Germany floods: Politicians and the balancing act amid crisis

Published : July 23, 2021 18:38 IST

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen here visiting North Rhine-Westphalia on July 20, was visibly moved by the scale of the flood's destruction. Photo: Wolfgang Rattay/AFP/Getty Images

As Germany reels from catastrophic floods, experts doubt there will be a lasting effect on the upcoming national election. But candidates will have to walk a fine line between showing empathy and exploiting tragedy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Bad Münstereifel in North Rhine-Westphalia on July 20 and surveyed the damage caused by the recent deadly flooding. She took in the impact on the once idyllic town and was visibly moved, as was clear from the live footage broadcast by a number of TV channels.

The German chancellor told locals that the town had "been so badly hit that it makes you speechless." Before leaving, she reassured the mayor that she would return soon, even though she would no longer be in power.

Political scientist Ursula Münch, head of the Akademie für Politische Bildung (Academy for Political Education) in Tutzing, Bavaria, told DW that such visits were "balancing acts" for politicians. "If people in power do not make such trips they may be accused of a lack of interest and empathy," she said. On the other hand, if they did make them, said Münch, they may easily be accused of being only interested in their "election campaign."

Politicians can use crises to their advantage

Merkel cannot be accused of this since she is not standing in this year's elections. But many of the politicians who have visited the areas most affected by the floods in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia — including the German president, the three candidates running for chancellor, ministers, and state ministers — could face such accusations. Crises such as this are often seen as deal makers or breakers.

Political scientist Gero Neugebauer from the Freie University in Berlin told DW that in such crises, ruling parties had a clear "institutional bonus and those in office have an advantage."

Annalena Baerbock, the German Green Party's candidate for chancellor, whose popularity has waned since she first entered the race, therefore has a disadvantage of not holding a government office — unlike her main competitors Armin Laschet from the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats (SPD), who both visited devastated towns amid a media frenzy. Though Baerbock visited the flooded regions like them, there were no cameras.

Greens best suited to fighting climate change

But can it be said that Laschet, the powerful leader of the CDU and state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, has a clear advantage? Or that Olaf Scholz has gained a lead in terms of public perception and crisis management? After all, as the federal finance minister, Scholz has pledged millions in aid.

The answer is: not quite. According to a poll commissioned by Der Spiegel weekly, in which people were asked which candidate they thought was best suited to combat climate change, 26 per cent said Laschet, 35 per cent said Scholz, and 56 per cent said Baerbock.

Neither Münch nor Neugebauer were surprised by the results, particularly in Germany. "We vote for parties and not people," Neugebauer said, explaining that Baerbock represented the Greens, which are "regularly in top place when the question of which party is most capable of solving the climate problems is asked." Münch added that climate policy was the party's "genuine" issue; the Greens had not just simply jumped on the bandwagon.

'We forget everything very fast'

The fact that Laschet did not do so well in the poll could also be related to a faux pas when he visited the affected region last weekend. When President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a speech about the scale of the flood's devastation and expressed his grief while in Erftstadt, not far from Cologne, Laschet could be seen laughing in the background as he talked to a group of colleagues.

Laschet later apologized for his behavior. But Münch said he should have realized that these pictures would be publicized just because people are "constantly under watch with mobile phone cameras" and judged that the man vying to replace Merkel had "not behaved adequately."

By election day on September 26, the images of the floods will remain and the region will not have recovered — but neither political scientist interviewed predicted that the flooding disaster and the subsequent response will have a long-lasting effect. "I do not think that they will have a major influence on the election," said Neugebauer. Münch pointed out that there were still two months until voters head to the polls and said that Germans live in a "mood democracy."

"We forget everything very fast," he said.

This article has been translated from German.

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