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BERLIN – Lagging behind in the polls less than a week before Germany’s general election, the ruling Christian Democrats are learning the hard way they depended on Angela Merkel.

Survey data shows that during her 16 years in power, Merkel’s pragmatic, centrist approach and unperturbed demeanor helped her center-right CDU party build a coalition of voters made up of not only traditional conservatives, but also people who just loved the Chancellor. This was especially true for women, older voters and some centrists, the data showed.

“Merkel’s greatest asset is probably that people who would not support the CDU otherwise are quite comfortable supporting her,” said Marcel Dirsus, political scientist and non-resident researcher at Kiel University. “She is in many ways the perfect centrist,” he added. “She really, very rarely offends anyone, and it’s so hard not to love her personally.”

The share of voters who deserted the CDU in the last few weeks before Sunday’s general election suggests that around one in three people who supported the party four years ago did so because of Merkel, according to pollsters.

With the resignation of Merkel – and the CDU candidate to succeed her, Armin Laschet, proving deeply unpopular – many of these voters are defecting to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and other parties. The still unanswered question for CDU leaders is whether they will be able to win back those voters – before or after election day.

The Merkel coalition

Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005 and has often been described as the most powerful woman in the world. It is perhaps not surprising then that her party received higher support than usual from women.

In fact, during the Merkel years, it was among women that the change in support for the CDU was most striking.

In the last federal election, the CDU had the greatest advantage among women of all political parties. The last time Germany held a federal election, in 2017, the party won 29.8% of the votes cast by women and 23.5% of those cast by men, a gender gap of 6, 3 percentage points.

Merkel has also helped the party do well among older voters in general, but especially older women. Older female voters provided the strongest base of support for the CDU. Among women aged 70 and over in the 2017 elections, 40% voted for the CDU, compared to an overall result of 27% for the party. The Christian Social Union (CSU) is the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Figures from the Federal Returning Officer, the national electoral authority, confirm that the German elections are won or lost with older voters.

The majority of the German electorate is over 50 years old and nearly 23 million voters, or 38% of the electorate, are over 60 years old. If we look at the sex distribution of the over 60s, women constitute a clear majority.

These older voters are also more likely to go to the polls. In 2017, those aged 60 to 69 had the highest participation rate, with over 80% participation; on the other hand, the lowest participation rate was that of 18 to 29 year olds.

No Merkel, no mobilization

Once clearly at the top of the polls, the CDU / CSU alliance is now largely behind the SPD. According to the POLITICO poll, the CDU / CSU currently stands at 21%; the SPD is at 26 percent.

“What we are seeing now is a clear lack of mobilization among the 2017 CDU voters, which has to do with the candidate,” said Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at polling firm Forsa, referring to in Laschet.

In August, Forsa asked former CDU voters who intended to quit the party in that election what was the reason for their decision. Of those polled, 43 percent named Laschet; 29 percent more were generally critical of the party’s trajectory in recent months.

This means that the CDU is losing its advantage among major voting groups, including women. In all the polls for which POLITICO has been able to analyze voting intention by gender, the gender gap present under Merkel has effectively disappeared. In fact, in polls conducted in August and September by pollsters YouGov and INSA, the party did better among men than women for the first time since Merkel’s chancellery began.

For the CDU, the data points to a worrying fact: Merkel, through her centrist pragmatism, has stood apart from her party, thus decoupling from it, at least in the minds of voters. While it worked for Merkel, it doesn’t work for the CDU.

Even after Merkel leaves, voters’ attention to personality and leadership style remains. This is why the SPD’s candidate for chancellor and current vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has tried to present himself as a continuation of Merkel’s stable and pragmatic style.

It’s a strategy that clearly works.

“The way to win this election is basically to present yourself as Merkel’s heir and to make few mistakes in doing so,” Dirsus said. “It’s quite ironic that the Social Democrat is better than the man who leads Merkel’s party.”

Nette Nöstliger contributed reporting.

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