For the first time in over a decade, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is leading in polls of voter intentions in front of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), just as the general elections are due in September. This unprecedented situation owes a lot to the centre-right candidate, Armin Laschet, who has made several blunders.
Angela Merkel is leaving, but her CDU will stay: this had been the most likely scenario for the German general election, to be held on September 26. But a small political revolution has taken place, just one month before the vote. For the first time in 15 years, the centre-left SPD overtook the conservatives CDU in the polls. With barely 10 days left until the vote, the Social Democrats are comfortably in the lead with 25 percent of intended voters, while Merkel’s CDU has just 21 percent.
“This is surprising because the SPD had been stagnating around or below 20 percent in voting intentions at the national level for about 10 years,” Thomas Poguntke, a political scientist at the University of Düsseldorf, told FRANCE 24.
Laschet: laughing and vague
At the same time, the CDU has dropped nearly 10 points in voter intentions since mid-July. The polls are certainly not gospel, “but in this case, they confirm a trend observed for several weeks in the campaign, namely the difficulties of the conservative candidate”, Klaus Schubert, a political scientist at the Institute for Political Research at the University of Münster, told FRANCE 24.
Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate on the right who wants to replace Merkel as chancellor, does not seem to be doing well. In particular, he made a series of mistakes during the catastrophic floods in Germany in mid-July. One image in particular did not go down well with the Germans: that of a laughing Laschet standing behind Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who, in a serious tone, was giving a speech on the destruction caused by the heavy rain.
And that is not all. He also appears “to be particularly unspecific in his positions and often remains very vague”, Schubert said. In the first of three scheduled televised debates with the other two main candidates – Olaf Scholz for the SPD and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens – he was the only one who would not say where he would go for his first official trip as chancellor. “That’s an easy and classic question,” Schubert said.
He put in a fiery performance in the second debate, but again failed to deliver a knockout blow.
Laschet is not solely responsible for his troubles; current events have not helped him. The floods, the pandemic and the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan are all issues that allow someone who already has political responsibilities to shine. And that’s what Scholz did. “As finance minister, he was able to appear as the saviour by promising, for example, to release the necessary funds for the flood victims or to not skimp on spending to address the health crisis,” Schubert said.
Where is Angela Merkel?
The CDU also seems reluctant in its support of Laschet and appears “not to know how to make this candidate represent the ideas of the party”, Wolfgang Schroeder, a political scientist at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (Berlin Scientific Research Center), told FRANCE 24.
Laschet said it himself: “You can’t run a campaign alone.”
Even Merkel was quiet in her support for her party’s candidate until late in the campaign. “The absence of involvement from the chancellor, who could have used a little of her popularity to help Laschet, remains for me one of the great mysteries of this campaign,” Stefan Marschall, a political scientist at the University of Düsseldorf, told FRANCE 24.
Add to that the voices on the right that are putting obstacles in his way. Markus Söder, the head of the centre-right Christian Social Union in Bavaria, “never misses an opportunity to stress that he would have done better than Laschet”, said Poguntke. The political scientist sees his failure to bring the right along with him as one of the main weaknesses of the CDU candidate’s campaign: “He has absolutely failed to surround himself with a team of his own, which means that everyone on the right seems to be playing for themselves.”
In contrast to the disunity of the CDU, the SPD “has succeeded in appearing to be a party in close ranks behind its candidate, who is also one of the leading figures in the current government”, Marschall noted.
An apocalyptic picture
Laschet had hoped to be the face of continuity after Merkel, but in the end “Scholz appears to be the natural successor to the outgoing chancellor”, Schroeder said. “He has the same political pragmatism, knows how to be very flexible and has real experience on the international scene.”
Laschet has very little time left to turn things around if he wants to avoid a CDU defeat in the upcoming election. The most likely scenario is “that the conservatives will play the doomsday card and paint a bleak future if the left comes to power”, said Schroeder.
It is hard to say whether that kind of strategy would work. On one hand, such an approach could be effective with Germans because “they are politically rather conservative and do not like experiments in government”, Marschall said.
On the other hand, the “apocalyptic” argument is just as likely to fail because, for many, Scholz is not scary, as “he symbolises continuity more than any candidate, since he is already in government”, said Schubert.
In the event that Laschet fails to recover, there is growing discussion in Germany of a new scenario at the federal level: the possibility of a three-party government. But would that be with or without the CDU?
This article has been adapted from the original in French.