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POLITICS

 ‘CDU in weak position’: Merkel’s conservatives face crucial test in Germany’s regional elections

Angela Merkel's conservatives could face a far-right upset at key state polls on Sunday, the last big test of Germany's political mood before the first general election in 16 years not to feature the veteran chancellor.

 'CDU in weak position': Merkel's conservatives face crucial test in Germany's regional elections
Residents enjoying the sun in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt on Wednesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Peter Endig

Surveys have placed the extreme-right AfD neck-and-neck with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, with a recent poll by the Bild daily even predicting the anti-immigration party will – for the first time – win a regional vote.

Victory for the AfD would be a devastating blow for the conservatives just four months ahead of Germany’s national election on September 26th, and could further weaken the already fragile standing of Merkel’s would-be successor Armin Laschet.

“The CDU is in a relatively weak position in the polls, as is Laschet,” said political scientist Hajo Funke of Berlin’s Free University.

“If it turns out that the AfD is slightly stronger than the CDU on Sunday, then there could be debates about personnel in the CDU, and thus a weakening of the entire situation of the CDU,” Funke said.

Merkel’s party has been a dominant force in Saxony-Anhalt for decades, topping all but one edition of state elections there since reunification in
1990.

READ ALSO: Germany’s far-right AfD ahead in regional poll with anti-shutdown stance

In 2016, the CDU scooped 30 percent, forming a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens. The AfD won 24 percent.

But the conservatives have taken a hammering in the polls as Merkel prepares to bow out, hurt by anger over the government’s pandemic management and a corruption scandal involving shady coronavirus mask contracts.

They are also reeling from a very public tug of war for the post of chancellor candidate between CDU chief Laschet and Markus Soeder, head of the smaller Bavarian sister party CSU.

Laschet, who prevailed in that battle but has since suffered dismal public approval ratings, faces his first real test in Sunday’s election.

‘Rude awakening’ 

Even if the AfD wins the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, the party will not be able to govern as all the other parties have ruled out forming an alliance with it.

But a win for the far-right party would still be a “rude awakening” for the CDU, as Laschet put it during an appearance on the campaign trail in Magdeburg last week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a press conference in the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on May 21st, 2021. Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP

Although support nationally has stagnated at around 10 to 12 percent for the AfD in recent months, in Saxony-Anhalt – as in other former East German states – the party has long had a strong base of support.

Its recent move to style itself as the party bashing Merkel’s tough shutdown measures during the pandemic has also cemented its reputation as the anti-establishment party, attracting support beyond its core base of anti-immigration voters.

READ ALSO: Why are coronavirus figures so high in German regions with far-right leanings?

Losing to the AfD, whose leading candidate in the region is a relative unknown nationally, would be, as Spiegel magazine puts it, “a disaster” for
Laschet.

“Laschet urgently needs a success to rally the Union behind him for the national election campaign,” said the magazine.

“The last thing he would need is a renewed debate about the AfD within his party, which would become unstoppable in case of an election defeat in Saxony-Anhalt.”

READ ALSO: Meet Armin Laschet, the king of comebacks grasping for Merkel’s throne

‘Momentum from Berlin’

Meanwhile, the Greens, who are vying for top place nationally against Merkel’s conservatives, could also draw votes away from the CDU in
Saxony-Anhalt.

The party, which has traditionally struggled in the former East Germany, looks set to double its share of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt from 5 percent in 2016 to around 10 percent this time.

“It has been a very exciting election campaign for the Greens,” Sebastian Striegel, co-chair of the party in Sachsen-Anhalt, told AFP.

The party has benefited from “a lot of momentum from Berlin” with the nomination of chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock, according to Striegel.

The latest survey for Der Spiegel of who Germans would like to see as their next chancellor has Baerbock in the lead on 25 percent, with Laschet lagging behind on 22 percent.

 By Femke COLBORNE

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POLITICS

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Eclipsed by two Green party ministers over his response to the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is battling to wrest back public approval - starting with a speech to parliament on Thursday.

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Scholz, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are in power with the Greens and the liberal FDP, has faced a barrage of criticism over his perceived weak response to the war, including his hesitancy over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Green party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck have impressed with their more vocal approach, topping a recent survey of the country’s most popular politicians.

Scholz’s party suffered a crushing defeat in a key regional election at the weekend, losing to the conservative CDU with its worst-ever result in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Greens, meanwhile, almost tripled their score compared with five years ago to finish in third place and look almost certain to be part of the next regional government.

READ ALSO: Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

Der Spiegel magazine called the result a “personal defeat” for Scholz after he was heavily involved in the election campaign, appearing on posters and at rallies.

Already famous for his lack of charisma before he became chancellor, Scholz now appears to be paying the price for dragging his feet in dealing with Moscow over fears of escalating the crisis.

In a bid to win back the public, Scholz has in recent days given lengthy television interviews.

On Thursday, he will be explaining his policy to lawmakers ahead of the EU summit at the end of May.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Sitting tight

In a devastating reading of Scholz’s outings so far, the weekly Focus assessed that “his language is poor, his facial expressions monotone and his body language too understated.”

According to Der Spiegel, the chancellor’s communications strategy seems to revolve around one mantra: “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Other media have accused him of stubbornly sticking to the same plan and ignoring what is going on around him.

“His party is plummeting, but the chancellor feels that he has done everything right… Doubts and questions rain down on him, but Olaf simply sits tight,” said Der Spiegel.

Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit has defended the chancellor, suggesting that the public value his calm demeanour and would find it “inauthentic” if he tried to turn himself into Barack Obama.

READ ALSO: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

But for political scientist Ursula Münch, Scholz does not come across as calm and measured but rather “imprecise” compared with his colleagues from the Green party.

Scholz has also not been helped by the fact that Defence Minister and fellow SPD politician Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.

‘Strong moral underpinning’

Baerbock, meanwhile, has turned around her public image after a series of blunders during the 2021 election campaign, coming across as clearer and more decisive than Scholz in her response to the Ukraine crisis.=

The 41-year-old former trampolinist has become the face of Germany at international summits, from the G7 to NATO, and in early May became the first German minister to visit Kyiv.

Habeck, meanwhile, has impressed with his dedication to weaning Germany off Russian energy.

And their meteoric rise is all the more surprising given the Green party’s traditional positioning as a pacifist party opposed to sending weapons to conflict zones.

For the first time in their 42-year history, according to Der Spiegel, the Greens are being judged not on “expectations and promises” but on their performance in government.

“The strong moral underpinning of the Greens’ policies and the fact they openly struggle with their own principles comes across as approachable and therefore very credible,” according to Münch.

“Of course, this increases their clout compared with the chancellor.”

She therefore predicts an “increase in tensions” between the Greens, the SPD and the FDP, with life not expected to get easier for Scholz any time soon.

By Mathieu FOULKES

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