BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Chancellor Angela Merkel is wading into the political battle over her succession, potentially giving a boost to the candidate in her own ranks whose bid to replace her has faltered during the pandemic.
Mrs Merkel will attend a cabinet meeting in North Rhine-Westphalia on Tuesday chaired by Mr Armin Laschet. The premier of Germany's most populous state, home to the nation's industrial heartland, has stumbled in his effort to seize the leadership of Mrs Merkel's Christian Democratic Union - a role which would make him the front-runner to succeed her as chancellor when she leaves office after the next election due in the fall of 2021.
The visit comes around a month after Mrs Merkel made a similar trip to see the Bavarian state leader, Mr Markus Soeder, an event marked by royal optics that fuelled speculation over his own prospects as a future chancellor. Soeder heads the Christian Social Union, the CDU's Bavarian sister party.
Polls show that the CDU/CSU candidate will most likely be the next chancellor. The bloc lost two points in a Kantar survey published on Sunday (Aug 16) in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper to 36 per cent, while the SPD got a three-point bounce from the Scholz candidacy to 18 per cent. That put the party ahead of the Greens, which lost two points to 16 per cent.
The duelling state cabinet meetings play into the contest to replace Mrs Merkel, a watershed moment for Europe's biggest economy after 15 years of her stewardship, after the CDU leadership battle was upended by the coronavirus crisis. A special meeting to elect a party leader scheduled for April was scrapped. The CDU said on Monday it's standing by plans to hold a scaled-down party conference in Stuttgart in December, where delegates will elect the new leader.
Mrs Merkel's office pushed back against the idea that the visit is a rescue mission for Mr Laschet. She'll travel to the state capital of Dusseldorf and on to the iconic Zollverein coal mining complex in Essen, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Mr Laschet needs all the help he can get. A pro-business moderate, he had been in pole position to assume the CDU leadership when he announced his candidacy in February. But his political star has faded during the pandemic when he was outshone by Soeder, as well as Health Minister Jens Spahn, a CDU conservative who backed Laschet's bid.
Mr Soeder and Mr Spahn both won plaudits as decisive and effective crisis managers, while Mr Laschet's more laissez-faire approach was badly received by voters.
The party leadership contest was also disrupted by the announcement last week that Finance Minister Olaf Scholz will run as the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, a rare demonstration of party unity more than a year before the election is due.
The political maneuvering has left Mr Laschet badly wounded. Only 13 per cent of Germans consider him a viable head of the federal government, according to the Kantar survey.
That puts him well behind other possible candidates. Mr Soeder, who has pushed back on speculation about a bid, won 38 per cent in the same poll, with Mr Scholz at 29 per cent. Mr Laschet's main challenger within the CDU, Mr Friedrich Merz, scored 19 per cent. Even the Greens' potential candidate, Mr Robert Habeck, had 18 per cent.
Still, Mr Laschet may have an opening after Mr Soeder's reputation as a crisis manager took a hit last week. After ordering vacationers in regions with rising virus numbers to be tested on their return, his health officials were quickly overwhelmed as thousands of tests weren't properly processed. Mr Soeder cited "mistakes," though stopped short of firing his health minister.
The conservative candidate must by decided jointly by the CDU and the CSU sister party, though it has traditionally gone to the larger party.
Outgoing CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer triggered the leadership battle in February when she dropped her bid to replace Mrs Merkel and surrendered the party leadership. Mr Laschet emerged as the most likely winner after getting Mr Spahn's backing, though he faces a strong challenge from Merkel-critic Merz, as well as an outside bid from CDU lawmaker Norbert Roettgen.
The opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia, a state of 18 million people, has already attacked the visit as political spectacle.
"The invitation to the chancellor is a spasmodic attempt by Armin Laschet to lend a bit of shine to his bid for the CDU party leadership," SPD state parliament leader Thomas Kutschaty told Rheinische Post newspaper on Saturday.