Armin Laschet vs Olaf Scholz: Trends show neck-and-neck fight for next German Chancellor

Things started to go wrong for Laschet in mid-July, when deadly floods struck western Germany -- including North Rhine-Westphalia, where he is state premier.

Published: 26th August 2021 12:22 PM  |   Last Updated: 26th August 2021 12:22 PM   |  A+A-

A election poster for the German Social Democrats, SPD, shows top candidate Olaf Scholz, left, behind a poster for top candidate for the German Christian Democrats, CDU, Armin Laschet. (Photo | AP)


BERLIN: Armin Laschet, the head of Angela Merkel's CDU party, was long the flawed but clear favourite to become Germany's next chancellor when Merkel bows out of politics after the September 26 election.

But with recent polls showing the conservatives neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats (SPD) and on a downward trend, the 60-year-old's road to power is looking rockier.

Things started to go wrong for Laschet in mid-July, when deadly floods struck western Germany -- including North Rhine-Westphalia, where he is state premier.

He was caught on camera laughing in the background as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to flood victims, and was also widely mocked for wearing inappropriate dress shoes to the disaster zones.

Asked in a TV interview whether he thought the government had made mistakes in its climate policy, Laschet said it would be wrong to "change policies just because of one day" in what sounded to many like making light of the catastrophe.

A few weeks later, he also came under fire for suggesting that "2015 must not be repeated" when talking about the crisis in Afghanistan -- a reference to the influx of refugees to Germany in that year, which he had supported.

"Anyone who says that 2015 must not be repeated is saying: We can only afford this humanity once," the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung charged, accusing him of pandering to the far right.

- Support from Merkel -

At a rally in Berlin on Saturday, Merkel threw her support behind Laschet, insisting she was "deeply convinced" he was the right man for the job.

But one poll for the NTV broadcaster on Tuesday showed the alliance of the CDU and the smaller Bavarian CSU had fallen behind the SPD, their junior coalition partner, for the first time since 2006.

Recent surveys of who Germans would like to see as their next chancellor have also left Laschet lagging badly behind Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate.

Laschet only secured the conservatives' chancellor candidate nomination in April after a bruising battle with the CSU's Markus Soeder, who still regularly beats him in popularity polls.

With a whiff of discontent lingering in Soeder's camp, the Bild daily even quoted MPs on Friday apparently urging Laschet to step aside for the sake of the party.

But Laschet has a reputation for endurance and what Der Spiegel magazine has described as an ability to "sit out" his opponents -- a talent that may yet land him Germany's top job.

He won the vote to become CDU leader against many expectations, and also outperformed the polls to secure an impressive election win in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017.

Asked in a recent TV interview whether he thought he was often underestimated, Laschet replied that "many have certainly miscalculated".

- 'Statesman in the making' -

Laschet was born in Aachen, the spa city in western Germany near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands.

The father-of-three is a devout Catholic and met his wife -- who is of French-speaking Wallonian origin -- singing in a church choir.

He is a great fan of Charlemagne, the king of the Franks credited with uniting Europe whose empire was based in Aachen, and his family has even said they are direct descendants.

Known for his affable Rhinelander persona, Laschet has been accused of lacking the gravitas to negotiate on the world stage.

He was also widely criticised for what was called a dithering response to the pandemic in North Rhine-Westphalia, with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung describing him as "indecisive, sometimes acting impulsively".

In responding to the crisis in Afghanistan, he has aimed to show he is capable of taking a firm stance as he accused NATO of the "biggest debacle" in its history.

Afghanistan gave Laschet "the first opportunity to present himself as a statesman in the making", Die Welt daily said. "This was no longer the friendly Rhinelander."

Olaf Scholz: Safe pair of hands who wants Merkel's job

Nicknamed "Scholzomat" for his robotic speeches, Olaf Scholz, the centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) candidate to succeed Angela Merkel, has hardly stood out for his charisma in the run-up to September's election.

But unlike his two main rivals, Armin Laschet of Merkel's CDU-CSU alliance and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, the 63-year-old has also managed not to make embarrassing mistakes on the campaign trail.

As a result, Scholz is now within grasping reach of the chancellery just a month before the election.

At the start of the year, the SPD was trailing so badly in the polls that many had written off the chance that the party -- currently the junior partner in a coalition with Merkel's conservatives -- would be part of the next government.

But the latest surveys have the SPD neck-and-neck with the conservatives, and when it comes to which personality Germans would like to see as their next chancellor, Scholz is streets ahead.

One poll on Tuesday even had the SPD ahead of the conservative bloc for the first time since 2006.

Even if the SPD does not come first in the September 26 vote, Scholz could still end up being chancellor if he is able to form a coalition with other parties.

- Meticulous and confident -

As finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel, Scholz is one of Germany's most influential politicians and the only one of the three candidates who has held a ministerial office.

During his time in the post, the man often described as meticulous, confident and fiercely ambitious has cemented his reputation for being fiscally conservative.

Despite agreeing to suspend Germany's cherished "debt brake" to stave off the crippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic, he has insisted on a return to the policy by 2023.

"All this is expensive, but doing nothing would have been even more expensive," he insisted at the time.

Scholz's cautious approach has at times seen him marginalised within his own workers' party, overlooked in a leadership vote in 2019 in favour of two relatively unknown left-wingers.

But he has got behind the SPD's flagship policies in the election campaign, opposing a reduction in wealth tax promised by the conservatives and backing an increase in the minimum wage.

Despite his tight grip on Germany's finances, he has been known to loosen the purse strings, notably as mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, when he bailed out the wildly over-budget Elbphilharmonie concert hall.

For Scholz, whose motto is "I can only distribute what I have", the spending was justified by the city-state's healthy finances.

- 'Not particularly emotional' -
Born in the northern city of Osnabrueck, Scholz joined the SPD as a teenager.

He flirted with its more leftwing ideals but soon came to prefer a more centrist course.

After training as a lawyer specialised in labour issues, Scholz was elected to the national parliament in 1998. He married fellow SPD politician Britta Ernst that same year.

It was during his 2002-2004 stint as the SPD's general secretary that he earned the "robot" moniker for his dry yet tireless defence of the unpopular labour reforms of his idol, then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

As labour minister in Merkel's first coalition government from 2007 to 2009, Scholz helped avert mass lay-offs during the financial crisis by convincing firms to cut workers' hours with the state topping up their salaries -- a policy repeated during the pandemic. 

The SPD's deputy leader for almost a decade, he also backs deeper eurozone integration and greater German contributions to the EU budget post-Brexit.

Scholz has admitted he is "not someone who is particularly emotional in politics".

But his lack of charisma has never bothered Merkel, with the pair enjoying a close relationship.

The chancellor stood by Scholz in 2017 when he faced calls to resign after violent protests at the G20 summit in Hamburg, and also during the recent Wirecard fraud scandal.

Wirecard, once a rising star on the German fintech scene, filed for bankruptcy last year in what has been described as Germany's biggest post-war accounting scandal.

As head of the finance ministry, which oversees banking regulator Bafin, Scholz had come under fire for missing signs that something was amiss at the company.


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