Germany’s Merkel makes final push for successor in knife-edge poll

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday urged Germans to give her would-be successor Armin Laschet the vote to shape Germany's future, in a last-ditch push to shore up his beleaguered campaign 24 hours before Germans vote. All throughout his campaign, the conservative candidate had to build up popularity to face his left-wing opponent Olaf Scholz.

Christian Democratic Union CDU leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel react on stage during their campaign rally in Aachen, western Germany, on September 25, 2021, one day ahead of the German federal elections.
Christian Democratic Union CDU leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel react on stage during their campaign rally in Aachen, western Germany, on September 25, 2021, one day ahead of the German federal elections. © Ina Fassbender, AFP

Laschet, 60, has been trailing his Social Democrat challenger Olaf Scholz in the race for the chancellery, although final polls put the gap between them within the margin of error, making the vote one of the most unpredictable in recent years.

Merkel had planned to keep a low profile in the election battle as she prepares to bow out of politics after 16 years in power. But she has found herself dragged into the frantic campaign schedule of the unpopular chairman of her party, Laschet.

In the last week of the campaign, Merkel took Laschet to her constituency by the Baltic coast and on Friday headlined the closing rally gathering the conservatives' bigwigs in Munich.

Merkel tugged at the heartstrings of Germany's predominantly older electorate on Friday, calling on them to keep her conservatives in power for the sake of stability -- a trademark of Germany.

"To keep Germany stable, Armin Laschet must become chancellor, and the CDU and CSU must be the strongest force," she said.

A day before the vote, she travelled to Laschet's hometown and constituency Aachen, a spa city near Germany's western border with Belgium and the Netherlands, where he was born and still lives.

"It is about your future, the future of your children and the future of your parents," she said, urging strong mobilisation for her conservative alliance.

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Merkel underlined that climate protection will be a key challenge of the next government, but said this would not be achieved "simply through rules and regulations".

Laschet is a "bridge-builder who will get people on board" in shaping Germany to meet those challenges, she said.

The conservative candidate "is a proud European and has been building his campaign on that”, FRANCE 24's Berlin correspondent Nick Spicer reported.

"He’s far less popular with Germans as a possible chancellor than is Olaf Scholz,” Spicer said.

Hundreds of thousands of people had descended on the streets on Friday urging change and greater climate protection, with a leading activist calling Sunday's election the vote "of a century".

‘Fresh start for Germany’ in Merkel’s ‘continuity’

With the clock ticking down to the election, Scholz was also staying close to home at the other end of the country to chase down last votes.

Scholz is holding "dialogues on the future" with voters in his constituency of Potsdam -- a city on the outskirts of Berlin famous for its palaces that once housed Prussian kings.

Currently finance minister in Merkel's coalition government, Scholz has avoided making mistakes on the campaign trail, and largely won backing as he sold himself as the "continuity candidate" after Merkel in place of Laschet.

Also, on the campaign trail on Friday, Scholz demanded a "fresh start for Germany" and "a change of government" after 16 years under Merkel.

Laschet lagging behind

Described as capable but boring, Scholz has consistently beaten Laschet by wide margins when it comes to popularity.

As election day loomed, Laschet's conservatives were closing the gap, with one poll even putting them just one percentage point behind the SPD's 26 percent.

Laschet went into the race for the chancellery badly bruised by a tough battle for the conservatives' chancellor candidate nomination.

Nevertheless, his party enjoyed a substantial lead ahead of the SPD heading into the summer.

But Laschet was seen chuckling behind President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as he paid tribute to victims of deadly floods in July, an image that would drastically turn the mood against him and his party.

As polls showed the lead widening for the SPD, the conservatives turned to their greatest asset - the still widely popular Merkel.

Yet roping in the chancellor is not without risks, said political analyst Oskar Niedermayer of Berlin's Free University.

"Merkel is still the most well-liked politician. But the joint appearances can become a problem for Laschet because they are then immediately being compared to each other," he said. "And it could therefore backfire because people could then think that Merkel is more suitable than Laschet."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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