2021-09-23 06:12:40 Days Before Germans Vote, Merkel Is Where She Didn’t Want to Be: On the Stump

Days Before Germans Vote, Merkel Is Where She Didn’t Want to Be: On the Stump

STRALSUND, DEUTSCHLAND — Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week, just days before Germans voted for a new Parliament and, with it, a new government and leader — further evidence that her conservatives are in peril.

Of course, Ms. Merkel is no longer a candidate. She is stepping down and had hoped to avoid the race. Instead, she spent Tuesday in her own district campaigning for Armin Laschet, a struggling candidate for her Christian Democratic Union. She even joked about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to persuade voters that Mr. Laschet is best suited to fill those shoes.

For weeks, polls have shown the Social Democratic Party leading the conservative Christian Democrats, who are also their governing partners. However, in the final week before the election on Sunday, the conservatives have closed the gap to about three percentage points.

The Christian Democrats are Germany’s largest political party and have been the country’s dominant political force for decades. Despite their current second-place standing, they have a reputation for being strong closers, which gives Mr. Laschet hope after a disappointing season. The Green Party, the race’s unexpected early leaders, are currently in third place.

The Social Democrats are running their most powerful election campaign in years, with strong messaging on progressive issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their front-runner candidate, Olaf Scholz, has been pitching himself as the best candidate to fill Ms. Merkel’s shoes.

“Social democracy is coming back,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance.

For years, the Social Democrats were the government’s forgotten junior partner, and Ms. Merkel frequently managed to win praise for ideas that they actually put forward, such as instituting a national minimum wage and legalizing same-sex marriage.

“In this election, the S.P.D. has succeeded in talking about and taking credit for their achievements while in government,” Ms. Römmele said.

One of the most serious issues plaguing Mr. Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, has been a lack of a compelling narrative. His campaign has been marred by gaffes, prompting critics to call into question his professionalism and ability to lead.

He was chastised again this week. He released a new campaign video on Tuesday in which he is seen attempting to deal calmly with a well-known anti-vaccine protester. However, if he hoped that the ad would demonstrate his diplomatic skills, it instead drew criticism for being in poor taste because it was released just days after a coronavirus denier shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused the man service because he did not wear a mask.

Mr. Laschet addressed the several hundred people who had gathered late Tuesday on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this Baltic Sea coast city that Ms. Merkel has represented since 1990, honoring the victim before chastising the several dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators who had gathered to protest the government with shouts and whistles.

“We do not want this violence,” he stated emphatically. However, neither his condemnation nor his pledge to beef up security drew much applause. He also failed to muffle the noise beyond the barriers.

The rally was intended to rally support for Mr. Laschet, but for locals and tourists alike, it became a chance to catch a last glimpse of the woman whose outsized role in their country and in Europe has influenced their lives since November 2005.

Christine Braun, a Christian Democrat in Stralsund, said Mr. Laschet would get her vote, but he wasn’t the reason she was standing in the pouring rain on a chilly September night.

“I came to honor Ms. Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that Ms. Merkel had visited the constituency on a regular basis for the past 30 years, attending meetings and engaging with the community. “She maintained an approachable and down-to-earth demeanor.”

Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both in their early twenties, were on vacation in Stralsund when they noticed posters advertising the event and Ms. Merkel’s attendance. They went more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than for political reasons.

They described their political views as “leftist-Green,” and stated that they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr. Laschet.

“I think it is a good thing if the Christian Democrats oppose,” Mr. Taugnitz said.

That is something that could happen. Voters will go to the polls on Sunday, though many may have already done so, as the pandemic has resulted in an unusually high number of requests for mail-in ballots — a form of voting that has existed in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe.

Even if the Social Democrats emerge as the most powerful party, they would still require at least one partner to form a government. While this implies that the roles could be reversed, with the Christian Democrats serving as junior partners under Mr. Scholz, a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the business-friendly Free Democrats is more likely.

Mr. Laschet has been warning against the threat posed by such an alliance, attempting to portray the other parties as a threat to the prosperity enjoyed by Germans under Ms. Merkel.

“What the S.P.D., the Left, and the Greens are planning is completely wrong,” Mr. Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to raise taxes on the country’s highest earners. “They must invest in order to create jobs.”

Instead, Ms. Merkel praised Mr. Laschet and Georg Günther, who is running for the seat in Parliament that Ms. Merkel is leaving after 30 years, for their accomplishments. She expressed confidence in both men’s ability to continue on the path she had charted for them and urged her supporters to back them up.

“I have reported my shoe size several times today,” Ms. Merkel told the Stralsund audience. She smiled and nodded to Mr. Günther, saying he could “manage” to fill her shoes — European size 38, or US 7 and a half. At the chancellery, she then turned to Mr. Laschet and said, “he is the one who can do it.”

Thilo Haberstroh, a native of the southwestern city of Karlsruhe who was in Stralsund on business and happened upon the rally by chance, said he wasn’t convinced that anyone in the running had what it took to be Germany’s next chancellor.

“This was interesting, but none of them really stuck with me,” he said. “I’m still not sure who I’ll vote for on Sunday.”

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Days Before Germans Vote, Merkel Is Where She Didn’t Want to Be: On the Stump