Germany frets over election as 'brand Merkel' overshadows the race

Olaf Scholz leads polls as Armin Laschet struggles to escape chancellor's shadow

Posters for Annalena Baerbock, Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet in the final weeks of the German election campaign. AP
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An admirer of Angela Merkel but unsure of where to turn next, Peter Luedtke is typical of millions of Germans who will decide who wins Sunday's election and takes the reins of Europe's biggest economy.

He praises Ms Merkel but thinks her party is rudderless without her. Although not a natural Green supporter, he liked how their leader spoke in a TV debate. A popular online quiz suggested he should vote for the Social Democrats (SPD).

In a see-saw campaign, Ms Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their candidate, Armin Laschet, started out trailing in the polls, then took a healthy lead, only to hit the buffers again.

Although Mr Laschet's slide began with an ill-timed gaffe in a flood crisis, many believe the CDU has deeper problems as the 16-year Merkel era draws to a close.

“People in general, even if they have not voted for her, they acknowledge she has done a very good job,” said Mr Luedtke, 63, a teacher who lives on the outskirts of Hamburg. “She always tried to get solutions, not arguments.

“The positive aspect of that is at the same time the negative aspect for the CDU. You could say the CDU is her. There are not too many popular politicians in that party.”

Ms Merkel’s semi-voluntary retirement means there is no incumbent on the ballot for the first time since the first post-war election in 1949.

The three-way race to replace her in the chancellor’s office is nearing its end, with SPD candidate Olaf Scholz ahead in the polls.

He vaulted from third to first after Mr Laschet and Green candidate Annalena Baerbock each squandered early poll leads.

But the election has taken enough turns that nothing is certain, and many voters are undecided. "Dear Armin, dear Olaf," jests an advert for a jobs website, "it's always good to think about other options."

Laschet’s last stand

Mr Laschet is not out of the running. Late polls hinted at a slight rebound. But his campaign schedule has been relatively low-key.

"Where is Laschet?" wrote Matthias Iken, a columnist for Hamburg's biggest newspaper. "Apparently the party barely wants to put its leader and chancellor candidate on a placard."

Many CDU posters in Hamburg praise local candidates instead. One of them, Marcus Weinberg, said voters often questioned him about Mr Laschet.

"He integrates and brings people together rather than dividing," he said in defence of Mr Laschet as he packed up a campaign stall by the River Elbe.

Achim Guenter, 67, who lives in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which Mr Laschet has led since 2017, said the centre-right candidate had no clear vision for Germany.

“Laschet’s reform programme for the election is very vague and he is without any real impetus,” he said.

Critics say the CDU should have put forward Markus Soeder, the swaggering premier of Bavaria and leader of a conservative sister party, the CSU. He lost a power struggle for the nomination in April.

Norbert Richter, 71, a retired teacher, believes Mr Soeder would have made a more formidable candidate and stood up to leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan if he became chancellor.

He blames Ms Merkel for a lack of attractive alternatives. “She sidelined and chased away all her party rivals until nobody was left,” he said.

But many in the CDU were reluctant to let a brash Bavarian hold sway over the alliance, and stand by the decision to back Mr Laschet.

"We don't want a king or an emperor," said one CDU operative in Hamburg, alluding to the former imperial rulers of Bavaria.

Scholz sprint

In contrast to Mr Laschet, Olaf Scholz is the front and centre of the SPD's campaign. He gazes reassuringly at voters from posters plastered across Hamburg, the city he ran as mayor from 2011 to 2018.

Many of the posters offer nothing more concrete than "competence for Germany". Others are even less revealing: "A chancellor for Germany."

Germany's finance minister since 2018, Mr Scholz talks mostly about social policy themes such as wages and pensions.

He is a moderate in his party who recovered from losing the SPD leadership to a left-wing duo in 2019 to become the chancellor candidate a year later.

Debate viewers liked his calm manner on television. He was named the winner in all three contests with Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock.

“There is no doubt that Scholz and the SPD’s rise in popularity over the summer have been helped by Baerbock and Laschet’s accident-prone campaigns,” said Prof John Ryan, a political expert at the CESifo institute.

