Germany’s general election is developing into a three-horse race as the two early favourites falter and the Social Democrats enjoy a revival in the polls.
The contest to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor had long appeared to be a choice between Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Annalena Baerbock of the opposition Greens.
But both Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock have been hampered by personal gaffes and flagging popularity, creating an opening for Olaf Scholz, the candidate of the Social Democrats (SPD).
One poll published on Sunday put the SPD in second place, ahead of the Greens for the first time in a year. Other recent polls have shown them side by side.
Some surveys have shown Mr Scholz to be the most popular of the three candidates in a hypothetical direct race for the chancellorship.
Once the main rival to the CDU, the SPD was relegated to a junior role in three coalitions with Ms Merkel that left it struggling for relevance.
But Mr Scholz is credited with reviving the party’s standing, and SPD campaign posters draw heavily on his personal brand.
Serving as finance minister since 2018, Mr Scholz is regarded as a pragmatic figure and has spent billions to fund Germany’s recovery from Covid-19.
He welcomed the polling bounce at a rally on Saturday and said the party was “feeling a sense of optimism at the moment”.
“I’m quite touched – I want to say that too – by the polls that say many people trust me to be the head of government,” he said.
Germany goes to the polls on September 26. Ms Merkel has chosen to step aside after 16 years in office.
Most polls show Mr Laschet’s CDU on course to be the largest party, although with a narrowing lead over the SPD and Greens.
Although the largest party usually leads the next government, this is not guaranteed because smaller parties could band together to form a coalition.
SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil said rival candidates Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock had both made “serious mistakes” in the campaign.
Mr Laschet’s momentum stalled after his much-criticised response to the flooding disaster in Germany last month.
After cameras caught him chuckling in the background during a solemn speech by Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, he was heckled by voters in a flood-ravaged town.
Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock have been hampered by allegations of plagiarism in books they published about politics.
Ms Baerbock faced further questions over an undeclared Christmas bonus and inaccuracies on her CV.
Both candidates have also faced suggestions they should stand aside in favour of more charismatic party colleagues.
The election could be followed by protracted coalition talks, especially if no two parties can form a majority in Parliament.
From 1998 to 2005, the SPD governed with the Greens – but the two parties might need support from another party, such as the pro-business FDP, to form a majority this time.
Mr Scholz said he hoped to form a coalition by winning well above 20 per cent of the vote. “The better the result is for the Social Democrats, the easier it will be,” he said.