Berlin is basking in late summer sunshine. Along the banks of the River Spree, residents enjoy the last warm days before the change of season. Germany – and the rest of Europe – are about to witness the end of an era: after 16 years, the sun is setting on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s time in power.
Germans will head to the polls Sunday (September 26) for the country’s general election. Whichever party emerges with the biggest share of the vote will likely appoint the leader of a coalition government.
Chancellor Merkel remains hugely popular among German voters, with approval ratings still hovering around 60 percent, a remarkable figure after four terms in office. However, her Christian Democratic Union party is struggling in the election campaign, with the latest opinion polls showing support of around 22 percent. In recent weeks that figure has at times fallen below 20 percent, for the first time since World War II.
The Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor is 60-year-old Armin Laschet, who is attempting to woo voters with a promise of continuity. “The cohesion of Europe in these difficult times, a climate-neutral industry and strong economy, and a clear course for national security,” he promised voters in the latest TV debate last Sunday.
Voters may approve the message, but not necessarily the man himself. During a visit to the flood-devastated regions of Germany in July, Laschet was caught on camera laughing during a speech by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His approval ratings haven’t recovered.
Instead, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) candidate, Olaf Scholz, is leading in the polls with around 25 percent. He is a former mayor of Hamburg and finance minister in the current coalition government, now favored to succeed Merkel.
“The Social Democrats’ strong position is a surprise,” says Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Freie University in Berlin and an expert on the SPD. “In the last years, they’ve continuously sunk lower in the polls. Many said that this wasn’t just a crisis for the party, but the start of their demise.”
“The poor performance of the Conservatives (CDU) has been to the benefit of the Social Democrats. So really, in a crowd of blind people, Scholz is the one-eyed man, and that makes him the king. He has a stable position in the polls, you could say a good performance as minister, and where he lacks charisma and charm, he makes up for in stability - all aided by the weaknesses of the competition,” Neugebauer told VOA.
Scholz appeared confident of victory in the latest TV debate Sunday. “Many citizens can see me as the next head of government, the next chancellor… And I make no secret that I would most like to create a (coalition) government together with the Greens,” Scholz said.
Earlier in the summer, the Green Party had been leading in the polls, and it seemed its 40-year-old leader, Annalena Baerbock, was about to usher in a dramatic change of the political guard in Germany. Support for the Greens, however, has fallen back to around 15 percent, putting them in third place.
Paula Piechotta, the Green Party candidate for the city of Leipzig, told VOA the party is ready to form a coalition government - but has clear red lines. “Because of the (little) time that is left to actually act successfully on combating climate change, we will not be able to compromise a lot when it comes to climate policies,” Piechotta said.
Smaller parties, including the Free Democrats or the Left party, could be kingmakers in a coalition and will likely demand specific government positions or policies in return.
All three main parties have ruled out working with the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is polling around 10 percent nationally. Support for the AfD is much higher is some regions of the former East Germany, says analyst Neugebauer. “If you go to areas with weaker economic development, a higher rate of unemployment, a low level of education, poor service in particularly rural areas, like health care, schools, transportation, then you have higher support for the AfD than in areas where these problems are not present.”
So what are issues driving voters? Polls show a clear generational divide – reflected among voters who spoke to VOA. “I think the first important topic for me is for sure, climate change,” said 28-year-old Berlin resident Jun Kinoshita. Thirty-five-year-old voter Corinna Anand agrees. “For me the most important issue is climate change. Climate, education, child care.”
For Dirk Zeller, a 54-year-old voter from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, money is the biggest worry. “Pensions - that they’re stable. Jobs. Lots of things are more expensive. Gas, electricity. How is that going to continue to develop? Can we afford it, as simple people?”
Fifty-four-year-old Brigitte, who did not want to give her full name, said social inequality is rising in Germany. “The richest Germans only got richer, even with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, lots of people saw their means of living deteriorate and today, they have bigger problems than before. I don’t see that any of the parties are offering initiatives there,” she told VOA.
Few Germans expect immediate change. Talks to form a coalition government will likely take months and Merkel will remain in charge until the rival parties can agree on her successor.
Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for almost two decades – and the coming changes in Germany will be felt around the world, says analyst Neugebauer. “Just based on their existing international resumés, none of the candidates can simply step into the role of Ms. Merkel. They will have to grow into the role.”