Germany’s Election Is Armin Laschet’s to Lose, but Will He Succeed?

Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party’s candidate for chancellor, is flagging in the polls, and he seems to be dragging the party down with him.

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FRANKFURT AN DER ODER, Germany — His party is the biggest in Germany. It has won all but three elections since 1950, including the past four. Its departing chancellor is more popular than any politician in the country. And German voters crave stability and continuity.

Armin Laschet, the conservative Christian Democratic Union party’s candidate for chancellor, should be riding high. The race to replace Angela Merkel was his to lose.

So far, he appears to be doing just that.

Weeks before Germans vote on Sept. 26 in their most important election in a generation — one that will produce a chancellor who is not Ms. Merkel for the first time in 16 years — Mr. Laschet is sinking, and he is pulling his party down with him.

The race is still close enough, and Germany’s coalition politics so unpredictable, that it would be dangerous to dismiss the conservative candidate. But after recent polls showed Mr. Laschet’s party dropping to record lows — of 20 percent to 22 percent support — his position is so dire that even some Christian Democrats have wondered aloud whether they picked the wrong candidate.

More broadly, Mr. Laschet’s campaign has prompted queasiness among conservatives who fear they could be seeing a weakness in the party’s appeal that has been disguised for years by Ms. Merkel’s own popularity and is now exacerbated by her inability to groom a replacement.

In 2018, she announced her personally chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a moderate centrist. But even with Ms. Merkel’s support, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer had trouble stepping out of the chancellor’s shadow and building her own base. She quit in 2020 as leader of the conservatives, leaving the door open for Mr. Laschet.

Mr. Laschet had long boasted that if he could run Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, where he has been governor since 2017, he could run the country. But then extraordinary flooding this summer called even that credential into question, exposing flaws in his environmental policies and disaster management.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Laschet visited the flood-ravaged district of Iversheim in July.Credit…Pool photo by Wolfgang Rattay

“The biggest problem for Laschet is that he has not been able to convince voters that he can do the job like Merkel,” said Julia Reuschenbach, a political scientist at the University of Bonn.

She cited images of him laughing as the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made a somber speech after devastating flash floods that killed 180 people, and posing before a mound of trash to make a statement of his own. “He comes across as uncertain, flippant and unprofessional,” Ms. Reuschenbach said.

In recent weeks, Mr. Laschet has seen his individual popularity drop below that of his Social Democratic rival, Olaf Scholz, while support for Mr. Laschet’s party has been in a free fall since late July.

The situation is so dire that Ms. Merkel, who had said she wanted to stay out of the race, is now intervening and trying to rally voters for Mr. Laschet.

“Let’s be honest: It is tight. It will be very tight in the coming weeks,” Markus Soder, the head of the conservatives’ Bavarian branch, the Christian Social Union, and an erstwhile rival, said at an election rally on Aug. 20 that was meant to propel Mr. Laschet’s campaign into a final, intense stretch. “It is no longer a question of how we could govern, but possibly of whether.”

Mr. Soder openly challenged Mr. Laschet this year for the chance to succeed the chancellor, and he still enjoys a higher individual popularity rating among Germans than Mr. Laschet’s.

Germans elect parties, not a chancellor candidate. But over the course of Ms. Merkel’s four terms in office, her party has enjoyed the so-called chancellor bonus, meaning the willingness of voters to effectively cast a ballot for consistency.

Although Ms. Merkel remains Germany’s most popular politician, her recent attempts to drum up support for Mr. Laschet have failed to turn his fortunes around, partly because they have appeared last-minute and halfhearted.

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Election campaign billboards featuring Mr. Laschet, left, and his Social Democratic rival, Olaf Schoz.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Instead, Mr. Scholz now appears to be reaping the incumbent benefit, playing up his closeness to Ms. Merkel to become the second most popular politician in the country.

“Even conservative voters tend to approve of Mr. Scholz,” said Ursula Munch, the director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.

Yet Mr. Laschet is known for comebacks, for surviving blunders — including making up grades for exam papers when he was lecturing — and for his ability to turn around a sagging campaign in the final stretch. In the weeks before the 2017 vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, he focused on the need to increase security against a backdrop of record break-ins, to better integrate migrants and to reposition the state’s industry to focus on the future. The strategy worked and he defeated the incumbent Social Democratic governor, whom he had trailed in the polls for most of the race.

Among Mr. Laschet’s influences is his faith. At a time when more and more Germans are quitting the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Laschet is a proud member. “I am not someone who uses Bible verses in my politics,” he said. “But of course it has influenced me.” And Ms. Merkel has praised his Christianity as a guiding moral compass.

Mr. Laschet noted that his faith was something he had in common with President Biden, adding that the last time the leaders of the United States and Germany shared that faith was in the 1960s, with President John F. Kennedy and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer — also a Christian Democrat.

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Mr. Laschet talking with residents of Frankfurt an der Oder, in eastern Germany, last month.Credit…Jens Schlueter/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Another influence for Mr. Laschet is Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a place with deep ties to Belgium and the Netherlands, Mr. Laschet has been integrated into the larger European ideal all of his life. He still maintains a home in Aachen with his wife, Susanne, whom he met through their church choir and youth group. Together they have three grown children, including, Joe Laschet, a social media influencer and fashionista for classic men’s wear.

Mr. Laschet’s first political post was as a municipal official in 1979. He was elected to the German Parliament in 1994, and then, five years later, he was elected to represent his home region as a member of the European Parliament. He entered state government in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005, as Germany’s first minister for integration — a role focused on migrants and their descendants that earned him nationwide recognition.

After the Christian Democrats suffered a stinging defeat in the 2012 state elections, Mr. Laschet helped rebuild the party. He supported Ms. Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million migrants in 2015, and two years later, he became the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia.

This January, he fought to become the leader of the Christian Democrats, beating Mr. Soder, who remains a more popular politician with many Germans, but whether Mr. Laschet can save himself remains to be seen.

He has had some minor successes, including a feisty appearance in the first televised debate and deftly dealing with an angry vaccination opponent who stormed the stage during a campaign stop. Mr. Laschet has also assembled a team of experts, including former rivals, like Friedrich Merz, who is well liked among the party’s conservative wing, in an effort to show his bridge-building skills. But none of these things have made a dent in the widening gap with the Social Democrats.

At a campaign stop in Frankfurt an der Oder, a woman wielding a cellphone pushed her way toward the candidate as he stood on a bridge overlooking the Polish border, making a statement to reporters about Germany’s role in Europe.

Asked if she intended to vote for Mr. Laschet, she demurred. “I don’t know yet who I will vote for,” said the woman, Elisabeth Pillep, 44. “But I don’t think it will be him.”

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