POLITICS: Frontrunner to succeed Merkel as chancellor on back foot after flood disaster

From criticism of his climate policy to a woefully ill-timed bout of laughter, the deadly floods in western Germany have exposed weaknesses of frontrunner Armin Laschet in his bid to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.

POLITICS: Frontrunner to succeed Merkel as chancellor on back foot after flood disaster
Armin Laschet and Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting flood regions earlier this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Pool | Oliver Berg

Find all our coverage on the flood disaster HERE

As the death toll from the flooding has risen to more than 170 in Germany, Laschet’s response has revived a longstanding debate over his suitability to fill fellow conservative Merkel’s shoes when she retires after September’s election.

In a recent poll by the Civey institute for Spiegel magazine, only 26 percent of 5,000 respondents said they considered Laschet to be a good crisis-manager.

Laschet, who is currently state premier in Germany’s most populous state North-Rhine Westphalia, had already faced criticism for his hesitant, u-turn-prone handling of the pandemic.

And with his own state one of the worst-hit regions by last week’s deluge, he is now under fire for his gaffe-marred response to the disaster.

‘Communications disaster’

“Laschet took some time to find the right tone” after the floods hit, Hans Vorlaender, political scientist at Dresden’s Technical University, told AFP.

He pointed to a “communications disaster” over images that emerged last week.

The 60-year-old candidate was caught on camera convulsed in laughter with local officials as German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the foreground paid homage to the flood victims.

READ ALSO: German chancellor candidate Laschet sparks anger with flood zone laughter

Though he later apologised for his “mistake”, Laschet faced fierce criticism online and in the German media.

“Does the supremely self-controlled Merkel really trust this man, who has shown no self-control, with her job?” demanded Der Spiegel weekly.

“It is no laughing matter! If Laschet wants to be chancellor, he has to be able to manage crises. This would not have happened to Merkel,” wrote Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.

While the veteran leader has long been praised for her steely nerves under fire, Laschet has often shown “a lack of determination”, Vorlaender told AFP.

“In general, politicians show what they are capable of in times of crisis,” he said, pointing not only to Merkel, but also to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who impressed voters with his hands-on response to floods ahead of his re-election in 2002.

In a survey this week for the Forsa institute, meanwhile, Laschet and Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance was polling two points lower than the previous week on 28 percent.

By Friday, however, a poll for public broadcaster ARD showed the conservatives up a point to 29 percent.

Armin Laschet visiting flood-hit Bad Münstereifel earlier this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

Climate debate 

With a lead of around 10 points ahead of the opposition Greens party in second place, Laschet is still the strong favourite to succeed Merkel.

In recent months, he has benefited from a collapse in support for the Greens, whose initially strong campaign was hit hard with a series of missteps by co leader and candidate Annalena Baerbock.

Yet the floods have slowed his march to victory and returned climate policy to the top of the agenda just two months before the election.

READ ALSO: How the extreme flooding in Germany is linked to global warming

The ARD poll showed 81 percent of Germans seeing a need for stronger action to protect the climate.

“The floods have shown the urgent need for climate policies,” wrote Der Tagesspiegel, while Merkel herself called for “speeding up” the fight against climate change as she leaves the stage.

“Laschet needs to set clear goals and go beyond what is in the conservatives’ manifesto,” Vorlaender said, as natural disasters become more frequent due to global warming.

Merkel’s ruling right-left coalition tightened its emissions targets in May to put the country on course for carbon neutrality by 2045.

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, who mounted a fierce challenge against Laschet for the conservative candidacy in the spring, has increased the pressure by setting an ambitious goal of phasing out coal by 2030 – eight years ahead of deadline set by the federal government.

As premier of a coal-dominated region, Laschet has been considerably more cautious on climate issues.

And that has not been lost on voters. In a Civey poll on Wednesday, just 26 percent said they believed Laschet would provide effective climate protection policies.

READ ALSO: Merkel demands faster action on climate change as German flood deaths rise

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Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.


His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE