Angela Merkel’s shoe size is 38, she revealed to a rain-sodden, momentarily confused audience at an election rally on the Baltic coast on Tuesday night. That is relatively small – 5.5 in UK sizes – which means her shoes should not be too hard to fill. “That’s manageable,” Merkel said.
As the German chancellor chuckled mischievously, she gestured towards the man on her left, a 33-year-old tax auditor who is running to inherit the north-eastern constituency she has held since it was created in 1990. But her comment also applied to the man on her right, Armin Laschet, who is meant to lead the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into the post-Merkel era as her designated continuity candidate at Sunday’s national election.
Laschet, 60, is struggling to live up to his brief, with the CDU scrambling in polls behind the resurgent Social Democratic party (SPD) of the finance minister, Olaf Scholz. For the behemoth of postwar German politics to slump to second place after 16 years in power, possibly on no more than about 20% of the vote, would amount to nothing less than a political earthquake.
Tuesday’s rally in Stralsund was meant to be one of the last opportunities to turn the tide for Laschet’s campaign and send Merkel’s many admirers across the country into the voting booths full of enthusiasm for her chosen successor.
The mood music on the night was anything but promising. An ash grey sky brought gusts of wind and rain to Stralsund’s Alter Markt town square just as Merkel and entourage took to the stage. A small but noisy crowd of fewer than 50 anti-lockdown protesters chanting “Merkel muss weg” (“Merkel must go”) threatened to drown out the politicians’ speeches.
But the chancellor gave it her best. Laschet, she said, would fight to bring jobs into the structurally weak region in the formerly socialist east with the same dedication she had shown, while a leftwing coalition led by Scholz would “only think about how to distribute wealth, not generate it”.
Merkel warned that a left-leaning German government would run up joint debts with the rest of Europe not just temporarily, through the EU’s pandemic recovery package, but permanently, “which would not be good for Europe and become a great burden in a few years’ time”.
Still, fiery rhetoric has never been Merkel’s forte, and the line about her shoe size was the most memorable. In a typical Merkellian twist, she opted to express her support not by talking up the feats of a future chancellor Laschet, but by talking down her own.
The line of succession to Merkel’s tenure has been the source of speculation since her second term in office, when names whispered in Berlin’s corridors of power were the since-disgraced Bavarian defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and Ursula von der Leyen, now the president of the European Commission.
Since then, that line has been redrawn, rubbed out and sketched anew so many times that its final destination looks less like a work of draftsmanship than the result of a slip of the pen.
Laschet has many qualities: the Rhinelander can be a great speaker, as he displayed in the speech that won him the CDU leadership in January this year; he is respectful towards those from other political tribes; like Merkel, he is easily underestimated and has sticking power. If he can make up a few percentage points before Sunday, he may still come to lead the next governing coalition.
Yet when he stands next to the chancellor, there is an overwhelming sense that Merkel’s small shoes may be too big for him.
Two weeks before the vote, the news weekly Der Spiegel ran a cover story entitled Das Laschet Disaster, in which it accused the CDU candidate of several strategic errors: a bitty political agenda, a lack of a coherent narrative about what he wants to do with the top job in German politics, and above all, a lack of focus.
“Laschet acts as if he was waiting to inherit Merkel’s power – and not to win support and votes,” Spiegel wrote.
The same lapses in concentration were apparent by the Baltic Sea on Tuesday night. Laschet praised Merkel’s record of bringing unemployment in the city down from 24.1% to under 8%, and vowed to “continue her work”.
But when he commiserated over the death of a 20-year-old petrol station worker at the hands of what appears to have been a militant anti-masker, he muddled up the date of the incident and his condemnation lacked gravitas. “You can argue about everything, you can have different opinions about corona[virus], but one must not hurt others,” Laschet said.
A small band of hardcore CDU supporters tried to respond to the ensuing jeers from the anti-vaxxers with a chant of Armin Laschet wird Kanzler (“Armin Laschet will be chancellor”) to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, but gave up soon after.
Should the CDU not emerge as the strongest force in the country on Sunday night, an almighty in-party reckoning beckons. The former finance minister and CDU veteran Wolfgang Schäuble gave a flavour of the resentments simmering beneath the surface last weekend when he already pinned the blame for Laschet’s struggles on the outgoing chancellor.
Faced with a growing mutiny insider her own party’s ranks, Merkel had handed over the leadership of the CDU to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in 2018 but held on to the chancellory. A mistake, Schäuble told Tagesspiegel newspaper, that had left the party able to claim neither that “everything will change” nor that “everything will stay the same”.
Others, in turn, blame Schäuble and other grandees such as the state premier of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, who backed Laschet to become the carthorse of the CDU campaign over Markus Söder, the waspish Bavarian premier who looked fresher, more combative and popular than the Rhinelander when the party bloc made up its mind over the candidacy in the spring.
On Monday Söder was quick to defend Merkel, pointing to her impressive approval ratings. Laschet’s poor campaign, he said by implication, was of Laschet’s own making. Should the CDU come in second or level with the SPD, he is likely to soon put across that point in more unequivocal terms.