Armin Laschet stands in the market square in the pretty town of Emsdetten, listening intently to what voters have to say. But his slightly awkward smile tells you he doesn’t find this easy work.
Mr. Laschet heads Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A regional election takes place here next month, but Mr. Laschet’s party is trailing in the polls behind the Social Democratic Party, or SPD. The center-left party is traditionally powerful in this state and is in confident mood under its new national leader and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz.
Mr. Laschet knows time is running out. With polling day less than four weeks away, the CDU is languishing at 28 percent in the polls, only slightly higher than the disastrous 26 percent it achieved in the last election five years ago. The SPD has a clear ten-point lead, suggesting state premier Hannelore Kraft may be on her way to a third term in office. Just a couple of months ago, the two main parties were running neck-and-neck, but then Mr. Schulz became leader of the Social Democrats, prompting an upsurge of support for that party.
The election in North Rhine-Westphalia is being seen as a key indicator for politics at the federal level. A poor CDU performance here could spell problems for Ms. Merkel’s own prospects in September’s national election. So Germany’s chancellor is leaving little to chance: between now and May 14, she plans to make no less than eight campaign visits to the state.
A poor CDU performance in North Rhine-Westphalia could spell problems for Ms. Merkel’s own prospects in September’s national election.
After seven years in power, the governing state coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green party should be vulnerable. Next year, the state will rack up €1.7 billion (about $1.8 billion) in new debt, more than all of Germany’s other states combined. Economic performance is poor, well below the national average. The Ruhr region, formerly Germany’s industrial heartland, is home to more long-term unemployment than anywhere else in the country.
Furthermore, the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, as well as public failures in the case of Anis Amri, the Berlin Christmas market attacker, have put considerable pressure on Ralf Jäger, the state’s SPD interior minister. Mr. Jäger’s ministry was tipped off about the potential of an attack by the Tunisian nine months before it happened, but the ministry ruled it couldn’t legally deport him.
CDU politicians in Berlin have been privately talking of an “open goal” – a “can’t miss” opportunity. Yet political scientists like Karl-Rudolf Korte give Mr. Laschet almost no chance of victory. He doesn’t appear to offer an alternative to Ms. Kraft. “He is affable enough, but hasn’t succeeded in making a clear difference between his party and the current state administration,” explains Mr. Korte. As part of the CDU’s progressive, centrist wing, Mr. Laschet is seen as a moderate on immigration and on workers’ issues. He has been criticized for being too close to the positions of Ms. Merkel, whose own leadership has been questioned like never before.
Even Mr. Laschet’s own supporters admit he doesn’t make such a good impression. Where the SPD’s Ms. Kraft seems natural, relaxed and spontaneous, Mr. Laschet comes across as artificial, uptight and forced. People tell pollsters they would like to go shopping with Ms. Kraft. But Mr. Laschet doesn’t really do small talk. When he is speaking to voters, a short and slightly unpleasant silence sometimes descends, before he turns on his heel and walks away.
Although he struggles in public, Mr. Laschet is a convincing voice on matters of substance. “His skills are obvious,” according to Mr. Korte, the political scientist. He says Mr. Laschet stands for modern citizenship, moral seriousness and socially-minded business spirit. On questions of security, many voters still consider the CDU to be more competent, Mr. Korte added. For his part, Mr. Laschet wants to see more surveillance of Islamist elements, by using electronic tags if necessary.
Nonetheless, the CDU leader seems doomed to come in second in May. That he may enter government anyway will likely be of little consolation. Opinion polls suggest the ruling “red-green” coalition – Social Democrats and Greens – will not have a majority after the election. A coalition between the Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats could be an option, but a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties – mirroring the national level – is also a distinct possibility. It is no secret that Ms. Kraft and Mr. Laschet have a high regard for each other’s abilities: apart from the usual electioneering, they noticeably never speak badly of each other.
Among the many coalition permutations, Mr. Laschet is said to be particularly open to a government of the CDU, Greens and Free Democrats: the so-called “Jamaica coalition,” named for the black, green and yellow in the country’s flag. That is also a possible outcome following September’s national election. But for now, the CDU’s main message is that everything remains in play. The recent regional election in the nearby state of Saarland taught everyone a lesson in keeping an open mind. There, what was widely expected to be a victory march for Mr. Schulz’s SPD turned into a triumph for the CDU, with non-voters mobilizing in high numbers out of fear of a left-wing coalition government.
In a recent speech in a town near the Dutch border, Mr. Laschet drew a comparison to a soccer game. Sometimes the commentators may say the game is over as the final whistle approaches, he said, but things can always be turned around. “So,” he concluded his speech, “Let’s keep going and keep fighting. We’ll give it our best shot.”
Kathrin Witsch is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]