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POLITICS

Merkel rides to the rescue as conservatives plunge ahead of German election

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday gave her would-be successor Armin Laschet a ringing endorsement, in a bid to shore up his ailing election campaign which has triggered fears their party could crash out of government.

Merkel rides to the rescue as conservatives plunge ahead of German election
German chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech during a CDU/CSU campaign rally for the general elections scheduled for September 26th, 2021, at the Berliner Tempodrom in Berlin on August 21st, 2021.  John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Merkel’s conservative CDU-CSU alliance has led Germany in four coalitions since 2005 when she took office, but the country’s future new government has been thrown open as her departure from the political stage nears.

The 67-year-old veteran will step down after the September 26th elections and had so far refrained from commenting about who she preferred to take over from her.

But on Saturday, at a key election campaign rally, she voiced strong backing for Laschet.

“It has always been important to him to place the individual and their inviolable dignity at the centre of everything… I am deeply convinced that it is precisely with this attitude that (he) will serve the people of Germany as chancellor,” she said at the rally.

While Merkel’s popularity ratings have held steady in the twilight of her reign, Laschet has struggled to find favour with voters.

The latest polls show their conservative bloc now hanging on to a narrow lead of two percentage points against junior coalition partners the Social Democrats, who have in recent weeks made big strides to overtake erstwhile runners-up the Greens.

A survey published on Friday showed just as many Germans want the Social Democrats to lead the next government as the conservatives — an alarmingly big drop of five percentage points in backing for the CDU-CSU from early August.

The SPD’s chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz was also more popular with voters — some 41 percent of Germans prefer the centre-left politician as next chancellor as compared to just 16 percent plumping for Laschet.

‘Quick and painful’

While frustration against the government over the coronavirus pandemic had initially weighed on the conservatives’ popularity earlier in the year, the mood had brightened as more Germans were vaccinated and curbs were eased.

An initial boost in support for the Greens had also melted away as its leader was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal and other gaffes, giving the conservatives a strong lead in polls entering the summer.

But the mood dramatically turned in July when Laschet was seen chuckling in the background with local officials while Germany’s president gave a speech mourning victims of deadly floods.

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

Since the disaster, the conservatives have been unable to halt a falling trend in popularity.

The Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan also puts more pressure on Merkel’s government, which is under fire for failing to anticipate the crisis sooner.

At Saturday’s rally, Laschet acknowledged that the campaign was “going differently that the various strategies” drawn up by his party. But he blamed the pandemic and then the floods for derailing the plans, and did not address his failing popularity.

Criticism from several backbenchers had spilled out into the open on Friday, with the Bild daily even quoting MPs apparently urging Laschet to step aside for the sake of the party.

“A quick and painful reaction is better than to go down together,” CDU lawmaker Sylvia Pantel was quoted as saying by Bild.

The jitters in the conservative camp also risk reviving strife that had dogged the alliance of CDU and its sister party CSU even before the start of their election campaign.

‘Great danger’

Laschet only secured the conservatives’ chancellor candidate nomination in April after a bruising battle with the leader of Bavaria’s CSU, Markus Soeder.

Despite conceding after the loss, a whiff of discontent has lingered in the air from Soeder’s camp as the Bavarian has been consistently ahead in popularity polls against Laschet.

In a new jibe from Soeder’s camp on Friday, CSU general secretary Markus Blume said there was “great potential for improvement” in the conservatives’ poll ratings, and that, is “especially, by the way, when measured against the tremendous popularity that Markus Soeder continues to enjoy”.

READ ALSO: Merkel’s conservatives confirm Laschet for chancillor as Soeder concedes

Soeder put up a united front with Laschet at the rally, telling him “Armin, you can rely on my support — this I mean in all honesty.”

But Soeder, who is also Bavaria’s state premier, also underlined that it was the conservatives’ toughest campaign since 1998, when the alliance was voted out of government.

“The trend is clear at the moment — it’s not heading steeply upwards,” he said, adding that “all’s not lost yet.”

“There’s no reason to complain, rather, it is time to really put up a fight. I have no desire to go into opposition.”

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POLITICS

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

While far-right groups have been celebrating, other politicians in Germany see the results as worrying. Here's a look at the reaction.

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

According to initial projections following Italy’s election on Sunday, the coalition led by Georgia Meloni and her radical right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party has won a majority of seats in the two chambers of the Italian parliament and will lead the next government. 

Meloni is a euro-sceptic who has previously spoken about having an “aversion” to Germany and referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as “socialist” while on the campaign trail.

However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s deputy spokesman Wolfgang Buechner told reporters on Monday: “We of course have to wait for the official final result from this election but at this time what the chancellor would say is that Italy is a very Europe-friendly country with very Europe-friendly citizens and we assume that won’t change.” 

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A Finance Ministry spokesperson added that Berlin expected the new Italian government to continue to respect the stability pact that sets the fiscal rules for the eurozone.

Despite these reassurances from the central government, German politicians in the EU parliament have expressed concern about the new direction for Italy.  

Rasmus Andresen, spokesman for the German Greens in the EU Parliament, said the “unprecedented Italian slide to the right” will have massive repercussions for Europe and for the European Union.

“Italy, as a founding member and the third strongest economy in the EU, is heading for an anti-democratic and anti-European government.”

Though Meloni no longer wants Italy to leave the eurozone, she has said that Rome must assert its interests more and has policies that look set to challenge Brussels on everything from public spending rules to mass migration.

The Greens’ co-leader in Brussels, Thomas Waitz, told Die Welt that the EU can only function if it sticks together, for example on cooperation in energy markets, decisions on Russian sanctions or dealing with the Covid crisis. “Meloni, on the other hand, would back national go-it-alones. It can be a disaster for Europe,”  he said. 

READ ALSO: Euro falls to 20-year low against US dollar

The FDP’s expert on Europe, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, takes a similar view. He said on ARD’s Morgenmagazin that cooperation with Italy in the European Union will become more difficult. He said that it will now be much more difficult to achieve unity in Europe, especially on the issues of migration, reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the single market.

Speaking on RTL, Green Party leader Omid Nouripour called the election results in Italy “worrying” and pointed out that people within the Italian right-wing nationalist alliance have “very close entanglements with the Kremlin”.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that people in Moscow also popped the corks last night,” he said.

Germany’s own far-right party – Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – has been celebrating the victory. 

AfD member of the Bundestag Beatrix von Storch wrote “We cheer with Italy!” on Twitter late Sunday evening.

Referring to the recent elections in Sweden, where the right was also successful, von Storch wrote: “Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: left-wing governments are so yesterday.”

Her party colleague Malte Kaufmann tweeted, “A good day for Italy – a good day for Europe.”

With reporting from AFP

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