A few days before the Germans’ vote, Merkel is where she did not want to be: on the stump
STRALSUND, Germany – Just days before the Germans voted for a new Parliament and with it a new government and leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week – further proof that her Conservatives are in a perilous position.
Ms Merkel, of course, is no longer a candidate. She retired and had hoped to stay clear of the race. But instead, she spent Tuesday in her own district defending her struggling Christian Democratic Union candidate Armin Laschet. She even joked about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to convince voters that these shoes are best filled by Mr Laschet.
For weeks, the polls showed a lead for the Social Democratic Party, traditional rivals of the conservative Christian Democrats but also their partners in power. But in the last week before Sunday’s vote, the Conservatives narrowed the gap to about three percentage points.
The Christian Democrats are Germany’s largest political party and for decades have been the country’s most dominant political force. Despite their current second-place position, they have a reputation for being strong closers, which gives Laschet hope after a disappointing campaign. The Greens, the first unexpected in the race, are currently in third place.
The Social Democrats are waging one of their strongest election campaigns in years, marked by clear messages on progressive issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their favorite candidate, Olaf Scholz, has come forward as the best choice for Ms Merkel’s shoes.
“Social democracy is back,” said Andrea Römmele, Dean of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
For years, the Social Democrats have been the government’s forgotten junior partner, and Merkel has often managed to win praise for ideas they actually put forward, such as the introduction of a national minimum wage and the authorization of same-sex marriage.
“In this election, the SPD managed to talk about and take credit for his achievements while in government,” said Römmele.
The lack of a strong narrative has been one of the biggest problems for Mr Laschet, who is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and leader of the Christian Democratic Union. His campaign was marred by blunders that led critics to question his professionalism and ability to lead.
This week he was criticized again. On Tuesday, he posted a new campaign video in which he is seen trying to calmly deal with a well-known anti-vaccine protester. But while he was hoping the ad would show off his diplomatic skills, it instead drew tacky criticism, as it was posted days after coronavirus deniers shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused male service because he did not. wear a mask.
Addressing the several hundred people who had gathered on Tuesday evening on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this town on the Baltic Sea coast, which Merkel has represented since 1990, Mr Laschet honored the victim , then berated dozens of anti-vaccine protesters who had come forward to protest the government with yells and whistles.
“We don’t want this violence,” he said. But neither his condemnation nor his promise to increase security drew much applause. He also failed to silence the noise beyond the barriers.
The rally was meant to build support for Mr Laschet, but for city dwellers and tourists alike, it turned into an opportunity to glimpse one last time the woman whose outsized role in their country and in Europe influenced their life since November 2005.
Christine Braun, a member of the Christian Democrats in Stralsund, said Mr Laschet would get her vote, but that was not why she was standing in the pouring rain on a cold September night.
“I have come to pay tribute to Ms Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that during her 30 years of constituency representation, Merkel would regularly visit the places, attend meetings and engaging with the community. “She remained accessible and down to earth.”
Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both students in their early twenties, were on vacation in Stralsund and saw the posters announcing the event and Ms Merkel’s presence. They decided to attend more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than out of political interest.
They described their political leanings as “green leftists,” saying they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr Laschet.
“I think it’s good if the Christian Democrats go into opposition,” Taugnitz said.
It could happen. Voters will go to the polls on Sunday, although many have already done so, with the pandemic leading to an unusually high number of requests for postal ballots – a form of voting that has existed in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe. .
If the Social Democrats were to become the most powerful party, they would still need to find at least one partner to form a government. Although this does mean that the tables could be turned, with the Christian Democrats as junior partners under Mr Scholz, it is more likely to be a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats with the Greens and Business-Friendly Free Democrats.
Mr Laschet warned of the threat posed by such an alliance, seeking to portray the other parties as a danger to the prosperity the Germans enjoyed under Merkel.
“This is completely false what the SPD, the left and the Greens are planning,” Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to raise taxes for the country’s top earners. “They should invest and create jobs.
Rather, Merkel sought to congratulate Mr Laschet and Georg Günther, who hopes to win the seat in Parliament she is leaving after 30 years, for their achievements. She expressed confidence that the pair will continue on the path she has set for herself and urged her supporters to support them.
“Several times today I pointed out my size,” Merkel told the crowd in Stralsund. Nodding at Mr Günther and smiling, she said he could “succeed” in filling his shoes – European size 38, or US 7 and a half. Then she turned to Mr. Laschet and added: “it is he who can do it”, in the chancellery.
Listening from the side, Thilo Haberstroh, from the southwestern town of Karlsruhe, who was in Stralsund on business and only arrived at the rally by chance, said he was not convinced that anyone one in the race has what it takes to be the next Chancellor of Germany.
“It was interesting, but none of them really impressed me,” he said. “I still don’t know who will get my vote on Sunday.”