Stoiber’s withdrawal from German politics after 14 years as a premier and eight years as a party chairman is, as so often the case in politics, not really voluntary. However, the circumstances surrounding his retirement are rather dubious.
Stoiber’s downfall has not been precipitated by the lack of political and economic successes or bad election results. In 2003, he led his party to a landslide victory in the elections to the Bavarian Parliament (winning 61 percent of the vote and two thirds of all the seats in the state parliament). Apart from that, the state enjoys burgeoning economy, sound finances and continues to develop a successful educational system. In fact, Bavaria has one of the largest and healthiest economies among the German states with a low unemployment rate and a balanced budget. Its capital, Munich, is the leading destination for foreign investment in Germany. Under Stoiber’s watch, Bavaria became a high-tech state with two of Germany’s best universities (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and Technical University Munich). Moreover, Bavaria is expected to build a high speed monorail system, the so-called “transrapid” (“Stoiber’s brain child”), connecting the Munich Airport to the centre of the town in 10 minutes time.
As Stoiber’s record is quite impressive, why was there a need to replace him? Why did his fellow party members including the entire CSU leadership start a campaign to oust their long standing and successful leader after his announcement to run for prime minister once more in 2008?
To answer these questions, it is more important to examine the way how he achieved his successes rather than on the outcomes of his leadership style themselves. Another crucial point is Stoiber’s lifelong ambition to reach the highest office in Berlin, that is becoming the German Chancellor.
While Günther Beckstein is considered a team player, his predecessor’s behaviour can be described as autocratic at best while being impervious to criticism. Stoiber often took important and far reaching decisions without consulting the CSU leadership. The latter got more and more frustrated by Stoiber’s leadership style, especially as he returned from Munich in autumn 2005 after turning down an offer to become the “Super Minister for economic affairs” in the national government. His announcement to take a ministerial post in Berlin after the preponed elections in 2005 resulted in a large discussion about the “post-Stoiber-era” within the CSU. Stoiber’s decision not to settle in Berlin might not only be considered the end of his “Dream of Berlin”, but also the beginning of the end of his rule in Bavaria. The public attack of the small district chief executive, Gabriele Pauli, then considered as “regicide”, only expressed what most of the CSU members and leaders were thinking: Stoiber’s time as premier is or will soon be over.
By announcing to go to Berlin and then having second thoughts, Stoiber committed a grave mistake. Why did he go back to Munich where his successor had already been crowned instead of performing his function as the German minister of economy? Did he prefer to rule by a two-third majority in his home state to the difficult job as a government minister in a big coalition with the Social Democrats, being steadily forced to agree to a compromise? And did he overestimate his strong position in his state as the most successful Bavarian premier of all times (or at least after Franz Josef Strauß, 1978-88)?
If anyone, perhaps, only Stoiber himself knows answers to these questions. One explanation could be that Stoiber had originally aspired to become the Chancellor. Already back in 2002, he ran for Chancellor for the CDU/CSU, standing up to the current Chancellor Angela Merkel in an internal battle. Although it seemed that Gerhard Schröder’s time as the German Chancellor was numbered, Schröder’s SPD narrowly managed to win the elections. Coupled by Stoiber’s rather dull and uninspiring media performance during the election campaign, the Social Democrats’ leader gained public sympathy through his handling of the great floods in August 2002 (Schröder was even called the “flood chancellor”). The conservatives’ unexpected defeat in the 2002 elections was in large measure blamed on Stoiber.
Although Stoiber’s dream of becoming the most powerful German politician had been shattered, he never gave it up. In 2005, it was Angela Merkel who stood up to Stoiber and became the CSU/CDU chancellor candidate. Given that her candidature was quite controversial and the election resulted in a stalemate (neither of the two big parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, were able to form a majority coalition), one may suspect that Stoiber felt this was his last chance to finally become Chancellor. The CDU/CSU being the strongest party (CDU/CSU 35%, SPD 34%) and Angela Merkel virtually defeated, Stoiber possibly thought that he could be the real winner here. However, his plan did not quite work out. As the negotiations with the social democrats kept dragging on and on, Stoiber decided to let go of his “Dream of Berlin” and to return to his “Bavarian homeland”. What he did not (or not want to) consider was the possibility, that his fellow party men back home would not be ready to welcome him back with open arms.
Since he had announced in January 2007 to give up all political offices in September, rumors were abound about his future. The assumption that he might succeed Horst Köhler as the next German president caused a widespread buzz in the media: would Edmund Stoiber, whose famous slips of the tongue and speeches the whole nation find rather bemusing, really be qualified to become the German president, whose most important job is to improve the country’s image both at home and abroad? Stoiber himself put an end to these speculations, declaring to continue his career in the EU. Already in 2004, he got an offer from Brussels: then French president, Jacques Chirac, wanted him to become president of the European Commission. At that time, he refused, possible still entertaining the possibility of becoming the Chancellor one day. Now, without any hope of attaining his lifelong dream and no future in Munich, a job in Brussels is probably the best alternative.