We left the German election campaign with the Greens in the lead under Annalena Baerbock, an outbreak of small and medium-sized scandals, and Armin Laschet ambiguously triumphant as CDU/CSU candidate. Over the silly season, the so-called Sommerloch, stuff happened.
Here’s some polling for the last 7 years from Der Tagesspiegel‘s aggregator. You can see the slow decline of both major parties, the SPD’s 2017 false dawn, the rise of the Greens, and the pandemic reset. You can also see the CDU/CSU’s crisis in the spring as the pandemic boost wore off and the Greens spiked, and then its reset.
A sommerloch is defined by the absence of serious content, and that was how it started. The CDU/CSU campaign management responded to the Green breakthrough by shaking out everything they had in their opposition research file. That turned out to mean getting very angry about Annalena Baerbock’s CV, which was inaccurate in places on trivialities, and claiming that not all of her insta-book (a campaign essential, one of the American tropes imported into German political practice) was wholly original. Some of this was risible – one of the quotes in question was a list of the EU’s member states, not the sort of thing where originality is usually prized, while a lot turned on insinuating that a master’s degree from LSE was somehow not real – and some of it wasn’t, but the main point was that it was at least something. Following politics in a foreign language can provide a kind of Verfremdungseffekt where the half-truths are more glaring and the vacuity of the talking points more obvious, and it was very clear that the CDU management had an option set up to do a bit of dirty and now they were pressing the button.
There was some blowback – it turned out Armin Laschet’s own campaign book wasn’t any better – but the CDU also had a big ad drop set up complaining about “Anna and the 10 Bans” (Verbote – similar to Gebote or commandments) and its outriders were ready to start complaining about cargo bikes (this is a culture war thing for some reason). Some people speculated about swapping Robert Habeck back in as candidate (see this savage TAZ piece), but the Greens chose to tough it out. The CDU’s blitz worked, up to a point, knocking the Greens back to around 18 per cent and briefly reversing the CDU’s descent.
And then there were events.
Germany experienced a major flood disaster – mostly around areas with old mine workings that could fill up and fail, a telling reminder of the country’s relationship with coal – the Taliban conquered Kabul, and there were some more small and medium-sized scandals. Laschet, meanwhile, launched an astonishing series of campaigning disasters. First up, he was caught on camera laughing uncontrollably as President Steinmeier conveyed the nation’s condolences to the flooded. Then he spoke to one of them, in pouring rain, as a underling held an umbrella over Laschet’s head but pointedly not the flood victim’s. Going for the hat-trick, Laschet then delivered a major speech in front of a gigantic and unavoidably symbolic pile of rubbish. Not satisfied with that, he challenged his rivals to an “inhaltliches Wahlkampf”, a campaign over content, and followed up by announcing a three point plan for Germany’s future consisting of digital, less bureaucracy, and…what was the other one? The whole performance was powerfully reminiscent of Theresa May’s 2017 party conference speech with its coughing fit, irrepressible heckler, and that sign that lost a letter until it announced a country that orked for everyone. It’s probably worth taking a moment to appreciate the visual side of this, as it was precisely the visual quality of the thing that bit so hard. Images are from the round-up here.
So, the laugh:
— toto (@josefheynckes) July 17, 2021
The brolly (is it even possible to use one with dignity?):
The rubbish (if it wasn’t everywhere):
The three-point plan:
Laschet forderte kürzlich eine stärkere "inhaltliche Auseinandersetzung" im Wahlkampf. Nach Inhalten gefragt, fallen ihm allerdings erstaunlich wenige ein (Quelle: https://t.co/7gNGClfct3): pic.twitter.com/qI08SCMRKy
— Johannes Hillje (@JHillje) August 19, 2021
You might object that this is mere froth, but then that’s what a sommerloch is like. Further, if Laschet wanted a campaign about content, he could have damn well come up with some. In a genuinely important sense, the campaign has been dominated by CDU/CSU internal backstabbing, whether or not MLA or APA citation rules apply to a general-audience book, and Laschet’s inability to carry out a simple photocall without humiliating himself precisely because he’s offered so little either in terms of policy or personality.
And even the consummately well-executed blitz campaign against the Greens should be seen as part of the same phenomenon. Raking out the bottom of the oppo-research drawer won the CDU some political space and headed off the immediate crisis, but at the end of the day it was far from the worst allegation an oppo-research team has ever come up with and Laschet did nothing to follow up. Further, the smear dump could be done once, and once only. You can’t unring a bell, but neither can you redrop a bomb, and once the bomb bay was empty there were still three months to go until polling day. In hindsight, it looks like they acted out of panic and wasted a move better used in the last week before the polls closed, which doesn’t say anything good about Laschet.
Although, neither does that time he taught a course at the Rhein-Westfalen Technical University, lost the grades, made them up, made up more grades than he had students, and lied about it repeatedly to the university’s increasingly sarcastic administrators. Maybe German politicians should just keep away from universities.