Laschet heckled over floods as he stumbles in German election race

Polling slide for centre-right candidate hoping to succeed Angela Merkel

Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and a candidate for the chancellorship of Germany, visits the flood-hit city of Stolberg. AFP
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German election frontrunner Armin Laschet is facing a slide in support only seven weeks before polls open, as anger continues over last month’s floods.

Mr Laschet, the candidate of Angela Merkel’s conservatives to succeed her as chancellor, was heckled by voters on a visit to a flood-stricken area this week.

Authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia – where Mr Laschet is the governor – were accused of failing to provide sufficient flood warnings.

“Have you ever lived in mud for a week?”, one man shouted at him. “You’re going to feel it at the election,” another said.

Mr Laschet brushed off the attack, saying he was not on a campaign stop and wanted to address the problems of flood-hit towns.

But although his centre-right CDU/CSU alliance still leads the polls, it has a narrowing lead over other parties such as the opposition Greens.

Due to formally launch his election campaign with a visit to Frankfurt on Thursday, Mr Laschet has called off the trip to deal with the fallout from the floods.

The clean-up is ongoing with waste centres struggling to sort a pile equivalent to a year's worth of refuse. Villages along the Ahr, a tributary of the Rhine, were ravaged by the floods and dozens of residents died.

Construction materials, tree trunks and branches are still waiting to be taken away outside the houses affected by the floods.

The clean-up from the German floods continues with waste being moved into a grinding container in Niederzissen, western Germany. AFP

The floods have pushed climate change to the top of the agenda in an election where the environment was already a significant issue. Voters in Europe's largest economy head to the polls on September 26.

One count published on Tuesday put the CDU/CSU on 26 per cent, with the Greens on 20 per cent and Social Democrats on 16 per cent.

Mr Laschet’s personal ratings are also in decline. One recent poll put him third in a hypothetical direct race for the chancellorship.

The polling slide began after a gaffe by Mr Laschet on an earlier flood visit, when he was caught chuckling during a speech by Germany’s president.

His apology for that incident was followed by more contrition after he was accused of plagiarism in a decade-old book.

Mr Laschet’s stumble threatens to upend an election campaign in which the question of who will succeed Ms Merkel had appeared all but settled.

Hoping to capitalise, the Greens unveiled a new 10-point climate plan on Tuesday that puts the Paris Agreement at the heart of its agenda.

Green party co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck sought to revive their campaign by launching a new climate plan. AFP

Under the Green plans, a dedicated climate ministry would have powers to veto government policies if they do not meet green targets.

“We need to set a course that would make 1.5°C possible,” said Green nominee Annalena Baerbock, citing the Paris target of limiting global warming.

Ms Baerbock had an early burst of momentum after she was nominated in April, but it soon evaporated as she suffered her own series of mishaps.

It put Mr Laschet in pole position as the coronavirus situation improved and the CDU/CSU regained ground it had lost during a spring lockdown.

But he was damaged by the flooding crisis that killed more than 180 people and could lead to a probe into failures by officials.

Flood-hit residents say the warnings they received were vague or non-existent and that sirens failed to sound on the night of the floods.

Prosecutors said they were reviewing evidence on possible negligent homicide before deciding whether to launch an investigation.

Updated: August 04, 2021, 12:20 PM