The only certain outcome of the German election on 26 September is that the country’s next chancellor won’t be Angela Merkel. Which of the three contenders vying to succeed her — Armin Laschet of her own party, the Christian Democrats; Olaf Scholz of her coalition partner, the Social Democrats; or Annalena Baerbock of the Greens — will head the next government is anyone’s guess.
This is the most unusual of German election campaigns. Angela Merkel’s announcement nearly three years ago that she would step down at the end of her fourth term is one of many firsts. Her predecessors were either compelled to resign (Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and Willy Brandt) or voted out of office (Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder).
This is also the first time that three parties rather than two have nominated a candidate for the chancellorship. Laschet’s selection as joint candidate of the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, on 20 April, marked the real beginning of the campaign, and at times each of the three candidates has looked likely to lead his or her party to victory. In April and May, the Greens were narrowly ahead of the Christian Democrats, and Baerbock seemed to be on track to become the second woman to lead Germany. In June and July, the Christian Democrats moved well ahead of the Greens. In August, the Social Democrats, whose hopes had seemed to rest on wishful thinking alone, relegated the Greens to third place and caught up with the front-runner.
It’s the first time, too, that each of the candidates for chancellor is widely considered to be weak — which partly explains why the parties’ fortunes in the polls have shifted as much as they have in the past three months.
The Greens picked Annalena Baerbock, a forty-year-old with a master’s degree in international law from the London School of Economics, in what appeared to be a unanimous decision that was also supported by the party’s other co-leader, Robert Habeck. To begin with, the Greens’ selection of a young woman who has never held a position in government over the more experienced Habeck was widely applauded, and her approval ratings seemed to confirm the choice. But her popularity soon took a dive, first because she had failed to report income to federal parliament (which she is obliged to do as an MP), then because she was found to have embellished her CV, and finally because passages in a book she wrote, rushed into print to support her candidature, turned out to have been plagiarised (from sources that included Wikipedia and a book written by Habeck).
Unlike Baerbock, sixty-year-old Armin Laschet has run a government. He has been the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia — its population of eighteen million making it Germany’s most populous state — for the past four years. He fought hard to be anointed as candidate of the Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister party. First he saw off a challenge from his party colleague Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer who has long been the darling of the Christian Democrats’ conservative wing and might well have been a more popular choice. Then he prevailed against Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier and leader of the Christian Social Union, although polls were giving Söder a far better chance of winning the election. Laschet, who is also prone to put his foot in his mouth, never really recovered from these bruising contests.
The Social Democrats picked sixty-three-year-old finance minister Olaf Scholz, a former state premier of Hamburg, as early as August last year — much to the merriment of political observers, given that at the time the pollsters ranked his party a distant third, only just ahead of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and the Free Democrats. As recently as 7 June this year, the Social Democrats won a paltry 8.4 per cent of the vote in the Saxony-Anhalt state election. Scholz carries the nickname Scholzomat; those who wrote off his chances assumed that his automaton-like persona and inability to show emotions wouldn’t endear him to the electorate.
Scholz’s claim to be a viable candidate for chancellor also seemed absurd because he didn’t appear to have much backing in his own party. He had failed in his bid to become co-leader of the Social Democrats in 2019, not least because his comparatively conservative views didn’t chime with those of the majority of his party. Surprisingly, he now has the party’s full support — presumably many members sense that he is the only chance the party has to avoid the fate of the French socialists, whose candidate finished fifth in the 2017 presidential election.
Scholz’s approval ratings are now far ahead of Laschet’s and Baerbock’s. But rather than impressing voters with his own strengths, he has benefited from the mistakes of his competitors. Worryingly, his relative popularity may also reflect the fact that he has positioned himself as Merkel’s most obvious heir. Unkind commentators have called him a Merkel clone; a recent Spiegel article was titled “The Merkelisation of Olaf Scholz.”
Like Merkel, Scholz is overly cautious, prone to prevaricating rather than acting decisively. Like her, he lacks charisma. And since Merkel too has embraced traditional Social Democratic policies, it’s not hard to imagine him following in her footsteps. Even more than the Merkel loyalist Laschet, he appears to guarantee that nothing will change, irrespective of which parties make up the governing coalition.
This is the other first: the abundance of possible coalitions. An average of the last six polls, conducted between 24 and 28 August, has the combined Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union neck and neck with the Social Democrats on 23 per cent, followed by the Greens on 18, the centre-right Free Democrats on 12, the AfD on 11, and the left-wing Linke on 7 per cent. According to the pollsters, no other small party will manage to get anywhere close to the 5 per cent needed for a representation in the Bundestag, the Federal Republic’s parliament.
If these polls mirror the distribution of votes on election day — and taking account of the fact that no other party will deal with the AfD — five different coalitions are possible: a government comprised of the parties that traditionally made up the Bundestag before the arrival of the Greens in 1983: that is, the Christian Democrats (black), the Social Democrats (red) and the Free Democrats (yellow). Because the colours associated with these parties resemble those of the German flag, this coalition is also referred to as the Deutschlandkoalition, or German coalition. The other options have been labelled “Jamaica,” after the colours of the Jamaican flag (black, green and yellow); “Kenya” (black, red and green); Ampel (traffic light) comprised of Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens; and “R2G” (Social Democrats, Linke and Greens).
