Germany Found a Strongman for Its Coronavirus Crisis
The Bavarian governor’s law-and-order paternalism has been extraordinarily popular—and could shape the country’s post-Merkel future.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn have been leading Germany’s national response to the coronavirus pandemic. But Germans would be forgiven for thinking that they were taking direction from a provincial governor: Bavaria’s imposing, straight-talking premier, Markus Söder. Since the pandemic broke out, Söder’s decisive crisis management in his home state—especially his imperious pronouncements on lockdowns, testing, and other public health measures—has captured national attention.
It’s not just that Söder’s moves have generally anticipated the steps taken by other German states, under coordination by the national government—nor just that he has been rewarded with historically unprecedented 94 percent approval ratings in his home state. It’s also that his distinctively paternalistic style of leadership may offer clues about the post-Merkel direction of German politics.
For those outside of Germany, Söder’s name might for good reason be completely unfamiliar: Until the crisis, the 53-year-old native of Nuremberg was an irascible regional strongman who came to office two years ago in a muscular takeover of his party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). But the pandemic has suddenly catapulted Söder into the mix to become Merkel’s successor in the autumn 2021 general election as chancellor candidate for the Christian Democrats.
In barely a month’s time, Söder has become the nation’s favorite politician, soaring past even Merkel, Germany’s most popular politico for years, which has recast all calculations about the contest within conservative ranks. (Merkel has said she will not run for a fifth term.) Söder’s take-charge style, which combines rhetorical displays of empathy with a willingness to resolutely impose hard-line public-safety measures, have appealed to many Germans consumed with angst about the virus.
Söder was the first German executive to issue stay-at-home orders and to close schools. When the first coronavirus cases began popping up in Bavaria as infected vacationers returned from ski trips in Austria’s Tirol region, he made it clear from the onset that he, not the federal government, would decide what was best for Bavaria, which meant shutting schools at once. This go-it-alone strategy incurred rancor from some of the other state premiers, as it pushed the boundaries of Germany’s federalism. But Söder didn’t back down.
The lockdown he has imposed in Bavaria has also been notably stricter than in other German states: State police have been instructed to strictly enforce the official reasons for leaving one’s home, whereas other states have policed more liberally. He has also warned Bavarians that face masks will likely be obligatory in the state, while other states have only agreed to issue public recommendations about mask-wearing. (Söder was also the first government official to himself don a face mask in public.) At the same time, Söder has offered the most vigorous assurances to private businesses and workers that the government can compensate for the shutting down of the free market: He was the first to offer small businesses cash grants to compensate for the shutting down of the free market, and to approve bonuses for health care personnel.
Söder has also come to represent one pole of the debate about reopening the economy, insisting that Bavarian restrictions (including the closure of schools) could extend beyond guidelines set by the national government, thus placing a greater emphasis on paternalistic government control rather than on the free market. By contrast, Armin Laschet, North Rhine-Westphalia’s soft-spoken premier and a close Merkel ally, has insisted on the importance of quickly finding a way to reopen businesses across the country. “With a lot of patience and clever strategy we’ve actually created a different situation here in the past few weeks than in other parts of Europe,” Söder said on national television on April 14, referring to the fewer coronavirus cases and deaths per 100,000 people. “We shouldn’t risk anything. We shouldn’t be too impatient” and take “hectic and hasty risks,” he said.
Perhaps most notable have been Söder’s everywhere-at-once media appearances: He has visited hospitals and clinics, embattled Bavarian companies, and manufacturers that have converted their facilities to make face masks. He comes off as concerned, in-charge, and even charismatic. By contrast, Merkel’s intermittent addresses to the public—admittedly, she was quarantined for two weeks—have been dry and technical, devoid of real-world engagement.
The crisis is exactly the kind of situation that Söder can shine in, longtime observers say. “Söder’s strength is communication,” noted the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung’s commentator Roman Deininger, the author of a biography of Söder. “He hits just the right note: self-assured and energetic but not panicky.”
This unexpected turn of events has suddenly cast Söder into the fray of the wide-open contest for Merkel’s successor. One reader’s comment in the conservative daily Die Welt obviously reflects the thoughts of some : “I think he’s great, can he be chancellor?”
