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Who Will Succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor?

Three elections posters show Social Democratic top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, L, Christian Democratic top candidate Armin Laschet, center, and top candidate of the Greens Annalena Baerbock, R, in Frankfurt, Germany, Sept. 15, 2021.

On September 26 Germans will go to the polls in a federal election to apportion seats in the Bundestag and decide who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. Marking the end of the Merkel era, many view this electoral contest as Germany’s most important election in decades.

But one wouldn’t be able to guess that from the campaign, which has been bland and cautious. All the main party leaders have played for safety, promising political continuity and competing over who has the right to be seen as the true ideological heir of Angela Merkel, who’s retiring from politics.

“Is this the most boring election ever?” newspaper Die Welt asked recently.

What excitement and fizz that’s been seen so far in the election has come just in the past few days. Armin Laschet, the leader of center-right Christian Democrats, or CDU, Merkel’s party, accused Sunday his Social Democrat opponent, Olaf Scholz, currently Germany’s finance minister, of mismanagement following recent raids by prosecutors on the finance ministry in a money-laundering probe.

And Merkel has come out from the sidelines to join the fray with an uncharacteristically sharp attack on Olaf Scholz and a warning that a vote for his party could let in the far left. Voters had two options, she says: a government made up of the center-left and the Greens “which accepts the support of the left-wing party, or at least doesn't exclude it, or a moderate conservative-led government with Armin Laschet as chancellor.”

Merkel’s reference to a “leftwing party” was to Die Linke, a party formed in 2007 after a merger between the remnants of the Communist ruling party of former East Germany and a far-left West German group.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a debate about the situation in the country ahead of the upcoming national election in Berlin, Sept. 7, 2021.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a debate about the situation in the country ahead of the upcoming national election in Berlin, Sept. 7, 2021.

No clear majority

Neither the Social Democrats, SPD, or the CDU will have sufficient votes to form a single-party government and will have to shape a coalition government after weeks and possibly months of horse-trading and wrangling. The new German government will be a coalition of likely three parties, say analysts.

Merkel’s rare criticism of the SPD, the junior partner party in her governing coalition since 2013, is seen as testimony to the CDU’s parlous state in the polls. It is the first time in 15 years that the SPD has overtaken the CDU in opinion polling.

Laschet’s CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, CSU, have fallen six points behind the SPD and with less than two weeks remaining the story of this election has been the surprising rise of the Social Democrats, who are polling at 25%, a back from the dead revival.

Earlier this year, the SPD was being written off but Scholz, a political pragmatist, has managed through his own high favorability ratings to pull the party up and now is being tipped by pollsters and political commentators to succeed Merkel.

“With the German election campaign entering its final stretch, Scholz’ popularity…has finally morphed into support for his party,” according to Henning Hoff, editor of the Internationale Politik Quarterly, which is published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“There is now much to suggest that Germany’s next government will be led by Olaf Scholz,” he added in his assessment of the direction of electoral travel. Scholz, he argues, has shown shrewdness in his campaigning and is managing to persuade many voters that he is a natural Merkel successor by projecting “professionalism and reliability almost to a fault.”

“Perhaps most miraculously, the SPD has shown uncharacteristic discipline since the campaign started in earnest. There has been next to no sniping, even when Scholz deftly steers the SPD on a distinctly centrist course. The candidate has practically merged with his party. The SPD is Scholz, at least for now,” according to Henning.

He has also been lucky, considering his opponents.

From left, Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz (SPD), Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) and Armin Laschet (CDU) stand in the TV studio in Berlin, Sept. 12, 2021.
From left, Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz (SPD), Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) and Armin Laschet (CDU) stand in the TV studio in Berlin, Sept. 12, 2021.

Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, a fresh face who was the darling of the media at the start of the year, has fallen by the wayside following a string of mishaps and missteps. And Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalian, has turned in a lackluster performance, the nadir of which, according to pollsters, came in July when he was caught on camera chuckling with aides in the background when accompanying German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a tour of towns stricken by record floods.

Discontent with Laschet in the ranks of the CDU and the CSU has risen with each polling downgrade. Last week, the CSU secretary general, Markus Blume, said the center-right bloc would have fared better if Markus Söder, the President of Bavaria and CSU leader, had been chosen instead of Laschet as the candidate for chancellor. Some CDU lawmakers have publicly agreed.

This week, the walker of the pro-business Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, said he was “surprised by the weakness of the CDU and by how fuzzy its policies are.”

Last week, Laschet suffered another setback when a court ruled that a 2018 police eviction ordered by his North Rhine-Westphalia government against environmental protesters was illegal. An activist died during the police operation.

Shifting support

Laschet’s hopes of turning around the election rest with the large bloc of undecided voters and with the overall volatility of an election that has seen the lead change hands between the CDU, SPD and Greens several times since the start of the year.

But Scholz and his Social Democrats have significant momentum just when it counts — in the home stretch, say pollsters. Many Germans have already voted with early mail-in ballots.

If the SPD does top the poll later this month, Scholz will face the huge task of forming a coalition government and the negotiations likely will take months. His best hope will be to form a coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, but there’s much that divides all three parties. The Greens are polling around 17% and the Free Democrats around 11%.

The divisions were emphasized Wednesday when Lindner, the Free Democrats’ leader, told Britain’s Financial Times that he will have strict conditions on participating in a Scholz-led coalition government.

The conditions will include tax cuts and restrictions on any new borrowing. “The prerequisite for us joining any coalition is that we can’t have tax increases and we respect the constitutional debt brake,” he said. “Whoever wants to do something else will have to look for another partner,” he added.

Both Scholz and the Greens want higher taxes to boost public investment and redistribute wealth. If Scholz fails to reel in the Free Democrats, he might have to turn to Die Linke to form a government or to make an approach to the defeated CDU.It is still quite possible that despite coming in second, Laschet will have an opportunity, too, to form a coalition government. Lindner believes the CDU has more coalition options than Scholz.

Some information for this article came from AFP.