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By Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - Pollsters are already writing off Armin Laschet. And while Chancellor Angela Merkel's would-be successor thinks he can turn things around before Germany's federal election in September, he has his work cut out.
Since the conservatives picked him last month to run for chancellor, Laschet has seen the Greens overtake them in opinion polls; faced persistent sniping from his former, internal rival; and suffered a party rebellion in the east. Merkel also ticked him off over his lax handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
What is more, four months out from the election, Laschet's conservative alliance still has no campaign programme, allowing the Greens to set the agenda.
At stake is the direction of Germany, and Europe, and the fate of a conservative alliance that has ruled Germany for 16 years under Merkel, who steps down after the election.
No makeover is planned, sources close to Laschet say. Instead, his strategy is three-pronged and largely focussed on dealing with his own side: seek out internal critics and win them over, build a bridge to erstwhile Bavarian rival Markus Soeder with a joint programme of renewal on which to campaign, and show voters that his team includes women and young people.
Divisions between Laschet and Soeder stand in stark contrast to the united front presented by the Greens, whose co-leader Robert Habeck last month graciously presented Annalena Baerbock as chancellor candidate - a role he himself had coveted.
Since party grandees picked him over the more popular Soeder in late April, Laschet has reached out to rank-and-file members of his Christian Democrats (CDU) and to their Bavarian sister party, Soeder's CSU. The two run jointly in federal elections.
A CDU official close to Laschet says the party is getting on board with the candidate, and Merkel is expected to campaign for him over the summer despite rebuking him over the pandemic.
The strait-laced Laschet has the look of a regional bank manager and party officials acknowledge that, like Merkel, he lacks charisma. But - also like the chancellor - they say he is seen as somebody who can be relied on.
But Manfred Guellner, head of pollster Forsa, told Reuters that Laschet's ratings were so bad he did not see how they could improve enough by September.
"Laschet would have to convince and activate non-voters to vote for the CDU again. But I don't see that," added Guellner, whose latest poll put support for the Greens at 26% with the CDU/CSU on 24%.
A member of the CDU's executive committee set out the challenge: "From now on, the race to catch up begins."
A big part of that is getting Soeder on board.
After losing to Laschet for the chancellor candidacy, Soeder went rogue, jibing at the CDU and outdoing it on climate policy by setting Bavaria a target of becoming greenhouse gas-neutral by 2040, compared with 2050 for Germany as a whole.
CDU officials have described Soeder as "uncontrollable". But Laschet's party believes the Bavarian is now onside - after all, the CSU's strength in Bavaria derives from its common strength with the CDU in Berlin.
The CDU and CSU plan to present a joint election programme in June. Laschet wants to use this as a bridge to Soeder by focusing on modernising Germany for the digital, climate-neutral age - a theme the Bavarian champions.
Laschet, 60, also wants to use the programme for a "modernisation decade" to throw the conservative alliance forward and distinguish himself from the Merkel era.
The CDU is encouraged by signs that Soeder has finally come to terms with the fact that he is not the chancellor candidate.
A key test for Laschet comes on June 6, when the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt holds an election. Failure to win there would be a big hit to CDU hopes of winning September's federal election, party officials say.
Opinion polls suggest the CDU will hold Saxony-Anhalt but analysts believe the centrist Laschet will need the support of the more right-wing Soeder and his erstwhile rival for the CDU leadership, Friedrich Merz, to counter the far-right
Laschet has already had backing from Merz, who is popular on the CDU's right, and is also stacking his team with younger faces to appeal to younger voters and immigrants. Laschet reckons a quarter of voters have a migration background.
The team includes Nadine Schoen, 37, a digital policy expert, and Serap Guler, 40, the daughter of Turkish immigrants and state secretary for integration in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Laschet is premier.
Will the plan work? Naz Masraff at Eurasia, a political risk consultancy, attached a 60% probability to Laschet becoming chancellor, and 40% to the Greens' Baerbock getting the job.
Current polls "manifest the Baerbock hype – a fresh, young female candidate who stands for change", said Masraff. "But as the agenda shifts closer to September elections, the Green surge will probably level off."
And Laschet has shown he can beat the odds. He came from behind to win North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017, and saw off strong challenges from Merz for the CDU party leadership, and from Soeder for the chancellor candidacy.
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Giles Elgood)