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This is Germany’s first general election without Angela Merkel running for chancellor since 2002. For her conservative bloc, it is shaping up as a debacle.

A gaffe-prone new candidate, the popular chancellor’s almost complete absence from the campaign, and voter fatigue after 16 years of conservative rule could converge to deliver the bloc’s worst national electoral result ever, according to pollsters and analysts.

Less than two weeks before election day, opinion polls show Ms. Merkel’s group, an alliance of conservative parties known collectively as the Union, with 20% of the vote, down 15 points since January and some five points behind its center-left Social Democratic rival.

“This is already certain to be a historic failure for the Union," said Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling institute.

More than a new phenomenon, the bloc’s waning fortunes mark the resumption—and acceleration—of a trend that began in the late 1970s, as the political landscape began to fragment into smaller parties. Ms. Merkel managed to slow down and briefly reverse this trend by governing in the center and extending her party’s appeal to left-leaning voters. With the chancellor now absent from the ticket, her Christian Democratic Union has been experiencing its first mass exodus of voters toward the center-left since the 1960s.

Adding to this is a degree of government malaise after 16 years of conservative rule, pollsters say. After such a long stint in office, the CDU, which contests elections as a bloc with Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, is finding it hard to argue that it can fix the country’s antiquated digital infrastructure, spiraling energy costs and stagnating efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

“It’s hard to campaign for change or attack the deficiencies of government when we have been the government for 16 years," one strategist said.

It hasn’t helped that Armin Laschet, the bloc’s lead candidate, has delivered what many commentators see as a weak campaign so far. A majority of Germans feel the 60-year-old premier of North Rhine-Westphalia lacks the leadership strength to solve pressing problems ranging from climate change to economic challenges, an analysis by Prof. Güllner shows.

Mr. Laschet, a jovial cigarillo smoker, stumbled twice in the past year. In the pandemic, he opposed Ms. Merkel’s push for strict restrictions and called for a quicker reopening of the economy. His state currently has among the highest incidences of new Covid-19 cases.

Then, after the region was hit by severe floods that claimed dozens of lives in July, Mr. Laschet was filmed giggling during a ceremony to commemorate victims—an image that has played on loop ever since and raised questions about the candidate’s seriousness, according to polls.

“It was unbecoming, it is not right to laugh in such a moment," Mr. Laschet said shortly after the faux pas.

Like Ms. Merkel, Mr. Laschet is a middle-of-the-road politician. This helped him gain power in his state, which is traditionally seen as a stronghold of the left, and clinch the chairmanship of the CDU in January. However, he lacks Ms. Merkel’s statesmanlike authority, record and name recognition, pollsters said.

About a third of people who voted conservative in recent years did so because of Ms. Merkel, said Hermann Binkert, head of the INSA polling firm, adding that the conservatives would have benefited from a stronger involvement in the campaign by the chancellor.

Mr. Laschet’s bid has also suffered from the internal battle to succeed the chancellor at the head of the conservative movement, which caused divisions in the party and among its voters.

Surveys showed a majority of CDU voters, members and lawmakers would have preferred Markus Söder, Bavaria’s premier and president of the CSU, to lead the conservative ticket for the election. But the CDU’s leadership opted to nominate its chairman, the far less popular Mr. Laschet, instead.

The leadership struggle in the run-up to this decision put off voters and diverted focus from communicating a fresh, modern agenda for the election, said Lars Zimmermann, a CDU politician from Berlin.

“We have forgotten how to campaign without Angela Merkel," Mr. Zimmermann said.

A conservative strategist said Mr. Laschet’s campaign, sometimes criticized as too passive and conflict-averse, would go on the offensive in its final days and focus on attacking rivals’ positions.

Ms. Merkel, who has been largely aloof during the campaign and only supported Mr. Laschet on few occasions, has at times seemed resigned to seeing her CDU beaten on Sept. 26.

“One won’t get into the chancellery automatically and without effort after 16 years—this was clear to everyone," Ms. Merkel said at a conference in Berlin last week.

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