Strange uncertainty hangs over Germany as post-Merkel election nears

Few Germans have any idea how the election will turn out. The parties are no wiser

German chancellor Angela Merkel and chancellorship hopeful Armin Laschet recently. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

German chancellor Angela Merkel and chancellorship hopeful Armin Laschet recently. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

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When 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls in a month’s time, Karoline Schneider will be among them – with mixed feelings.

She was just four years old when Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005 and is one of 2.8 million first-time voters for whom the 67-year-old has always been in charge.

“It’s a funny feeling that she won’t be there soon,” says Karoline. “As the first woman in the office she sent a signal and showed just what one can achieve as a woman.”

Merkel’s first achievement in office was linguistic: changing her job title from the male Kanzler to the female Kanzlerin. Now, first-time German voters joke in social media posts: can a man be Kanzlerin?

Of Germany’s three main election candidates there’s just one Kanzlerin hopeful – Green leader Annalena Baerbock. Though her early poll surge has petered out, the third-placed Greens still have a good shot at a coalition.

In all likelihood, Germany’s next Kanzlerin will be a Kanzler. Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union is pushing the 60-year-old Armin Laschet – but many wonder why.

The party slid to just 22 per cent support in a new poll on Friday – 11 points down since the 2017 election. A series of credibility-sapping gaffes, and a cheery Rhineland personality not all Germans appreciate, means 71 per cent of voters doubt Laschet is chancellor material.

His centre-left challenger is the brittle Olaf Scholz, federal finance minister and vice-chancellor in Berlin. He enjoys 65 per cent personal popularity while his Social Democratic Party is now neck-and-neck with the CDU.

Uncharacteristically united

Asked recently why he remained so grim despite growing election momentum, the controlled Scholz remarked that he was applying for the job of chancellor, “not circus director”.

A month to polling day, his SPD is uncharacteristically united behind him – entranced by the growing prospect of winning an election for the first time in nearly 20 years.

“We know a thing or two about struggle in our 140-year history,” joked Carsten Schneider, party chief whip in the Bundestag. “People want change but not too much. We think Scholz represents that.”

As a continuity-corrective candidate, Scholz has dismissed a CDU commitment to cut the top income tax rate, at a time of record pandemic debt, as “indecent”. The SPD counter-offer is tax relief for lower incomes and more spending on housing and schools.

Meanwhile, broad support for Green climate proposals on energy and transport, he says, will only come with an SPD social “cushion” to assist low-earners from higher costs.

By comparison, a word commonly associated with the CDU is “lost”. In December 2018 Merkel stood aside as leader; her anointed successor lasted just 14 months, while the process to find another – Laschet – took until last January. That robbed the party of time and energy to redefine its politics, and campaign pitch, in the post-Merkel era.

‘No candidate’

A senior CDU MP, worried about his Bundestag seat, said: “We have no programme and, in Laschet, many party people think, no candidate either.”

Friday’s ZDF public television poll offered a pitiless demolition of the CDU candidate: just 8 per cent view Laschet as credible, 9 per cent as likeable. Only 11 per cent think Laschet has the expertise to be chancellor (43 per cent for Scholz) and 10 per cent believe the CDU candidate can solve future problems. 

Those numbers have tipped the CDU into a defensive panic mode and prompted a reds-under-the-bed campaign that an SPD-lead left-wing coalition would “destroy” German prosperity and its reputation abroad. A senior CDU leader warned darkly, if vaguely, on Friday that Scholz has “not nice things in his past”.

With four weeks to go, some 89 per cent of Germans say they have no idea how the federal election will turn out. The parties and political scientists are no wiser.

“The parties appear afraid of the voters, afraid to confront them with any of the big challenges Germany faces,” said Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist at the University of Münster. “It’s such a strange campaign so far with a restrained mood on all sides, no doubt in part down to the vacuum left by Angela Merkel’s looming departure.” 

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