When Armin Laschet visited towns and villages wrecked by last month’s flooding, locals took a break from clearing the muddy rubble to meet Germany’s chancellor hopeful – and put him on notice.
With at least 180 dead in the region, and dozens still missing, Mr Laschet’s visit to the town of Swisttal on Tuesday took a dark turn when he was surrounded by 100 frustrated and angry locals.
The worst of the rubble has been cleared, they told him, but 10 houses are in danger of collapse and thus uninhabitable, while about 70 townspeople are homeless.
As television cameras rolled, a walkabout by Mr Laschet – local minister president in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) – turned into an angry confrontation with locals saying: “Where were the sirens ahead of time?”; “Have you ever lived for a week in mud?”; “This is just a campaign stop”; “This is a disgrace.”
On the defensive, with a frozen expression, Mr Laschet insisted: “People want help and this is my job, this has absolutely nothing to do with the [September federal] election.”
In neighbouring Odendorf, another stop on the tour, local man Kai Imsande accompanied the visitor past the destroyed sports hall, football pitch and tennis courts. Still visible on house facades was a muddy high-water mark, 2.5m above the ground.
“He was very friendly and listened to everyone but he is a professional politician, he’s probably the same when he visits elderly care homes,” said Mr Imsande to The Irish Times. Unlike in Swisttal, he says people in Odendorf spared Mr Laschet “the big axe”.
No one in the area expects Mr Laschet to tackle all problems personally, said Mr Imsande, but they expect him – as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chairman and NRW state premier – to provide answers, soon, on existential questions.
Nearly three weeks on, as locals fend for themselves with salvage and reconstruction work, they want to know what the future holds for families, business-owners and children in the town.
Mr Imsande said Mr Laschet wrote his personal phone number and email address on the lining of a cigarillo packet. On Tuesday, locals in Odendorf were readying for him a list of 250 questions.
For now, Mr Imsande and his neighbours are prepared to give the CDU leader the benefit of the doubt, adding: “If Laschet doesn’t deliver by September 26th, election day, he will notice it at the polls.”
Tuesday’s angry confrontation was Mr Laschet’s second time on the back foot over the floods. Days after the catastrophe, he apologised after he was filmed giggling and joking during a visit to a flood-wrecked town.
With just more than seven weeks before Germany chooses a new government, Berlin’s ruling CDU party is leading polls on 28 per cent, but its candidate is sliding fast. If voters could choose a chancellor directly, just 13 per cent would choose Mr Laschet; in a second poll he has slumped dramatically behind his main political rivals.
As the political fallout from the floods disaster continues, state prosecutors are examining whether to begin proceedings – against persons or entities not yet identified – over “negligent homicide and negligent bodily harm”. With their main focus being: “possibly failed or delayed warnings or evacuations of the population”.
Among the cases being examined by prosecutors in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate is why 12 people drowned in a special needs care home when a nearby river broke its banks. In Swisttal-Odendorf locals want to know, too, why they were not warned adequately of massive floodwaters heading their way.
Given that just 20 per cent of those who have lost their homes had comprehensive insurance, according to one local official, who will pay to rebuild?
As federal, state and local authorities squabble over the responsibility – and the cost – of the failed flood warning, towns have begun repairing cold war siren systems that had fallen into disuse.
As a multi-billion-euro reconstruction project looms for homes, roads and bridges in the region, attention keeps returning in this election season to Mr Laschet as NRW and CDU leader.
Such crises can make – or break – a political career and not everyone is convinced Mr Laschet has proven his leadership ability in his second crisis in 12 months. As biographer Tobias Blasius told local broadcaster WDR: “The floods, like the corona crisis, have damaged his reputation more than anything else.”