Germany’s devastating flood damage has shifted the dynamic in the country’s election campaign, potentially redrawing political lines in the contest to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Images of battered cars piled up in swollen gullies, floodwater surging through sleepy half-timbered villages have shocked German voters, leaving conservative front-runner Armin Laschet vulnerable and creating an opening for the Green party.
“It is terrifying,” Merkel, who leaves office after the Sept. 26 national vote, said Sunday as she surveyed the damage in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. “There are barely words in the German language to describe the devastation that’s been wrought here.”
Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union leader seeking to succeed Merkel, said the damage is “beyond imagination.” He addressed critics who’ve taken a dim view of his commitment on climate, saying global warming must be addressed “more quickly and more forcefully.”
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As the death toll approached 200, with scores missing and flood warnings sounding in Germany’s southern and eastern states of Bavaria and Saxony, the specter of more-frequent weather disasters due to climate change has resounded for German voters.
Germany’s Green party, rooted in anti-nuclear activism galvanized by the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, has already displaced the Social Democrats as the leading center-left force. The Greens surged past Merkel’s CDU in the spring to top voter polls for the first time after nominating 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock to run for the chancellery.
But Baerbock’s star has dimmed after accusations she embellished a public CV andcribbed passages for a book she wrote. That has put Laschet, the premier of Germany’s most-populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, ahead in the polls to succeed Merkel.
The CDU’s lead over the Greens narrowed to 10 percentage points, with Laschet’s bloc at 28% support, according to a poll published Sunday by Bild am Sonntag. The Social Democrats were close behind the Greens at 17%.
Now, the campaign may end up turning on the biggest floods since the Middle Ages for parts of Germany.
Climate policy is already a priority.All main parties have honed ambitions to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2045 or earlier. But the Greens are proposing the most ambitious climate policy, aiming for emissions-free cars and phasing out coal-fired plants by the end of the decade, making short-haul flights redundant and jacking up carbon pricing.
There’s precedent for a Green surge: a decade ago, the party soared in the polls after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. A repeat could leave Laschet and the conservatives back-footed in an election that’s 10 weeks away.
Laschet, who shouldered his way to the party leadership and the chancellery candidacy this year, did himself no favors bychuckling on camera in conversation with officials in the devastation zone, as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier solemnly promised disaster aid and offered sympathy to victims.
The gaffe was pilloried on social media and opened a line of attack for the Greens and Social Democrats accusing him of a lack of empathy. Laschet apologized on Twitter — and appeared Sunday evening in atelevision address, looking the part of a premier from a region hit hard by the floods.
“We will be dealing with the wounds of the past few days for a long time,” Laschet said. “Reconstruction will take months, even years.”
For her part, Baerbock cut short a vacation last week to survey flood damage. Social Democratic candidate Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s finance minister, told Bild am Sonntag he’ll pledge emergency aid of at least 300 million euros ($354 million) and a reconstruction program.
Flood politics has a history in Germany. Gerhard Schroeder strapped on rubber boots and waded into ravaged regions along the Elbe river in 2002, a move widely viewed as helping him secure re-election as chancellor that year.
Merkel has avoided the election-season fray. She was on a visit to Washington for talks with President Joe Biden as the scale of the disaster became clear. After a breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, she made a statement to the German press on the floods.
The chancellor made it to the affected areas for the first time Sunday, visiting Schuld, a devastated town in Rhineland-Palatinate. Her government will cobble together a rescue package for the region at a cabinet meeting Wednesday, she said.
Merkel said she wanted to gather a “real picture of what I must say is a surreal and haunting situation.”
— With assistance by Vanessa Dezem
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