Some of these options are more likely than others. Both the Free Democrats and the Greens are desperate to be back in government and will negotiate accordingly; this seems to make Jamaica and the Ampel more likely than Kenya or a Deutschlandkoalition. Either of the latter would also be less likely if the Christian Democrats had to be the minor partner in such an arrangement. In terms of a programmatic fit, R2G would be a good option, and would have the support of the majority of members of the Social Democrats, the Linke and the Greens. But neither the Greens leadership nor Scholz fancy a coalition with the Linke, because they consider the party to be too unreliable, particularly on foreign policy.
But it’s another four weeks until election day, and if the volatility of the past three months continues then last week’s polls will mean little. A government led by the Greens, which seemed a realistic option only a couple of months ago, now appears only a remote possibility — but who knows, we could still end up with a chancellor Baerbock.
In trying to gauge the mood of the electorate, I rely on the pollsters. The alternative would be to take notice of the unabashedly unscientific polls I conduct among my friends, whose response to the current offering, like my own, is despairing. That’s not just because the three main contenders to inherit Merkel’s mantle are unconvincing, but also because Germany faces the prospect of a government trying to pretend that no significant changes are necessary — or rather, a majority of voters preferring a continuation of the status quo.
That preference would make sense if the current government’s recent performance couldn’t be faulted. Yet its response to Covid-19 was mired in miscalculation and hesitation. Germany is experiencing the pandemic’s fourth wave not least because too few people have been vaccinated (even though Germany has so much vaccine it has been giving it away to other countries). The government’s other main embarrassment lately has been its failure to evacuate people who have worked for the German military in Afghanistan — not because it was unaware of the danger but because charter flights organised to evacuate local staff were cancelled at the last minute because the ministry of the interior had concerns that its bureaucratic processes would be compromised by the arrival of people who had not yet been issued visas.
But the Merkel government’s biggest failure has been its dilatory response to climate change. It wasted valuable time trying to please all possible constituencies, including the owners of coal-fired power stations and the car industry. Merkel’s achievements — most notably her decision to phase out nuclear reactors after Fukushima and her initial response to refugees in 2015 — are undeniable, but the former environment minister’s reluctance to accelerate the transformation of Germany’s economy is likely to be remembered as an ugly blot that may well define her sixteen years in office.
The fact that more of the same ought not be an option was brought home by the recent floods in the west of the country. More than 180 people died in July when small rivers turned into raging torrents, sweeping away bridges, roads and entire houses. AfD politicians aside, nobody doubts that torrential rains like the ones that hit Germany last month are largely a result of climate change. All parties, again with the exception of the AfD, say they would like Germany to do its part to combat climate change. In fact, since 29 April this year there has been no alternative: this was the day the Bundesverfassungsgericht, Germany’s highest court, ruled that the government is doing too little to ensure that today’s young people inherit a world that is still worth living in.
Yet not only the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats but also the Greens seem to favour a continuation of Merkel’s “don’t rock the boat” approach. In the current campaign, the Greens’ timidity may reflect their low self-confidence in the wake of Baerbock’s stuff-ups. But you need only look at Baden-Württemberg, the state that has had a Greens premier for the past ten years, to be disabused of the idea that the Greens would insist on radical changes if they were part of a governing coalition.
So, is Germany in for more of Merkel? That would be disastrous. At a time when a radical rethink of how we live and how we engage with the world around us is sorely needed, Germany can hardly afford another four years of a government sitting on its hands lest too much action upset one or the other voter.
Perhaps this is also a question of leadership. On Saturday night, some media streamed what the news magazine Spiegel termed “the only true debate”: between Söder of the Christian Social Union and Habeck of the Greens, both of them wannabe contenders who lost out to Laschet and Baerbock respectively. The relative sophistication of the debate — and both leaders’ conceding that far-reaching changes, however unpopular they may be, are necessary — suggested that a government led by Habeck, with Söder as his deputy (or the other way around), may have been a more attractive option than any of those on offer. That’s also because the pair might have pulled enough votes between them to avoid having to offer ministries to the free marketeers from the Free Democratic Party.
Such a scenario is perhaps not as far-fetched as it may seem. I don’t necessarily have in mind the Greens supporters who have been clamouring for a last-minute swap, Habeck for Baerbock, or the Christian Democrats who fear that their party might lose more than a quarter of its vote from the last election, and are imploring Söder to come to the rescue. Rather, I am thinking of a scenario sketched by the Spiegel columnist Sascha Lobo, who pointed out that Laschet might fail to win a seat in parliament, which could then open the door for Söder.
In any case, four weeks is a very long time, particularly in this turbulent period. Maybe there is hope yet. If the matter weren’t quite so serious, it would even be fun to watch the complex saga of how Europe’s largest democracy chooses its next government continuing to unfold. •