her last and giving up the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union just over a year ago, Merkel is holding firm.
Last year, she brushed off a push from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her successor as leader of the CDU, to bring forward and choreograph the transition and recent polls suggest Merkel is still Germany’s most popular politician after 14 years in power.
Soeder is the second-most popular, according to a survey in Focus magazine, and in some corners is tipped as a potential successor to Merkel. His witty attack on political rivals was a highlight of the CDU party conference in November for many delegates.
Gathering his own party, the Christian Social Union, at a 1,000-year-old former Bavarian monastery in Seeon last week, Soeder expounded on the need for new faces to shore up support for the CDU/CSU alliance and made it clear he’ll keep pushing for a government overhaul by summer, regardless of Merkel’s opposition.
A one-time party rabble rouser, Soeder has recast himself as a more moderate, even green-friendly, political grandee since he took over the Bavarian state premiership in 2018 and the CSU chairmanship a year later.
His message — that the Christian Democratic-led bloc needs to modernize to reach newer generations — is resonating among voters and politicians alike after the country’s traditional mainstream parties suffered a series of devastating defeats in European and regional elections last year.
Merkel herself has also taken a much lower profile, often going days without a public appearance and weeks without a significant address. Last summer, the 65-year-old chancellor suffered occasional bouts of shaking that some observers saw as a further sign of a weakening chancellor at the end of her reign.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose support Soeder will need if he’s to build pressure on the chancellor, is sitting on the fence so far. A reshuffle can be discussed, she said during a brief visit to the CSU gathering, but her preference is to build a “team for the future” by the end of the year.
Both she and Merkel will look to see whether Soeder’s call for a shakeup gains traction as CDU leaders meet over the weekend at a retreat in the northern port city of Hamburg.
AKK, as Kramp-Karrenbauer is known in Germany, risks being sidelined by Soeder’s rise and already had to fend off a challenge from a different group of rivals looking to threaten her position as Merkel’s heir apparent. She managed to head off that rebellion, but saw herself overshadowed by Soeder’s charisma and wit.
She later took a jab at the Bavarian for not clearing his proposals with the party leadership beforehand.
“We speak a lot, sometimes before we bring ideas to the public and sometimes after we’ve already gone public,” AKK, 57, told reporters at the monastery.
Soeder’s prospects for succeeding Merkel are uncertain. The CDU and CSU have only put forward a Bavarian candidate for the chancellorship twice in Germany’s postwar history, in 1980 and 2002. Both lost.
For now, his Bavarian perch gives Soeder a chance to cause havoc in Berlin from a safe distance.
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