The Irish Times view on the German election: too close to call

Voters are keeping the politicians guessing – which is no bad thing

With five weeks to go, only one thing is certain about Germany's federal election: the next chancellor will not be called Angela Merkel. Otherwise it's anyone's guess what will happen when polls close on September 26th.

German politics is usually safe and steady but rarely exciting – and with good reason. The victorious post-war allies installed in West Germany – and extended east in 1990 – a model where the federal government shares power with 16 powerful states.

This system mostly rewards the party that promises the most stability. Thus, for the most part, German elections are political campaigns that last six weeks and end in victory for the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

By contrast, in 72 years the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has had just three chancellors – Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder – with just 20 years in office between them. The question buzzing in German political circles now is: will Olaf Scholz be number four?


The SPD candidate, federal finance minister in Angela Merkel’s final cabinet, is riding high in polls as Germans’ favourite chancellor. Slowly his 41 per cent personal approval rating has dragged his party from the political cellar to within two points of the CDU and its CSU Bavarian allies.

Meanwhile, CDU/CSU chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet is under pressure. He hoped to slip into the chancellery through the side door, but is learning the hard way that he has to make it on his own merits. After a series of gaffes just 16 per cent of Germans believe he has what it takes to be chancellor.

But five weeks is an eternity in politics and the SPD knows all about dashed hopes. Four years ago the SPD messiah was not Scholz but Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president who soared and then crashed to earth on election night with just 20.5 per cent.

Today’s SPD is just three points above that historical disaster and Olaf Scholz knows he is profiting as much from Laschet’s weakness than from any new-found strength of his own.

Assuming the CDU/CSU and SPD avoid a fourth grand coalition, there are at least three viable coalition options – though Laschet is still the safest bet for office with the Greens. No matter which coalition, it will face unprecedented global challenges and a reform backlog at home on tax, pensions and (digital) infrastructure.

For 16 years the capable but crisis-plagued chancellor convinced Germans to outsource political responsibility to her. That deal ends with her departure and major decisions loom, above all on climate change. German voters are studying the party offerings and keeping their politicians guessing. And that’s good for democracy.