As conservatives' fortunes plunge, Merkel hopes to ride to rescue

Berlin (AFP) –


German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek Saturday to shore up the chances of her would-be successor Armin Laschet, whose dismal poll ratings a month before elections have triggered fears their party could crash out of government.

Merkel's conservative CDU-CSU alliance has led Germany in various coalitions since 2005 when she took office, but the country's future new government has been thrown open as her departure from the political stage nears.

The 67-year-old veteran will step down after September 26 elections.

While her popularity ratings have held steady in the twilight of her reign, the man who is seeking to claim her crown has struggled to find favour with voters.

The latest polls show their conservative bloc now hanging on to a narrow lead of two percentage points against junior coalition partners the Social Democrats, who have in recent weeks made big strides to overtake erstwhile runners-up the Greens.

A survey published Friday showed just as many Germans want the Social Democrats to lead the next government as the conservatives -- an alarmingly big drop of five percentage points in backing for the CDU-CSU from early August.

With the conservatives badly in need of a boost, Merkel will step in at an election rally in Berlin on Saturday to help stem the haemorrhage in support.

- 'Quick and painful' -

While frustration against the government over the coronavirus pandemic had initially weighed on the conservatives' popularity earlier in the year, the mood had brightened as more Germans were vaccinated and curbs were eased.

An initial boost in support for the Greens had also melted away as its leader was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal and other gaffes, giving the conservatives a strong lead in polls entering the summer.

But the mood dramatically turned in July when Laschet was seen chuckling in the background with local officials while Germany's president gave a speech mourning victims of deadly floods.

Since the disaster, the conservatives have been unable to halt a falling trend in popularity.

The Taliban's lightning takeover of Afghanistan also puts more pressure on Merkel's government, which is under fire for failing to anticipate the crisis sooner.

On the eve of Saturday's rally, criticism from several backbenchers spilled out into the open, with the Bild daily even quoting MPs apparently urging Laschet to step aside for the sake of the party.

"A quick and painful reaction is better than to go down together," CDU lawmaker Sylvia Pantel was quoted as saying by Bild.

The jitters in the conservative camp also risk reviving strife that had dogged the alliance of CDU and its sister party CSU even before the start of their election campaign.

- 'Great danger' -

Laschet only secured the conservatives' chancellor candidate nomination in April after a bruising battle with the leader of Bavaria's CSU, Markus Soeder.

Despite conceding after the loss, a whiff of discontent has lingered in the air from Soeder's camp as the Bavarian has been consistently ahead in popularity polls against Laschet.

In a new jibe from Soeder's camp on Friday, CSU general secretary Markus Blume said there was "great potential for improvement" in the conservatives' poll ratings, and that, is "especially, by the way, when measured against the tremendous popularity that Markus Soeder continues to enjoy".

Soeder himself will also be at Saturday's rally, which will be scrutinised for any signs of disharmony.

He has already come out to stress that the situation was critical for the conservatives.

"There is now a very great danger that there may not be a majority beyond the Union," he warned in an interview with Bild, referring to the conservative bloc.

"That must be clear to everyone. The leadership of a federal government by the CDU-CSU... is at risk.

"We cannot say that everything is running perfectly. We now need to roll up our sleeves."