23:46 GMT25 July 2021
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    Over 150 people are dead and hundreds more remain missing in the wake of unusually heavy rainfall which has led to mass flooding in several regions of western Germany. The flooding comes as Germans prepare to go to the polls for federal elections in September. Longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to retire after the election.

    Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union and the united candidate of the CDU/Bavarian Christian Social Union alliance in the upcoming September elections, has received scorn from other politicians and online for bursting into laughter at a press conference Saturday in which President Frank-Walter Steinmeier discussed the deadly consequences of the recent mass flooding.

    Speaking in the town of Erftstadt, North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the communities hit hardest by the flooding, a sombre Steinmeier lamented that “much has been lost and will not be easily replaced. But the biggest loss is the one felt by those who have lost relatives in the floods. We are mourning with the people who have lost friends and acquaintances and family members. Your fate has broken our hearts”.

    During the president’s comments, however, Laschet, who is also the minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, could be seen in the background giddily laughing about something while speaking to a colleague.

    The footage quickly spread in national media and online, with the CDU politician’s opponents in the upcoming elections tearing into Laschet over his perceived inappropriate behaviour.

    “I’m really speechless,” Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s second-largest political force, tweeted. Later Saturday, speaking to Bild, Klingbeil attacked Laschet over his behaviour “bereft of decency and outrageous", suggesting that a person’s character can be seen in times of crisis and that he who “grins” in such situations “disqualifies himself".

    Michael Theurer, deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party’s parliamentary group, similarly scorned Laschet, suggesting that “fooling around without a mask” while the president was discussing such as serious issue was inappropriate, and that the CDU leader should apologise immediately.

    On Saturday evening, after his remarks had caused a stir, Laschet did say he was sorry for his behaviour.

    “I thank the federal president for his visit. The fate of those affected is close to our hearts and we have heard about it in many conversations. All the more so I regret the impression that arose from a conversation. This was inappropriate and I am sorry,” he wrote.

    Online, social media users weren’t eager to forgive the candidate, creating the hashtag #Laschetlacht (‘Laschet Laughs’), calling his behaviour “maximally disrespectful,” “unbearable” and the actions of a “class clown”.

    “So much suffering, so many crying, and Laschet is laughing,” one angry user suggested. “Laschet is laughing like he’s at the carnival. If he still has a chance after this, Germany is one big carnival act,” another wrote. “Even elementary school students would not fool around in a situation like this and pull themselves together for at least 10 minutes. How can a grown man behave like that?” a third asked. “In 2016 we laughed arrogantly at the Americans who voted for the unspeakable Donald Trump and now we are about to elect this carnival clown as chancellor?” another chimed in.

    Bild jumped in to defend the CDU politician, pointing out that he was standing at far enough away from Steinmeier not to be able to hear the details of his speech. Nevertheless, the newspaper admitted that the press conference was not an appropriate venue for jokes. “Laughing is generally not forbidden. But fooling around in this situation shows the lack of class for a man who, in contrast to the others joking around, wants to become chancellor,” one viewer summed up.

    Germans will go to the polls on 26 September to elect all 598 members of the Bundestag, a new government and a new chancellor. Current Chancellor and former CDU leader Angela Merkel, who has served at her post since 2005, has promised to step down after the election, with Laschet’s CDU/CSU faction widely expected to form the new government, if it can scrape together a coalition.

    Recent opinion polling by the Institute fur Neue Soziale Antworten (INSA), a respected German political research firm, found the CDU/CSU to be leading the polls with 28 percent support, with the Green Party polling second with 18 percent, the Social Democrats third with 17 percent, and the Free Democrats, Alternative for Germany and the Left rounding out the top six with 12 percent, 11 percent and 7 percent support, respectively.


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