Could Germany's floods make climate an election issue?

Updated / Friday, 23 Jul 2021 18:48

People walk on a muddy street along the river among piles of debris in Swisttal-Odendorf, near Euskirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia

By Colm Ó Mongáin

No more survivors are likely to be found among the ruins left by floods in western Germany over the last week, rescue services admitted on Wednesday.

As they assess the scale of the repair operation and mourn the loss of more than 120 citizens, the western German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia will also be paying anxious attention to the readings on their barometers, warnings on news bulletins and rainfall estimates on weather apps. Further storms are forecast for this weekend.

September's federal elections are far from the minds of those with such immediate concerns, but in the weeks ahead, could the devastation wrought by the floods act as a catalyst in the vote to determine who replaces the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Angela Merkel as chancellor?

How decisive an election issue could the floods be?

Locally they will be a factor. Nationally, they may push the general issue of climate up the agenda, but voters' concerns will still be dominated by Covid and the post-Covid economic recovery.

"I think it's fairly safe to say that the immediate impact of the floods and the damages that it has created in parts of west Germany, south Germany, east Germany will probably not have a huge impact on the election", said Rafael Loss, of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

He said further emergencies during the remainder of the summer, if they were to occur, would change that picture and might translate into gains for the country's Greens come polling day.

"If we see droughts this summer, severe droughts and wildfires, and maybe flooding events in other areas of Germany, and then this would really signal that the climate crisis is urgent and in combination those events could lead to a more significant boost for the Greens on the polls."

Assistant Professor of Politics at Trinity College Dublin Jan Berz says, after the floods, climate is now higher on the agenda than before, particularly at state level.

"I think it comes now second or third (after Covid and the post-Covid economic recovery) especially after the floodings, where it has gained more importance for many voters especially those who are personally affected in the Rhineland and North Rhine-Westphalia," he said.

Natural disasters have acted as political catalysts before in Germany. One month out from the vote in 2002, Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's arrival at the scene of floods in the east of the country with a promise of tens of millions of euro for flood relief saw a much-needed immediate improvement in the polls, with his SPD taking the lead for the first time in months.

Sometimes the disasters do not even have to happen in Germany for benefits to accrue to a party. The gain for the Greens following Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has endured until the present.

"You had the Greens, two weeks after the nuclear power plant crashed in Japan, winning an election in Baden-Württemberg, and we've had Winfried Kretschmann as the Minister-President for the last 10 years. He has won two successive elections. But the nuclear incident brought the Greens essentially to almost 30% at the federal level, in terms of voter support and this is something that I don't think we can expect to see from the flood per se.

"I think the Greens might win a couple of percentage points just because climate again is at the centre of the political agenda back to where it was in pre-Covid times, with (the Greta Thunberg-led) Fridays for Future movement", said Rafael Loss.

Has there been any political fallout from the floods so far?

While there has been finger pointing between federal, state and local authorities, most of the political fallout so far has been indirect.

Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU's leader and candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet has a close-up view of the destruction caused by the floods. Unfortunately for him, the public had an up-close view of him laughing in conversation with others during President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's remarks to the press on the flood damage.

Armin Laschet

He later apologised, describing his demeanour as "inappropriate".

It might not be politically fatal, but it will attract unwelcome negative attention, says TCD's Jan Berz: "It will likely be a small glitch and I think the more important consequence after this laughing scandal is that there will be more attention now on Armin Laschet as a candidate, whereas previously the media has focused on (Green leader) Annalena Baerbock, (Social Democrat Chancellor Candidate) Olaf Scholz and their respective scandals and missteps and now the focus in the next few weeks will again be on Armin Laschet."

Do the Greens, with their record on climate, stand to gain as a result of the floods?

Despite Laschet's recent woes his regional political role allows him to take hands-on measures, with all the attendant kudos and publicity.

The announcement this week of €400m of relief will also help on the frontline and, come autumn, potentially in the polling stations, Jan Berz believes: "This is a chance for Armin Laschet and also the Christian Democrats in general at federal level to provide that financial aid to help the people rebuild, which because it's such a personal direct benefit from the government, there is also a chance for them to increase electoral support among the affected areas, depending on how well they provide this financial relief for affected communities."

Rafael Loss says Green opportunities for gains in support are also a potential pitfall, of which they are all-too-well aware. The party's candidate Annalena Baerbock has carefully avoided the appearance of capitalising on the fatal tragedy.

"Annalena Baerbock has no political responsibility whatsoever, for the states or at the federal level, and so she could not visit the affected areas as somebody who has the ability to make any changes in the now or to put on big spending programmes to help those affected in their recovery from this," he said.

Annalena Baerbock

"So, she appeared very carefully. She didn't have press traveling with her. She met with a couple of Green state level leaders in the affected state, talked to folks that were affected in the flood area.

"But only after she had returned from that trip gave first interviews on the issue and essentially reiterated, with somewhat more urgency, the demand that the Greens have put out for the last years already that you can find in their political programme already, which helps them because they have long standing credibility on climate issues, environmental protection issues, something that some of the other parties cannot count on to such a degree."

Apart from an understandably low-profile approach to the aftermath of the floods, other headwinds to Green gains include controversies over "errors" on Ms Baerbock's CV and allegations of plagiarism in her book 'Now: How We Can Renew Our Country’.

TCD's Jan Berz says the party's failure to adapt to the changed political climate is also a missed opportunity to win over undecided voters: "Among the chancellor candidates she's not seen as the most competent, but certainly as the most sympathetic one and here the Greens are not really utilising her.

"The campaign is not focused on her. It does not put her in the centre of the campaign, which should really be the case in this competition. The Greens are running, more or less, their usual campaign which previously suited a party that didn't field a chancellor candidate because they never really had a realistic chance to gain the chancellorship but now they have not really reformed the campaign to the new conditions."

Does the greater prominence for flooding/climate change make a CDU-Green coalition more likely?

It may make coalition talks more likely, but it will not overcome the difficulties in agreeing a programme for government.

Even in the area hit by the most recent floods, CDU backers from the mining and heavy industry sectors would have concerns about the Greens' agenda, says Rafael Loss, who also points to other issues.

"I think the context, the climate crisis, and the current flooding might make it easier for the CDU and the Greens to align on some of the critical climate change issues in coalition negotiations. But there are plenty of other items on the agenda that would have to be dealt with between those two parties that that are equally tricky, at least.

"If you look at defence and security policy and the issue of nuclear sharing within NATO, for instance. If you look at the approach towards China, then some of the Greens are much more hawkish towards Beijing than some of the more industry friendly parts of the CDU.

"So there are plenty of critical cleavages that would still need to be bridged that would make negotiations difficult."