Söder has repeatedly denied that he will throw his hat in the ring for the national election. But few doubt that he has his eye on the chancellorship, perhaps sooner rather than later, even despite the full field of candidates already vying to become the next CDU chief later this year. (Although the CDU chairperson is usually the chancellor candidate, the CDU and the Bavarian CSU vote together for the frontperson in the campaign, who has twice in the past been a CSU figure.) Out in front has been Laschet, who has teamed up with Spahn, an arch conservative, to run against the right-wing Friedrich Merz and the foreign affairs specialist Norbert Röttgen.
A political veteran, Söder likely wouldn’t feel intimidated by whomever wins the CDU race. His rise in the CSU, which began when he was 16 years old, has been always been marked by tenacity and ambition (and occasionally ham-fistedness). He became the youngest member of Bavaria’s state legislature at the age of 27 in 1994, before becoming the state’s powerful finance minister from 2011 to 2018.
Söder’s most prominent intervention as finance minister offers a telling indication of his party’s political philosophy—and the challenges he may face as he attempts to translate it to the national stage. He repeatedly weighed in forcefully against the country’s federal distribution system in an effort to relieve Bavaria, Germany’s second wealthiest state, from its burden of helping pay for the country’s less prosperous states. It was an indication of what might be called the CSU’s Bavarianism, its populist regionalism that seeks to protect the state, its citizens, and its distinctive culture from encroachments from the outside world—including from other German states.
“Söder’s all about Bavaria, what’s best for Bavaria,” Deininger told Foreign Policy. “He combines the CSU’s traditionalism, full of Bavarian folklore, with the kind of high-tech modern economics that has been so successful for Bavaria.”
Bavarianism has typically had a conservative-populist tinge. Bavarian premiers have opposed liberal migration policies, and Söder has been no exception; he thundered against the Merkel government’s decision in 2015-2016 to allow nearly 900,000 refugees to enter the country. Although the government had managed to bring the flow to a trickle by 2017, Söder did not let up, harshly criticizing Merkel in public and insisting that a cap be put on Germany’s refugee intake. And as premier, Söder oversaw the passage of the controversial Kreuzpflicht in predominantly Catholic Bavaria, an obligation to post crosses on public buildings. Söder, a Protestant himself, claimed that the crosses aren’t necessarily Christian symbols, but rather emblems of Bavaria’s cultural identity. The move was an overture to conservative voters who had strayed from the CSU to the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
But Söder is reaching out to middle-of-the road voters, too. After the CSU experienced a relative drubbing in the 2018 Bavarian elections, in which the Greens and the AfD made inroads into the CSU’s base constituency, he began searching for ways to win credibility with his party’s folksy base on environmental issues and the climate crisis. He eliminated the party’s give-away plastic pens and balloons, ordered several electric cars for the Bavarian fleet, and committed to make the regional government climate neutral by 2030. These token measures might not win many voters back, but Söder has made it clear he’s open to governing together with the Greens—a valuable attribute looking forward to potential coalition negotiations after the 2021 national election.
Still, it’s no accident that a CSU figure has never served as chancellor; rising to the top of the party requires strictly identifying with Bavaria, whereas winning a national campaign requires appealing to a broader base of voters. Söder’s future may hinge on his ability to use the coronavirus crisis to convert Bavarian regionalism into an idiom of German nationalism. That, in turn, will require him to steer Bavarians out of the crisis as well as he has guided them through it thus far. This entails another kind of crisis management, argues Deininger: “The talents of the can-do Söder will no longer be quite as relevant. Now it’s all about moderating impatience and balancing interests.” This burst of popularity, he said, “like the crisis itself, is a state of emergency.”
This may just be Söder’s 15 minutes of fame. But his strategy regarding the chancellorship, Germany’s pundits surmise, is to avoid appearing that he’s exploiting the crisis for political gain and to wait until the pandemic is past—and then, if his numbers remain high, explicitly enter the contest. The leadership of Germany’s Christian Democrats is certainly up for grabs. And Söder, a man fully convinced of his abilities, certainly envisioned running for chancellor one day. That day could come sooner than he or anyone else thought possible.