Two weeks before Germany’s most interesting federal election in 20 years, the campaign game of the moment is called “Where’s Armin?”
To play you need a struggling politician, a divided party and good eyesight. Think snakes and ladders – without the ladders.
In mid-August, Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) distributed 67,000 election posters of their chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet to local parties around the country. Two months on, try and find them.
“We won’t dump them but we won’t hang them up either,” said Carsten Baus, a CDU official in the southwestern state of Saarbrücken.
Mutiny is growing in the party that, twice in the last nine months, voted for Laschet: first as party chairman in January, sending the CDU to 36 per cent in polls, then in April as chancellor candidate.
Twice CDU delegates had the choice of more radical candidates – first the conservative liberal Friedrich Merz; then Bavaria’s more populist leader, Markus Söder. After 16 years of centrist Merkel politics, though, her party played it safe and now is struggling to attract one in five voters.
Ask around for answers – in his election team, in his hometown of Aachen or on the campaign trail – and you hear the same observations: Laschet is too principled to be chancellor, says one; too decent, says another; lacks the killer instinct, suggests a third.
To turn things around, and save his political career, Laschet needs to prove wrong his critics – and his friends.
Not a natural
Even Laschet admits he is not a born politician. He is a native of Aachen, near the border with Belgium, where his father was a miner and the family devout Catholic. While other future CDU politicians practised their party conference speeches in the bedroom mirror, a teenage Laschet was helping out in the local church community.
“He really believed from here he could make the world a better place, and this – not ambition for power – remains his political motivation,” said Moritz Küpper, a Laschet biographer. “He has a strong set of values, atypical for today’s generation of leading politicians, who are more pragmatic or even opportunist.”
At 18 Laschet joined the CDU, reportedly to shut up friends who were already members. He studied law in Munich before returning to Aachen, where he edited the local Catholic newspaper. His political career began in Aachen town council, and a term in the Bundestag followed, before what he calls the “happiest time” of his political career, as an MEP.
He returned to his native North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005 as integration minister, and in 2017 confounded rivals – and pollsters – to become the state’s minister president. In his Düsseldorf coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), he worked to unpick the bureaucratic knots he says are choking Germany.
Transposing that to federal level – offering voters process rather than clear proposals – is proving difficult. Internal CDU polling shows that a majority of Germans are happy with the past 16 years under Angela Merkel yet, asked if it should continue this way, a majority say no.
“The voters are schizophrenic, and Laschet’s impossible task is to be both continuity and fresh departure in one,” said one CDU source.
Doing a better job to balance continuity with modest reform pledges is Olaf Scholz, centre-left candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is leading polls on 27 per cent.
While Scholz fronts a campaign with a firm “fairness” narrative and clear propositions such as a €12 minimum wage, CDU campaigning is less focused and, in recent weeks, largely negative: warning of a looming left-wing SPD-led coalition.
A series of gaffes, in particular laughing and joking while visiting flood-wrecked regions, did little to win Laschet over to sceptical voters who view him as a lightweight, jovial Rhinelander.
While CDU campaigners quietly hide their Laschet posters, other allies are in open opposition. On Saturday, Laschet will address the Nuremberg party conference of the Christian Social Union (CSU). It will be an interesting encounter, days after a senior official from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party said that “of course we would be doing better” if the alliance had chosen CSU leader Söder as candidate.
Despite trailing in polls, a record 41 per cent of Germans are still undecided and may yet be won over by the CDU leader in a second television debate on Sunday evening.
In Saarbrücken, Carsten Baus is anything but undecided. Many people have contacted him to support his poster boycott, he says, but won’t go public like him.
“Laschet is a continuation of Merkel politics that avoid clarity and chase the zeitgeist rather than lead,” he said. “Once we were a party of robust discussion but stood together at election time; now there is no discussion allowed and no clear direction.”