Armin Laschet, who hopes to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor, has been compared to a traditional child’s toy - a wooden figure on a round base that, when touched, wobbles but stays upright.
Allies and foes alike are watching to see how close Laschet comes to the tipping over when voters turn out Sunday for a regional election in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The election is a significant test for the 60-year-old the ruling Christian Democratic Union has chosen as its candidate for chancellor in national elections scheduled for September.
Saxony-Anhalt’s capital, Magdeburg, is the burial place of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, and there are already commentators suggesting it may come to be seen as the site where Laschet’s ambitions to become Germany’s next chancellor were first buried.
National elections are not “won in the East; they can, however, be lost in the East,” a CDU regional leader, Mario Voigt, said recently.
A poor showing for the CDU in Sunday’s election would add to the doubts of many party stalwarts who question whether Laschet, chief minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, was the right choice as their national candidate.
Many, especially on the right of the party, thought the more charismatic Markus Söder, the 54-year-old leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, would have been a better electoral champion, offering a greater chance of a victory in September than Laschet, a cautious centrist politician, who is seen as a Merkel retread. The CDU recorded its biggest opinion poll slump after Laschet was picked in April as the party’s nominee for chancellor.
In sparsely populated and de-industrialized Saxony-Anhalt, Germany’s poorest state, the nationalist conservative Alternative für Deutschland party is chasing the CDU hard in opinion polls. The pandemic has not been kind to the AfD, which entered the German parliament for the first time in 2017, and its support has gotten stuck at around 11% of the vote nationally. However, the party has remained competitive in the poor states of the former communist East Germany, including Saxony-Anhalt, considered an AfD stronghold.
One pollster, INSA, has put the AfD a percentage point OK? ahead of the CDU. In the runup to voting, Laschet has focused on keeping traditional conservative CDU voters in line and appealing to centrists. Some on the CDU’s right wing in the state want Laschet to permit them to form a power-sharing governing arrangement with the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt after Sunday’s election to avoid having to enter a coalition government with the Greens and the Social Democrats.
However, Laschet has been reaffirming a sharp demarcation between the CDU and Germany’s far-right party.
“One thing is clear to me, any rapprochement with the AfD cannot be made with the CDU. Anyone who does that can leave the CDU,” Laschet told reporters with the Funke media group and the French newspaper Ouest-France.
The fear in the CDU is that a poor showing Sunday will add to the headwind Laschet is facing as he heads toward the federal poll in four months.
“German politicians have learned OK? to be jumpy about winds of change, especially when they blow from the five Länder [states] that once made up communist East Germany,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, a U.S.-based think tank.
“So the fact that the small state of Saxony-Anhalt holds a bellwether election on Sunday — the last state poll before the national vote on September 26 — is causing some headaches in Berlin,” she added.
Since German reunification, Saxony-Anhalt has seen its population shrink by a quarter. As the population shrank the far right has become stronger in the state. A right-wing extremist attacked a synagogue city of Halle, last year, killing two. After the attack, Germany’s security agencies placed the AfD’s regional branch under surveillance for “anti-democratic” tendencies.
If center-right voters defect to the AfD in large numbers — or just fail to turn out — it will amplify the voices of Laschet’s critics, who want the party to move further right to undercut the AfD nationally. For Laschet the challenge as September approaches is to find a solution to a big electoral dilemma — how to beat the Greens in the west of the country while also vanquishing the AfD in states like Saxony-Anhalt.
“We cannot want a radical right-wing party to be the strongest party in a German state legislature, so what happens in Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday is something that should concern all democrats,” Laschet told Deutschlandfunk radio midweek.
Later during a campaign stop in Dessau, he said, “There’s a lot at stake in this election. Everybody should go vote. Otherwise, there will be a rude awakening on Monday.”
Pollsters say the signs are that Germans are ready for major political change and the problem is Laschet is seen as a figure from the past.
Many voters have reservations about Laschet, according to Manfred Güllner, the head of Geran polling company FORSA.
“He still looks a bit old-fashioned, and the voters still don't see a clear course,” he told local reporters.
Laschet has experienced plenty of setbacks in his political career — defeats run through his rise to the top of German politics. After serving just four years in the Bundestag, he lost a reelection bid in 1998, and he was defeated in 2010 for the CDU chairmanship in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Like the toy, though, he has gyrated, but always managed to stay upright.