FRANKFURT â€”Â As Germanyâ€™s election campaign enters its final rounds, the conservative front-runner is on the ropes â€” literally.
Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), kicked off his campaign tour of Germany on Wednesday with a visit to a boxing club in the heart of the countryâ€™s financial capital, where he sought to convince a local audience that he has the heart to be a contender.
â€œBoxers can take hits, but they are especially able to focus, to fight,â€ Laschet said after donning gloves for a bit of sparring, landing several blows (against a trainerâ€™s padded gloves).
The big question, however, is whether Laschet can land a punch on his real opponents, who have chipped away at what just weeks ago looked to be a commanding lead. At stake in the September 26 election is who will succeed Angela Merkel, the veteran Christian Democrat who is stepping down as chancellor after 16 years in power.
With just over six weeks until election day, Laschetâ€™s personal ratings are nearing single digits. Meanwhile, his conservative CDU/CSU alliance is in freefall in the polls â€” a survey out Wednesday put the bloc at just 23 percent, down from 30 percent in less than a month. Against that backdrop, it seems unlikely that events like the â€œrope a dopeâ€ in Frankfurt will be enough to lift Laschetâ€™s candidacy off the canvas.
Though Wednesday marked the official beginning of Laschetâ€™s formal tour, heâ€™s been campaigning in talk shows and public appearances for weeks. To say his performance has been underwhelming would be an understatement.
â€œWhat Laschet has been offering the public since his nomination is more reminiscent of an election campaign parody than a campaign that can be taken seriously,â€ Der Spiegel concluded this week.
The assessment of conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, normally the Christian Democratsâ€™ natural ally, was no less withering.
â€œOne cannot shake off the impression that he would prefer to cancel the entire election campaign in order to wait for the voters to give the CDU a majority after all, despite his very poor â€¦ personal poll results,â€ the broadsheet wrote.
Laschet is used to being the underdog. He surprised even his own party by winning the state of North Rhine-Westphalia for the CDU in 2017.
Many also doubted heâ€™d prevail in this yearâ€™s race to lead the CDU or whether he could secure the chancellor candidacy against a strong challenge from the premier of Bavaria, Markus SÃ¶der. He proved his critics wrong on both counts.
Yet unlike in those contests, which ultimately came down to Laschetâ€™s ability to navigate the backrooms of his own party, his fate in the general election will depend on his standing with real people. And so far, itâ€™s not looking good.
Laschetâ€™s visits to areas devastated by Europeâ€™s historic floods last month turned into public relations disasters.
â€œThe negative headlines in recent weeks and the way he handled the situation in the flood zones are behind the CDUâ€™s bad performance,â€ said Julius van de Laar,Â a political campaign strategist. â€œYou can afford one misstep, but two already make it a trend,â€ he added.
In Wednesdayâ€™s poll, released by broadcaster RTL, the conservatives lost three percentage points week-on-week, landing at 23 percent, their worst score since early May and just three points ahead of the Greens, who remained at 20 percent. The Social Democrats (SPD) gained three percentage points, shooting up to 19 percent, boosted by the growing popularity of their lead candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.
AnotherÂ pollÂ published later on Wednesday put the CDU/CSU at just 22 percent, just one percentage point ahead of the Greens.
Though the RTL poll was just one of many in recent weeks, the headline figure sent shock waves through the conservative camp, confirming the worst fears of Laschetâ€™s detractors who regard him as too weak to lead the party to victory. Also, more worrisome for Laschet personally, no less than half of the electorate even think he should hand the conservative candidacy to SÃ¶der.
Asked about his poor performance at the gym on Wednesday, Laschet was defiant. â€œPolls go up and down,â€ he said.
Trouble is, his numbers have only moved in one direction lately.
POLITICOâ€™s Poll of Polls, which amalgamates surveys from respected pollsters, shows a similarly gloomy trend for Laschet: The CDU/CSU has lost 4 percentage points in a matter of weeks.
If the RTL poll were to hold, no two-party coalition could form the next German government, trashing the previously most likely collaboration between the conservatives and the Greens. Instead, the remaining viable options would all include the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) who have been having a lucky streak since Germanyâ€™s long pandemic winter and could now well end up as kingmaker, polling at 12 percent.
All parties have excluded a coalition with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and a coalition involving the Left party â€”Â who consistently poll at 7 percent â€”Â is exceedingly unrealistic, mainly due to the partyâ€™s extreme foreign policy proposals such as abolishing NATO.
As if the prospect of having to deal with two other parties in coalition talks wasnâ€™t enough for Laschet, he has also had to endure some punches from his supposed partners in Bavaria, who have accused him of running a soporific campaign.
â€œYou canâ€™t ride into the chancellery in a sleeping carriage,â€ SÃ¶der said in a recent interview.
Laurenz Gehrke reported from Berlin; Johanna Treeck reported from Frankfurt.