After Erfstadt, that sinking feeling will never be over for Armin Laschet. There he was, the CDU’s chosen heir to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor when Germany goes to the polls in September, visiting the town hardest hit by flooding and earth slides after days of torrential rain which have seen 165 people dead in Germany so far. 

Laschet, who is also state premier of NRW, on Saturday accompanied federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) when his personal disaster struck.  While Steinmeier gave a solemn and muted impromptu presidential address to emergency workers and local people, Laschet could be seen on national TV in the background, laughing and joking with his entourage and some emergency staff.

When the immediate outcry followed, Laschet started to apologise, saying he was unaware that Steinmeier was speaking and what he was saying. But the damage has been done. The pictures will haunt Laschet for the remainder of his campaign. 

Even WDR, the public service broadcaster on his home turf, had only contempt for Laschet’s behaviour. “Armin Laschet runs for the most powerful office in our state“, a commentary on WDR read. “Whoever holds this office has to set an example through behaviour and performance, through speeches and often enough through those small gestures that count most. In an election, candidate’s are groomed and coached by their campaign managers. There is rarely a moment when the light shines true on them. This was such a moment of truth.“

Although no senior politician has called for Laschet’s resignation, his blunder might wipe out any of the ground the CDU has made good after Laschet secured the party’s nomination for the top job against CSU-leader Markus Söder. Trailing the Greens in some polls during June, at 28 per cent the CDU now has a ten point lead over Germany’s environmentalists, with the SPD a close third at 17 per cent.

Most parties have tried to walk the tight rope between showing genuine concern and compassion at a time of national crises and still using the emotionally charged atmosphere for their campaigns. 

However, the free democrat FDP have announced they are “suspending their campaign for a couple of days“. Angela Baerbrock, the frontrunner of the Greens, refused to be accompanied by media when visiting the most stricken areas and has made no public statements. 

When visiting flood-hit towns in Rhineland-Palatinate during the weekend, a clearly shocked Angela Merkel spoke of “surreal and ghost-like pictures“. “The German language hardly has words for the devastation that has been wrecked here“, Merkel said in the town of Adenau near Ahrweiler.

After days of chaos and uncertainty,  there is finally some hope. The Steinbach reservoir near Euskirchen in Western Germany is expected to hold after all. Since the weekend, experts, inhabitants of nearby towns and emergency services had feared the reservoir’s main dam could collapse, flooding the adjoining region with more than one million cubic metres of water. 

With water levels dropping also in Bavaria and Saxony, the clean-up operations will now be accelerated. But the situation remains tense with more than 3,000 people still unaccounted for according to police. 

As mobile and landline phone connections are still badly hit in some areas, there is hope that theses figures will come down over the next days when people who had to flee on the spot will get in touch with friends and relatives.

The flooding has reignited the debate about Germany’s disaster prevention arrangements both at local and national level withe the FDP demanding an urgent debate in the Bundestag later this week. It also puts climate change firmly on top of the election agenda, although some CDU politicians were quick to dismiss urgent action. “It would be too cheap and easy to blame only climate change“, said Michael Kertzschmer, the state premier of Saxony. His region had to deal more than all others with severe flooding over recent years and is bracing itself for further bad weather while trainlines to Prague in the neighbouring Czech Republic remain closed.

But the general sentiment is that the worst might just about be over now. To celebrate and to share the good news, Laschet and Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) were quick to make a lunchtime appearance at the Steinbach reservoir on Monday. It’s election time, after all.