German election frontrunners fail to impress with flood response
Germany is bracing itself for complex coalition negotiations following September’s national elections, after the leaders of the two strongest parties failed to impress voters with their response to last month’s devastating floods and boosted the confidence of smaller parties.
A two-way coalition between the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the German Greens has long looked the most likely outcome when the country votes in seven weeks’ time, with polls showing a consistent governing majority between the two parties.
However, the floods that brought catastrophic damage and loss of life to Germany’s western states just over a month ago have put the CDU and Greens’ lead candidates under increased scrutiny, from which neither has emerged with their standing improved.
Despite several visits to affected towns, Merkel’s designated continuity candidate, Armin Laschet, has struggled to build up an image as a competent crisis manager: clownish jokes in the background of a press conference and hostile reactions from locals rendered homeless by the floods have accentuated rather than closed the gap between the outgoing chancellor and her aspiring successor.
“Laschet’s appearances in front of the cameras haven’t helped him,” said Stefan Merz, the director of the pollster Infratest Dimap. “There’s a sense that the party is getting a bit nervous about where it stands.”
“Maybe it is just the wrong time for Armin Laschet”, wrote Der Spiegel. “He’s a good moderator who can make conflicts go away. But at the moment the country needs a doer who can solve multiple crises.”
In the four weeks since the floods hit, the CDU’s lead has fallen from a polling average of 29% to 26%.
Laschet’s closest competitor, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, deliberately visited flood-hit areas without a press pack in tow, mindful that being seen to overtly politicise the loss of human life could backfire.
The Greens’ polling figures have since rallied but only marginally so, especially when considering that record rainfall and forest fires around the globe have brought the party’s core subject to the top of the agenda. The party had briefly led the polls in the weeks after Baerbock was declared its candidate for chancellor.
According to a survey by Infratest Dimap, Laschet and Baerbock are now their parties’ candidates with the lowest approval ratings since the pollster started asking the question in 1998.
An aggregate poll of polls, published by Pollytix Strategic Research, has shown a CDU-Green coalition failing to gain a governing majority since the start of this month, thus increasing the chances the next German government will also involve the third-placed Social Democrats (SPD), the Free Democratic party (FDP), or both.
“Compared to a month ago it now seems more likely that a functioning government will require a power-sharing deal between three parties,” said Merz.
The only candidate whose standing could be said to have improved since the floods was the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, the finance minister in Merkel’s current coalition, Merz said. Most of those polled in recent surveys said they would cast their ballot for Scholz if they were able vote for Germany’s next leader directly, the pollster said.
In a poll published on Sunday by Insa, the Social Democrats have pulled even with the Greens on 18%, adding a centre left-led “traffic light coalition” of SPD, Greens and FDP to the list of potential outcomes in September.
Such an outcome could test voters’ patience: the last time German parties attempted to construct a three-way power-sharing deal, between the CDU, the Greens and the FDP in 2017, the coalition collapsed after two months of negotiations.