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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Tornado in western Germany injures dozens

Almost 40 people were injured, several seriously, on Friday in a suspected tornado which hit the western German city of Paderborn, the police and fire brigade said.

Tornado in western Germany injures dozens

A police spokesman said the tornado also caused significant damage in the city in the North Rhine-Westphalia state, following abnormally high temperatures for the time of year.

The city’s fire department said on Twitter that “38 injured people, including some gravely” had been taken to hospital. The police said one person was fighting for their life.

Paderborn, fire service added, “Please do not drive to Paderborn on your own without prior agreement of help. If necessary, further units of the fire brigade will be alerted and called in.”

In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate state, a 38-year-old man died after he was electrocuted when he entered his flooded basement and fell on his head, the police in the city of Koblenz said.

Railway travel was disrupted in the west of the country, as police called on people to remain indoors.

In Paderborn, police estimated the damage caused by the tornado at “several million” euros.

The spokesman reported “roofs torn off, windows shattered and numerous trees uprooted throughout the city”.

View of destroyed cars on a street. A tornado caused massive damage in Paderborn and Lippstadt on Friday 20th May 2022.

View of destroyed cars on a street after a tornado caused massive damage in Paderborn and Lippstadt on Friday 20th May 2022. Photo: Picture Alliance/Dpa/Friso Gentsch

Images posted on social media showed the tornado column progressing towards homes, sweeping away trees and building sections. Other pictures from the wider region showed cars that had been upturned.

The town of Lippstadt, about 30 kilometres away (18 miles), was also probably hit by a tornado, a fire department spokesperson said, though no injuries had been recorded. The steeple of the church in Lippstadt had been destroyed by the high winds.

People stand in front of the St. Clemens Catholic Church in Hellinghausen near Lippstadt, the top of which was destroyed. A suspected tornado caused massive damage in Lippstadt on Friday 21st May 2022. Photo: Picture alliance/DPA/Friso Gentsch

German meteorological services had put out a storm warning for Friday and predicted gales of up to 130 km/h (80 miles/h) in some places.

The bad weather first hit the west of the country and was set to travel eastwards.