With the German Christian Democrats (CDU) lagging behind in the polls ahead of next week’s election, People’s Party members are resorting to an activity that had almost become redundant under Angela Merkel: campaigning.
In a medieval square in the northern city of Bremen, CDU leader and Conservative candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet takes the stage at a campaign rally to the rousing sound of Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger”.
With the CDU and CSU, his Bavarian sister party, looking down the barrel of their worst election result in post-war Germany on September 26, Laschet needs all the motivation he can get.
The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are currently leading the polls, the Conservatives in a position they are no longer used to after 16 years of Merkel: second place.
“I didn’t expect it to be so close,” says Hans-Georg Friedrichs, a longtime CDU activist in Bremen. “Laschet does not have the advantage of being already known. He had to make himself known.
– ‘Start from nothing’ –
“After Merkel, that’s the problem,” admits Kerstin Eckardt, head of a local CDU group. “We are starting from scratch. We have to convince people.”
“This time, it’s a real campaign. It is no longer acquired as before,” adds a colleague of the party.
With her record, Merkel was able to end a crucial televised electoral debate in 2013 with the simple closing words “you know me”.
Bernd Neumann, a CDU veteran and former cabinet minister, agrees that Laschet can suffer from not being a recognizable name.
SPD candidate Olaf Scholz has been finance minister and vice-chancellor of the Merkel coalition government since 2018. “He is well known, he can capitalize on his experience in government,” says Neumann.
Laschet has been the head of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, since 2017, but has never held a ministerial portfolio.
Elected head of the CDU in January, he only managed to secure the nomination of the Conservative chancellor candidate after a long battle with the most popular Markus Soeder of the CSU.
“If there had been only one candidate, we would have been told: ‘Nothing is happening in the party, you are not a Democrat.’ And with two candidates, we were accused of not being united, “complains Friedrichs.
But activists admit that the standoff between the two has left scars, especially at a time when Merkel’s impending departure has opened a political vacuum and created a real need for new momentum.
“I expected it to be difficult. It had been a long time since we had been second in the polls,” said Claas Rohmeyer, regional MP for Bremen, a former trading town with its own parliament.
– End of an era –
The party that has dominated politics in post-war Germany “is heading for significant changes, which is normal after 16 years,” he says, comparing the Merkel era to that of Helmut Kohl, his mentor, who was in power from 1982 to 1998..
A centrist and sworn European, Laschet pledged to pursue Merkel’s moderate path.
But in an election campaign where climate change dominated discourse, he was criticized for his lack of ambition and new ideas, mainly focusing on tackling bureaucracy to facilitate more sustainable development.
“On major issues, including climate policy, the priority for Germany is to regain its economic strength after the pandemic,” he said at the Bremen rally, before a chorus of boos from climate activists who declare it through a megaphone as “the worst choice for the climate”.
In July, televised footage of Laschet laughing behind President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paying tribute to flood victims stunned the country and eroded the Rhineland’s reputation.
The CDU-CSU alliance, which has never won less than 30% of the vote in the federal elections, currently obtains between 20 and 22% of the vote, the SPD in front with 25% and the Greens around 15%.
“The same tendency can be observed throughout Europe, with the weakening of the main parties”, explains Theresa Groeninger, vice-president of the youth wing of the CDU in Bremen. “The days of stability and large majorities are over. “
smk-fec / hmn / spm