German election campaign boards the sleeper car to polling day

Nearly 62% want different kind of federal government following September 26th vote

Three months before Germans go to the polls to elect a new federal government, the mood for political change is at a 30-year high. And yet the path to power in Berlin may be via a so-called “Schlafwagenpolitik” – or sleeper car campaign.

Nearly 62 per cent of Germans want a different kind of federal government following the September 26th poll, according to a survey for the Bertelsmann Foundation. The same poll found that after four terms of an Angela Merkel administration, including three grand coalitions since 2005, just 14 per cent favour another alliance of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

“After 16 years of the same chancellor, a mood for change is nothing unusual,” said Dr Robert Vehrkamp, democracy expert with the Bertelsmann Foundation. “Whoever manages to get this wind of change in their sails has no reason to worry about their election result in September.”

Setting their sail correctly, however, requires a party to guess correctly where voters’ expressed appetite for change coincides with their readiness to vote for it.


Last weekend the Green Party – with nearly a quarter of the vote in polls and aiming even higher for office – launched a manifesto promising Germans a “social-ecological revolution”. The headwind since saw rivals and business lobby groups attack the few concrete proposals: higher taxes on top earners, carbon dioxide emissions and jet fuel.

After an early surge to first place in polls, the Green Party is now in the murky gap between voters’ ecological ideal and reality.

Some 77 per cent of German voters accept that the world is facing a looming climate emergency, but just 40 per cent are prepared to pay more for renewable energy.

Compare and contrast with CDU leader Armin Laschet, whose campaign has adopted the “Schlafwagen” approach: lulling voters to sleep with promises of continuity that is at odds with the challenges ahead.

“After a crisis like the one we’ve just had, tax increases are certainly a really bad idea,” he told Bild’s Sunday edition, attacking the Green manifesto. “And whoever lives in the countryside and is dependent on the car to get to work cannot suffer any disadvantage.”

When Laschet presents his party’s own election manifesto next Monday, all eyes are on whether it acknowledges hard political realities. Such as how, for instance, Germany’s new climate bill – just passed by the Merkel administration – obliges the new government, which Laschet hopes to lead, to implement staggered increases in carbon levies by 2023 that effectively mirror the Green demands.

So far, the CDU draft manifesto is more touchy-feely than detailed, promising a Vardakarian promise of politics that “has an eye for all the hard-working people”. The party’s popular promises are front and centre – avoid tax increases, keep pension levels stable – but detail is scant on awkward issues: overdue tax reform, Germany’s delayed digital transformation or how best to pay off the pandemic debt mountain.

Divining voter expectation and ballot box reality has been part of the CDU’s election-winning instinct since its foundation in 1949. The party’s founding leader and chancellor Konrad Adenauer secured re-election in 1957 with the memorable slogan “No Experiments”. That is being dusted off again to warn voters off an alternative centre-left coalition of Greens, SPD and Left Party.

No one on the CDU’s front bench has forgotten the debacle of 2005, when Angela Merkel promised voters radical reform to shake Germany out of its economic torpor – and barely squeaked into office.

Her four terms since saw Merkel pivot away from neoliberal reformer to mothering moderate-of-the-nation.

As the CDU’s self-declared continuity candidate, Laschet is determined to continue that pitch to younger, centrist voters – with regular political nods to appease its traditionally older conservative base.

“Merkel’s core message was that Germany will stay as it is, that the engine just has to be maintained properly . . . and societal readiness for reform has wasted away,” noted this week’s Der Spiegel magazine. “We citizens carry part of the blame for this: until now at least, we allow ourselves to be kidded rather than appreciating politicians who speak openly about the challenges.”