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As the evening progressed Armin Laschet seemed to sink into his armchair. The leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats was on stage in Berlin last week not to expound on his experience or to explain how he might change his country for the better after 16 years of conservative-led governments. The CDU chancellor-candidate was in conversation with the author of a new biography of Angela Merkel.
With his party possibly heading for a defeat in federal elections on September 26, it seemed an odd use of his time. Laschet has struggled to convince CDU voters why he is the right man to lead the country. With the campaign in its final stages, Laschet spent 90 minutes answering questions not about himself but about the woman leaving office.
Merkel is the first chancellor to not seek re-election for 75 years. Until recently she has largely stayed out of the campaign. Yet with her absence she has still dominated it. The floating Merkel voter — loyal to her but not her party — will decide the outcome. The outgoing chancellor remains far more popular than those hoping to succeed her. Germans still appear to cherish her steady leadership, especially in times of crisis.
At the book discussion, Laschet said the lack of an anti-incumbent mood in the country was “what makes this campaign special”.
“The feeling is different to the last months of Helmut Kohl,” he said. “Then the feeling was — 16 years are enough. That was the dominant slogan in 1998. No one would say that about Angela Merkel now.”
Laschet and his rivals — Olaf Scholz for the Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens — are measured against the Merkel character standard. The first to stumble was Baerbock, when it emerged she had padded her CV and plagiarised passages for a new book. They were, a party colleague put it, rookie errors that betrayed her inexperience. Inexperience seems like a fatal flaw when you are leading a party with a reputation for radicalism.
Then when catastrophic floods devastated parts of western Germany, Laschet was filmed laughing in the background as the president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, paid tribute to the victims. The clip crystallised suspicions that Laschet, a genial Rhinelander, lacked the gravitas for chancellor. It has been downhill since. As the continuity candidate, Laschet could not fall back on fresh policy ideas to give his campaign impetus.
Instead, it is Scholz, a prudent finance minister and centre left moderate, who seems to offer the closest match with Merkel. Sobre, serious, even robotic, he seems designed to appeal to the Merkel floating voter. His policy platform of a higher minimum wage, more affordable housing and stable pensions is almost old-fashioned. But it is clear and comprehensible. And Scholz has championed a higher minimum wage for some time from within the coalition government. It also feels like continuity.
“There is no appetite for policy change or style change,” said Daniela Schwarzer, of the Open Society Foundations in Berlin. “But there is an appetite for a non-CDU chancellor at some point.”
“There is an increasing number of people who are fed up with Merkel’s habit of muffling politics, of not solving things, of leading from behind. But at the same time, they don’t want disruption.”
Scholz’s camp says their man has understood the mood. Germans may want to keep Merkel’s style and broad policy approach but they also want the next chancellor to fix problems Merkel has left: low paid jobs, digital backwardness, timid climate policies. Merkel’s forceful intervention in the campaign on Tuesday, warning of the risks of a leftwing coalition and praising Laschet’s “moderation”, shows Scholz has the CDU on the run.
For much of the last decade it was Merkel who claimed the credit for policies espoused by her centre-left coalition partners. It depressed support for the SPD to existential levels and displeased her conservative wing, but made her popular to the benefit of her party. Now the SPD is preparing to take back its Merkel voters.
“The party [CDU] always relied on Merkel’s power,” said a Scholz ally. “You can call it complacency”.