Post-Merkel Germany is weighing up a Green-tinged future

If Baerbock becomes chancellor or kingmaker in September, the country can expect economic transformation

SCHWEINFURT, GERMANY - OCTOBER 09: Annalena Baerbock (C), co-leader of the German Greens Party (Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen), attends a Greens Party election campaign event ahead of Bavarian state elections on October 9, 2018 in Schweinfurt, Germany. Bavaria is scheduled to hold elections on October 14 and so far the Greens are in a strong second place in polls, apparently benefiting in a sharp decline in voter support for the Bavarian Christian Democrats (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Two rivals, one nomination. The competing fates of Germany's contenders for the post of chancellor in the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the opposition Green Party appear to have set the stage for the September general election.

At stake is who will replace Angela Merkel, who will leave the country's leadership, a job she first undertook in 2005. And the omens so far are good for the Greens while not so promising for the CDU. Both parties entered the campaign season with the same challenge.

To pick its candidate for chancellor from a shortlist of two, the Greens saw a smooth and noiseless process, as co-leader Robert Habeck yielded the stage to Annalena Baerbock. The 40-year-old former trampolinist is now the most compelling new arrival on the European political stage.

Women leaders from Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand to Sanna Marin of Finland have emerged from the Covid-19 crisis with strong reputations. Despite a punishing third wave of infections now under way, Mrs Merkel has also seen her approval ratings bounce in the pandemic. She leaves on a high that defies the normal popularity trajectory of long-serving leaders.

As an ecologist, Ms Baerbock is also seeking high office at a time when the climate emergency is at the top of the political agenda. A post-carbon, climate policy-tuned economy is clearly going to revolutionise Germany in the years ahead and a Green voice in making those changes will appeal to many voters.

The problem for the CDU is that it is getting into all sorts of tangles trying to replace Mrs Merkel. It, too, initially chose a woman as its next standard bearer. But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pulled out, leaving only men competing for the party leadership.

When it came to the point last week of registering the centre-right's candidate, the CDU's Armin Laschet, the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, had to endure a split caucus vote from a rival. Markus Soder, the Minister-President of Bavaria, which is dominated by the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union, threw down the gauntlet but was rebuffed.

The after-midnight vote was a procedural farce and exposed divisions in the ruling party. It gave off the sense of a political grouping gone stale in power. Voters don't like divisions in the ruling elite. The impression that the CDU has run out of ideas and talent is likely to handicap its campaign as well.

Polls already show a bounce for the Greens and a dip for the CDU with both hovering around 28 per cent at the end of last week. Who emerges as poll-topper matters in Germany's coalition-building political tradition. That status provides a gateway to the chance to build the cross-party deal that underpins the next government.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 20, 2021 North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier and head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party Armin Laschet gives a press conference at the headquaters of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Berlin. A sea change in German politics began this week with two leading parties announcing their candidates to succeed Angela Merkel at September's elections, when the veteran chancellor will bow out from politics. After 16 years with Merkel at the helm of Europe's largest economy, politics in steady-as-it-goes Germany is entering a period of unpredictability. / AFP / POOL / Tobias SCHWARZ
Armin Laschet will be leading a divided coalition of parties in September's election. AFP

The early roots of Germany’s Greens aimed to overthrow the capitalist system. Ms Baerbock is in a moderate tradition that seeks to use market forces to decarbonise the economy. The Greens have previously been minority partners in German governments but never led the country.

The most likely outcome of the election is both the CDU and Greens in government. Given the importance of the Greens' platform, German businesses have embraced the party's rise. A survey of business managers showed 26.5 per cent would support Ms Baerbock, the highest figure for any contender and well ahead of the 14.3 per cent recorded for Mr Laschet.

Whatever the final tally, the next government's impact is likely to be radical but not revolutionary. The mighty German car industry is already signalling that it is ready to go all electric. The Greens' manifesto calls for a hefty carbon tax as well as wealth and transaction taxes.

Economists see these taxes as negative for jobs, especially those in the manufacturing sectors that are the backbone of the economy. But with some industrial giants enfeebled and Germany’s banks hollowed out, there is scope for an overhaul of the strongest economy in Europe.

An electric automobile charging symbol in a parking bay outside a Daimler AG showroom in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Daimler report first quarter earnings on April 23. Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg
An electric automobile charging symbol in a parking bay outside a Daimler AG showroom in Frankfurt. The mighty German car industry is already signalling that it is ready to go all electric. Bloomberg
Pushing its industrial base to be a player in clean technology could ensure that Germany remains a global leader

Mrs Merkel came to power promising a shake-up but proved to be a managerial Chancellor. Ms Baerbock could yet prove to be the transforming figure that Mrs Merkel promised to be but has not delivered on. Pushing that industrial base to be a player in clean technology could ensure that Germany remains a global leader. The alternative is to slip into the economic slow-stream just doing the same as it has for decades.

With a degree from the London School of Economics and foreign affairs credentials on her resume from her time in the European Parliament, Ms Baerbock is likely to be a forceful international presence. German diplomacy would change and its strategic positioning would no doubt be uncomfortable for some.

Allies of Mr Laschet caution that he is consistently underestimated. He is not a charismatic figure but it may be only fashionable opinion to write him off.

If he is chancellor of the next government, there would be less of a departure in global terms. The car and energy industries would be under less pressure. But Germany would not under-commit to building back greener – not least because Ms Baerbock is highly likely to be at the cabinet table too.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National