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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‘Winter of rage’: Experts warn of riots in Germany due to rising energy costs

Experts are warning that economic hardship may lead to protests throughout Germany in autumn and winter - and that they could be infiltrated by right-wing extremists.

'Winter of rage': Experts warn of riots in Germany due to rising energy costs

In view of rising energy costs, supply difficulties, growing unemployment and general pessimism about the future, authorities in Germany are warning that there will be mass protests this year – and that these are likely to be abused by extremists.

The warnings come from civil servants from the federal offices for the Protection of the Constitution or Bundesverfassungsschutz – Germany’s watchdog for safeguarding free democracy at the federal level and in the 16 states.

Stephan Kramer, president of Thuringia’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told German broadcaster ZDF that, following the pandemic and the world events of recent months, there is a “highly emotionalised, aggressive, future-pessimistic mood” among the population, “whose trust in the state, its institutions and political actors is tainted by massive doubts”.

He expects that “legitimate protests” will be infiltrated by extremists, especially those from the so-called Querdenker (lateral thinking) scene and that it is likely that some will turn violent.

READ ALSO: How Germany is saving energy ahead of uncertain winter

“What we have experienced so far in the Covid pandemic in terms of partly violent confrontations on social networks, but also in the streets and squares, was probably more like a children’s birthday party in comparison,” Kramer said.

The head of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Torsten Voß, told the Funke Mediengruppe that he expects “extremist conspiracy ideologues and other enemies of the constitution” will try to abuse protests for their ideological purposes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, he said “a spectrum of radical opponents of vaccination and so-called Covid deniers have built up a protest infrastructure, with contacts and channels for mobilisation”. This group will try to use this infrastructure for the energy security protests in the autumn, he said.

READ ALSO: German households could see ‘four-digit’ rise in energy costs this winter

Brandenburg’s head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Jörg Müller, also fears that extremists could exploit the energy crisis and high inflation fears for their own purposes.

“Extremists dream of a German winter of rage” he told Welt am Sonntag. “They hope that the energy crisis and price increases will hit people particularly hard so that they can pick up on the mood and advertise their anti-state aspirations. We are following these goings-on with watchful eyes and open ears.”


Constitution – (die) Verfassung

Rage – (die) Wut

Violent – gewalttätig

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