BERLIN- Dismissed for decades by critics as a country bumpkin who loves silly carnival costumes, Bavarian leader Markus Soeder said on Sunday that he was willing to run as the conservative candidate for German chancellor, provided he had the bloc's full backing.
Angela Merkel, who has clocked up four election victories and led Europe's biggest economy for 16 years, is not standing for a fifth term when Germany goes to the polls in September.
On paper, the choice seems obvious: Opinion polls give charismatic CSU leader Soeder, 54, a hefty lead over CDU chief Armin Laschet, 60, who has also said he wants the candidacy.
Some 54% of Germans would prefer Soeder as chancellor, compared to 19% for Laschet, a Deutschlandtrend poll from April 1 showed, although Laschet has the support of some powerful conservative regional leaders.
However, a chancellor from Bavaria would be a first for Germany. State icon Franz Josef Strauss and Edmund Stoiber stood in the 1980 and 2002 federal elections respectively but both lost to the Social Democrats.
The wealthy Alpine region is one of the most independent-minded German states, and combined with its distinctive traditions and proud identity, this makes some Germans wary of choosing a Bavarian as leader. ?
SWAGGER, SOUNDBITES AND SHREK
Soeder has never hidden his political ambition. As a teenager, he hung a poster of Strauss, the conservative leader who transformed and modernised Bavaria, above his bed.
Born in Nuremberg, he became a member of the Bavarian assembly in 1994. He rose through the ranks to become state premier in 2018 and CSU leader in 2019.
A Protestant in a largely Catholic state, Soeder has a knack for soundbites, and his political antenna coupled with clear communication skills have helped him get away with some major political reversals.
He courted anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) voters with fierce criticism of Merkel's 2015 open-door migrant policy, but by 2018 he had shifted to the centre and started attacking the far-right party head on.
With opinion polls pointing to a likely conservative coalition with the Greens after the election, Soeder is now pushing for ambitious CO2 emission reductions. He has even issued a joint statement with the popular Greens premier of a neighbouring state on coronavirus restrictions.
His decisive handling of the pandemic has boosted his popularity and he has consistently sided with Merkel against other state premiers in calling for tough lockdowns.
To some, however, it is his swagger and confidence that appeal. He often talks for longer than Merkel at joint news conferences, and his extravagant costumes during the carnival season have included Marilyn Monroe, Shrek and the ever-popular mad King Ludwig, builder of Bavaria's fairytale castle.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky) ((Madeline.Chambers@thomsonreuters.com; +4930220133578;))