German floods increase pressure for a break with the Merkel era

German election updates

It is a truism of German politics that floods can transform election campaigns and make or break a politician’s career. As Hamburg’s interior minister, Helmut Schmidt handled the flood crisis in his port city in 1962 so efficiently that he rose to national prominence and became chancellor 12 years later.

Gerhard Schröder appeared in danger of losing re-election in 2002 until the Social Democratic chancellor convinced voters of his leadership qualities by touring flooded areas of the River Elbe with a grim face and a pair of rubber boots. Edmund Stoiber, his conservative opponent, was slow to seize the moment, lost the election and faded from the national stage.

By this measure, the floods that wreaked havoc in western Germany last week, killing at least 170 people, ought to have shaken up the campaign for the Bundestag elections on September 26. In some ways they have done — but not, it would appear, in terms of changing the likely result. Support for all Germany’s main political parties is at almost exactly the same level in opinion polls as before the floods.

At around 30 per cent, the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, their Bavarian sister party, are holding on to the roughly 10-point lead they have built up since May over the second-placed Greens. Top of the polls in April, the Greens seem unable to recoup the ground they have lost over the past three months.

The Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU-led “grand coalition”, are stuck in third place at about 16 per cent. The liberal Free Democrats are fourth with about 12 per cent. Trailing the pack are the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany and the radical leftist Die Linke, both of which the mainstream parties regard as too extreme to be coalition partners at national level.

In other words, the CDU-CSU bloc is still odds on to lead the next German government. At the same time, it remains anyone’s guess who they may form a coalition with. All the combinations mooted before the floods, including that of Germany’s first CDU-Green government, are possible. Everything will depend on election day.

That said, the floods matter for several reasons. They have shone an unflattering light on Armin Laschet, the CDU’s choice to replace Merkel as chancellor. Germans like their leaders to be serious figures, especially at moments of crisis, not to be chortling in the background as Laschet did on a visit to an inundated town.

Until the floods, Laschet’s campaign boiled down to one simple message — that risk-averse German voters could trust him not to deviate from the cautious policies Merkel has generally pursued during her 16-year chancellorship. He also stuck to his guns as a defender of the coal industry in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia. These positions are under threat thanks to the instant consensus in the German political and media world that the floods are linked to climate change.

Precisely because of that consensus, however, the Greens have found it hard to extract political advantage from the floods. Their environmentalism no longer makes them truly distinctive. For many voters, the question is whether Annalena Baerbock, the party’s candidate for chancellor, has the right personal qualities for the job. Since May, this has been a vulnerable point for the Greens.

Above all, the floods have exposed weaknesses in Germany’s disaster response systems and opened up a debate about the long years of under-investment in infrastructure under Merkel. They indicate that Germany’s much-admired federal model of government can fail the people if the politicians in charge are complacent or slow to act.

For these reasons, the next German government will not only have to display greater urgency on climate change but will be under pressure to invest more heavily in economic modernisation as a whole. The break with the Merkel era may be more decisive than had seemed likely before the floods.

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