BERLIN — With his conservative alliance plumbing fresh depths in the polls, German chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet unveiled a new “Team for the Future” on Friday — complete with a blast from the past.
While Laschet said the team would advise him on key policy areas, flashy choreography aired on live TV suggested it will rather resemble a shadow Cabinet intended to highlight the party’s expertise across issues ranging from the environment to the economy.
“There are just 23 days until the election, and it’s now time to focus on the issues,” Laschet said. “We’re facing a fundamental decision about the direction of German politics.”
Above all, the presentation at the party headquarters of Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Berlin was meant to breathe new life into his moribund campaign, which has struggled to halt — much less reverse — a precipitous drop in the polls over the past six weeks.
Given Laschet’s personal ratings are even lower than his party’s, a last-minute turnaround looks like a long shot. He previously resisted calls from within the party to present a shadow Cabinet, betting that focusing the public’s attention on him as the frontman was the better strategy — a call many analysts had questioned.
“One thing this shows is that he’s clearly capable of correcting mistakes,” said Ursula Münch, a professor of political science at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich.
Support for the CDU and their Bavarian allies has fallen to 20 percent from 29 percent in mid-July, according to the benchmark Deutschlandtrend poll commissioned by Germany’s ARD public broadcaster. The result, the lowest-ever recorded for the conservative alliance in the poll’s more than 20-year history, signaled that similar readings from other institutes in recent days weren’t an anomaly.
According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates the results from leading polling firms, the Social Democrats — the bloc’s historic center-left rival — leads the race with 24 percent, while the conservatives are second with 21 percent.
The best-known member of Laschet’s kitchen Cabinet, and the first he called on stage, is Friedrich Merz, a right-wing corporate lawyer Laschet bested earlier this year in the race to lead the CDU.
Laschet’s decision to turn to Merz — a controversial figure who in the early 2000s lost out to Angela Merkel in a battle to lead the CDU before all but disappearing from politics, reemerging after she announced her retirement — underscores the growing desperation in his campaign, which has suffered from repeated gaffes and doubts over his ability to lead.
At 65, Merz hardly fits the future-oriented image Laschet sought to project on Friday. And though Laschet presented him as a “business expert,” Merz’s record in the private sector, which consists almost entirely of serving on corporate boards and lobbying, is mixed.
What Merz does have that Laschet lacks, however, is the allegiance of the right wing of the CDU, which sees the lawyer as the last defender of traditional German values and mores.
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But even if Merz can deliver those votes for Laschet — a big if — it might come at the cost of another key constituency: Women. Polling has shown women, especially those who voted for Merkel, are deeply skeptical of Merz, suggesting Laschet’s ploy could backfire.
A more acute problem is that Laschet and Merz aren’t on the same page on key policy questions. Speaking to the CDU’s business wing earlier this week, Merz lashed out at the European Union’s proposed carbon border levy.
“If the European Union implements the planned carbon tax,” he said, “it wouldn’t just mark the end of free trade policy, but the beginning of a new global trade conflict in which everyone would lose.”
He went on to say the next German government needed to do everything necessary to prevent carbon levy “nonsense,” suggesting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (a Laschet ally) was to blame for the policy.
Most surprising within Merz’s intervention was that the CDU itself endorsed the Commission’s plan in its latest party program, in which it explicitly calls for a carbon border levy.
The episode highlights the risk Laschet is taking by embracing Merz, who isn’t known for being a team player.
The other seven members of Laschet’s new team are experts in their respective fields, but little known to the general public.
Though the overriding theme of the show was renewal and innovation, promising an acceleration of reform on environmental policy and more investment in technology, it wasn’t immediately clear why voters should buy such promises from representatives of a party that has been in power for the past 16 years.
Laschet’s point-woman for technology and innovation, for example, is Dorothee Bär, who pledged to “ignite a new digital turbo.” Her current position in Merkel’s government for the past several years: State minister for digital affairs.
Nette Nöstlinger contributed reporting.