The country's history is full of politicians who botched responses to disasters
At least 158 people have died in the floods which have devastated western and southern regions of Germany. That number is expected to rise yet higher as hundreds of residents remain missing.
Survivors of the catastrophe looked on in horror as their houses were destroyed while the water levels still continued to grow. Some areas have no clean water, no electricity and the telephone and mobile networks have broken down. And then there is the mud. A thick, heavy torrent that covers everything in its path. Residents don’t even know how to begin to clear up.
A cynical mind might think that natural catastrophes like the floods in west Germany are a God-sent for politicians in election campaign mode. If you can credibly pull off the rolled up sleeves, the wellies and a facial expression somewhere between grim concern and firm reassurance, the emotional gravity of the moment will do the rest.
Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor as German chancellor, showed how to do it. Seeking re-election in 2002, he trailed behind the opposition during the campaign. Until catastrophic floods hit Germany. There he was in the worst-hit town of Grimma in east Germany, patting residents on the back and promising swift and unbureaucratic help. When his Bavarian opponent, Edmund Stoiber, had finally found his wellies, he barely stepped outside his front door to console his own political backyard. Schröder went on to win the election.
Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate — and Angela Merkel herself — did everything right last week. Scholz, who is currently vice chancellor, stepped in for Merkel while she was away on her visit to the White House. He promised an Instant-Help package for the residents. Once Merkel had returned, she donned the most casual clothes she could find in her wardrobe — a cardigan and blue trousers — and made her way to the state of Rhineland Palatinate where she walked arm-in-arm with the Minister President Malu Dreyer through the devastated village of Schuld. An iconic picture was taken. The people approved.
By contrast, Armin Laschet, currently the most likely candidate to become chancellor, messed up. Touring the state of Northrhine Westphalia, a video emerged online that seemed to show him sniggering while the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the ‘heart-tearing’ grief he felt in sympathy with those who had lost relatives and friends. He has since apologised — how lasting the damage will be remains to be seen.
The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had to tread very carefully indeed. She was the only chancellor candidate without a good reason to be in the flooded areas. However, not turning up would look heartless. So Baerbock explained that she wanted to gain an impression of the scale of the catastrophe and to express her condolences. Nonetheless, the floods will not make her campaign any easier. Her reputation has already been tarnished — one third of Germans already believe that her colleague Robert Habeck should take over the candidacy for the Green Party — and a reputation for patronising environmentalism is beginning to stick. If she uses this human catastrophe to lecture about global warming, many will judge this to be political opportunism.
As the rain is beginning to subside and the torrents of mud are painstakingly carried away in buckets, what remains behind is potential and risk for Germany’s politicians.