The race to be Germany’s next chancellor is more uncertain than ever with polls showing a dead heat as the election campaign enters its final weeks.
Germany votes on September 26 in its first election since 1949 without an incumbent leader in the race. Angela Merkel is retiring after 16 years in office.
During a see-saw campaign, her party heir Armin Laschet and Green contender Annalena Baerbock have both enjoyed bursts of momentum before being dragged down by personal gaffes.
That has created an opening for Olaf Scholz, the nominee of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who was seen as a long shot until recently but whose personal approval ratings are the highest of the three main candidates.
The SPD has vaulted ahead of the Greens in the polls and was virtually tied with Mr Laschet’s CDU/CSU for first place in three surveys this week.
But a first-place finish is no guarantee of leading the next government. Post-election talks could last for weeks or even months.
With less than a month left, the campaign has entered what is known as its “hot phase” with candidates staging regular rallies across Germany.
“The swings in the polls over the last months are a strong warning against drawing premature conclusions," said Carsten Brzeski, an analyst at financial services company ING.
“It actually looks as if the German electorate is still very much undecided on what it really wants.”
How are the candidates faring?
Mr Laschet was once the clear frontrunner but is looking to regain ground after he was knocked off course by last month’s disastrous floods.
He was heckled by voters in a disaster zone in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state he governs. Cameras caught him chuckling with aides on another visit.
His struggles have led to calls for Markus Soeder, the charismatic premier of Bavaria, to take his place. But Mr Soeder has rejected the idea.
Mr Laschet has vowed to fight on. “Polls go up and down,” he said. “I have a lot of support from people telling me to see it through.”
Mr Scholz, enjoying a bounce in the polls, has served as Germany’s finance minister in a coalition under Mrs Merkel since 2018.
In interviews this week he praised Mrs Merkel’s collegiate style and even copied her distinctive diamond hand gesture, a symbol of stability.
Seen as calm and pragmatic, Mr Scholz's chances improved as his two rivals floundered. Polls suggest he would win a direct election for the chancellorship.
“We are all very pleased about the good polling numbers,” he said. “We are happy because they match the feedback we are getting from our citizens.”
Ms Baerbock was derailed by a series of gaffes, including plagiarism allegations and inaccuracies on her CV, after becoming her party’s nominee in April.
Like Mr Laschet, she has won the backing of a party colleague – in this case Green co-leader Robert Habeck – who critics say should take over the campaign.
“Yes, there have been setbacks… and so it’s about winning back trust. But I sense there are many people in our country who want the renewal that our country needs,” she said.
What are the key issues being discussed?
Afghanistan has dominated the news agenda in recent days. Mr Laschet has said there can be no repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe. Ms Baerbock described Germany’s handling of the situation as a “foreign policy disaster”.
Climate change and the economy are key domestic issues. The Greens want to speed up Germany’s exit from coal power and review all new legislation for its climate impact.
Mr Laschet, the governor of a coal-rich state, also wants climate action but stresses that Germany’s economic strength must be maintained. “We want to remain an industrial country – climate-neutral, but preserving jobs,” he said.
Mr Scholz claimed success this week after his calls for a “climate club” of major emitters were taken up by Mrs Merkel’s cabinet.
What about the other parties?
Three other parties are likely to enter the next parliament. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) could hold the key to forming a new coalition.
Party leader Christian Lindner has played down the idea of a three-way alliance with the SPD and Greens that would throw the CDU/CSU out of government.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is shunned by mainstream parties, but its presence in parliament makes it more difficult to form majorities.
Anti-immigration, anti-Islam and more recently anti-lockdown, the party has seen its support stall and is on course to record a similar result to 2017.
Polls suggest the far-left Linke party will be the smallest party in the new parliament.
The CDU/CSU will not work with the Linke, partly because of its historic ties to East Germany’s ruling Communists. But it could team up with the SPD and Greens.