Merkel’s bloc steps up German election fight amid poll sag

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s would-be successor pledged Saturday to “fight with everything that I can” for victory in Germany’s Sept. 26 election, as the long-time leader’s center-right bloc kicked off its official campaign amid a worrying sag in its poll ratings.

Merkel joined Armin Laschet, a state governor and leader of her Christian Democratic Union party, to appeal to voters to extend the party’s long run in the chancellery. Laschet is running to succeed Merkel after her 16 years in office.

They both spoke at a rally in Berlin, with only a small crowd because of coronavirus restrictions, as recent polls have shown support for the Union bloc slipping as low as 23% — leaving it only a few points ahead of the center-left Social Democrats and the environmentalist Greens.

The polls also have shown dismal personal popularity ratings for Laschet, even as Social Democratic rival Olaf Scholz — the vice chancellor in Merkel’s coalition government — has gained ground.

Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term as chancellor. The Union took 32.9% of the vote in the last election, in 2017. In its best result under Merkel, the bloc won 41.5% in 2013.

Laschet assailed left-wing rivals, arguing that they plan tax increases that would risk strangling the economy even as it recovers from the pandemic and questioning how reliable they are on foreign policy matters. He stressed the Union’s law-and-order credentials and insisted that offering economic incentives rather than banning things is the best way to combat climate change without damaging industry.

“We will fight — I will fight with everything that I can — so that this country is not taken over by ideologues, so that we have the opportunity to implement our ideas for this modern Germany,” Laschet said. “That is what we are fighting for. We will give everything we can, we will make the differences with the others clear. Who governs is fundamental. We want to govern.”

Laschet is a centrist figure in Merkel’s mold but doesn’t appear so far to have inspired voters or to have impressed people with his management of the severe floods that hit his state, North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s most populous — last month.

While Laschet has declined comment on the recent poll ratings, his rival for the nomination to succeed Merkel as chancellor has shown signs of impatience with the Union’s campaign. Laschet emerged victorious from a battle in April with Markus Soeder, the head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

In a speech at Saturday’s rally, Soeder stressed that a center-right win next month wasn’t assured. He said the Union faces its most difficult campaign since 1998, when then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl — Merkel’s one-time mentor — lost power and “the trend at the moment isn’t heading steeply upward.”

“Let’s be honest for a moment: it’s tight, and it will be very tight in the coming weeks,” Soeder said. “Everyone must understand today that everything is really at stake. This is not the question we philosophized about for months — with whom we might prefer to govern. It is not the question of how we govern, but possibly whether.”

“It is time finally to fight,” said Soeder, the governor of Bavaria. “I have no interest in opposition.”

Soeder also told Laschet, “You can rely on my support.” Laschet recently faced speculation that he could relinquish the nomination to Soeder, an idea he has rejected.

Merkel, who noted that she has deliberately stayed out of campaigning since she gave up her party’s leadership nearly three years ago, stepped up to offer Laschet a personal reference.

Laschet is “a person and politician for whom the ‘C’ in our party’s name is not just any letter, but the compass for everything he did and does,” she said. “It was and is always important to him to put the individual…in focus on the basis of our Christian credo, to build bridges between people.”

“In the 35 days that remain, it is worth fighting every hour for the CDU and CSU to be strong in the German parliament, for us to…lead Germany into a good future, and of course, with Armin Laschet as our future chancellor,” Merkel said.

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