Germany’s Merkel makes final campaign push for stumbling political heir
She said that she wanted to stay off the campaign trail. But now, as her center-right party faces a potentially historic defeat, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is embarking on an eleventh-hour push to raise the star of her would-be successor ahead of federal elections Sunday.
“Please vote for Armin Laschet,” Merkel urged a small crowd Tuesday in Stralsund, a medieval town on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast. She appeared alongside Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union’s embattled candidate for chancellor, as their supporters stood in the driving rain.
“He will make sure that our wealth is kept,” said Merkel, who represents Stralsund in parliament and has served as chancellor for 16 years.
Residents in the wider seaside constituency voted for her in all eight of the country’s parliamentary elections since 1990. But it is here where her party’s struggle to chart a new course for Germany in the post-Merkel era is perhaps the most stark.
Recent polls show a statistical dead heat between the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats, with the former trailing the latter by three percentage points nationally in the latest survey from INSA, a political research firm.
Now the seat in Stralsund looks less secure — as does the chancellery.
Pollsters say that the Christian Democrats made a potentially fatal mistake by choosing Laschet, 60, as their candidate. He has suffered gaffes and missteps on the campaign, and Merkel appears to have only reluctantly endorsed him in recent days.
“They knew he was the weaker candidate, he knew he was the weaker candidate,” Frank Stauss, a veteran campaign manager, said of the CDU’s decision to elevate Laschet.
Now there’s little time for Merkel’s positive image to rub off.
“It’s simply too late,” Stauss said. “She’s doing it now to avoid the accusations of not having campaigned at all, but she’s not in it at heart.”
According to Jürgen Falter, a politics professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Merkel’s recent public appearances, including on Sunday talk shows, suggest that she is under pressure to act to boost Laschet.
“It’s a kind of desperation,” Falter said.
In Stralsund on Tuesday, as anti-vaccination protesters whistled and jeered, Merkel drew on her political legacy in the area and reminded residents of the low unemployment rate. Laschet, she said, “is the one” to secure Germany’s prosperity for the future.
But not all voters were convinced.
As chancellor, Merkel governed slightly to the left of the Christian Democrats and, as a result, managed to attract Germans outside the party’s traditional conservative base. But now many are leaving the CDU.
Karl-Heinz Nemez, 63, who was visiting Stralsund with his sister Tuesday, said he was considering abandoning the party. He said he voted for the Christian Democrats every time Merkel stood for the chancellery but is not sure that he’ll vote for the party Sunday.
Laschet has “no personality,” Nemez said. “I find him likable, but he doesn’t win me.”
He might vote again for the Social Democrats, he said, a party he favored in the years before Merkel came to power.
“We are both undecided,” Nemez’s sister, Sylvia, 61, said. “It’s exciting.”
Sylvia was a longtime Christian Democrat voter, she said, but won’t vote for Laschet and is instead contemplating casting her ballot for one of Germany’s myriad smaller parties.
A turning point for her was Laschet’s behavior this summer as certain regions were hit by devastating floods. Laschet served as premier of one of the most affected states, North Rhine-Westphalia, and the disaster was a timely test of his leadership credentials.
But soon after, Laschet was caught on camera laughing at an event to honor the flood victims. And the floods highlighted what the CDU’s opponents see as patchy climate policies.
In an interview in the wake of the tragedy, Laschet dismissed calls to change North Rhine-Westphalia’s climate policy based on “one day” of floods.
Memes ridiculing his shoes, his dance moves and more have circulated online.
Falter still believes that the CDU has a chance to win. Some conservatives who are indifferent to Laschet might still vote for him to block a coalition that includes the far-left, he said.
It is something Merkel and Laschet have warned against — and it’s a fear that resonates here in the former Communist East Germany.
Georg Günther, the 33-year-old Christian Democrat now running to fill Merkel’s seat in parliament, is keeping up hope. According to him, his door-to-door campaigning paints a better picture for the CDU than the current polls.
“They are all only polls. We’ll have to see what the result is,” he said.
Still, it’s a daunting task ahead.
“They are big shoes to fill,” he said.
Ian Bateson in Stralsund contributed to this report.