“He is projecting the aura of a safe pair of hands, which is an attractive proposition post-Merkel.”

Doubters point to problems when Mr Scholz ran Hamburg, such as a failed Olympic bid and a chaotic G20 summit, and say his finance role means he is hardly the candidate of change. It also led to scrutiny over financial scandals that occurred on his watch.

"Why should I vote for the SPD when I want a real change, when it's always been part of the government?" said one voter at a Scholz rally this week. The party has governed in some form for all but four years since 1998.

Mr Scholz has made a virtue of this by stressing his experience and seeking to imitate Ms Merkel's pragmatic brand, thereby irking the chancellor.

"We want to be able to lead the country from the front," he told supporters near Hamburg.

Green surge fizzles out

The Greens are on course for a record vote share of about 15 per cent, but a third-place finish would bring a tinge of disappointment after their bid for the chancellorship appeared to fizzle out.

Ms Baerbock lost ground after a series of damaging personal scandals, including allegations of plagiarism and a misleading CV.

Like Mr Laschet, she has been dogged by the suggestion that she was the wrong choice. Robert Habeck, a party co-leader with ageing rock-star looks, stood aside with good grace in April.

Rallying the troops on Hamburg's historic dockside, he hardly mentioned Ms Baerbock. He hit the key notes of the Green campaign: the world is changing whether we like it or not; German leaders must meet the moment; Mr Laschet and Mr Scholz would bury their heads in the sand.

"We need a politics that is at least as radical as the extreme ecological situation," he said.

He was careful to praise Ms Merkel personally, winning applause by paying tribute to her “great commitment and courage”. But he called for her departure to mark the end of a “political culture that is set on being as comfortable as possible”.

One Green campaign insider said Mr Habeck had inspired her to join the party in 2009. But she was glad that Ms Baerbock was chosen.

Critics would inevitably have found some other stick with which to beat Mr Habeck, she said. She believes Ms Baerbock was the victim of more sexist coverage than Ms Merkel – possibly because she is younger and a mother.

In the final stretch of the race, Greens in Hamburg focused on making themselves visible to waverers rather than slogging it out with critics.

One rush-hour passenger was sent on their way with a Green-branded mask after forgetting their own. In the suburbs, activists handed out tulip bulbs.

"We want people to have something Green to take home for their balconies," said Marc Muckelberg, 33. The CDU preferred to hand out gummy bears.

At least one of the faithful in Hamburg appeared to have given up on Ms Baerbock. She caught Mr Habeck’s eye with a placard reading: “Robert for Chancellor 2025”.

Why it matters

Germany is Europe’s richest country, a member of the G7, a key player in global diplomacy and the most influential voice in the EU.

But many German voters bemoan the lack of debate on key issues such as foreign policy, and an excessive focus on the candidates.

“This question appeared to be more important than the choice between different policies,” Mr Richter said.

“Only Scholz appeared to come through it unscathed, although he actually left a lot of unanswered questions as mayor of Hamburg.”

The three main contenders are all pro-EU, pro-Nato moderates who talk about the urgency of tackling climate change, making a choice difficult.

Young SPD members talk about climate change with the same urgency as the Greens. “The Earth is slipping away from us,” said one supporter in Hamburg. “I can’t work when I’m swimming underwater.”

Two studies by major think tanks found the manifestos of all the major parties wanting on climate and migration policy.

Trying to drum up interest in the plight of Mediterranean migrants, activists in Hamburg formed a symbolic human chain. “We want to give a jolt to the federal parties,” said one.

But despite recent arrivals from Afghanistan, the issue of migration is less salient than in 2017 when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) first entered parliament.

Smaller parties seek attention

The AfD is destined to remain a brooding presence in parliament that will make it harder to form majorities. Its anti-lockdown stance failed to give it a lift in regional elections.

The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who torpedoed coalition talks with the CDU and Greens in 2017, could end up as kingmakers again this time.

Mr Scholz could seek to bring them into a three-way coalition with the SPD and Greens, but the FDP is sceptical. One of its slogans aims an attack at the Greens: “Let’s take more pleasure in inventing rather than banning things”.

The far-left Linke is set to become the smallest of the six parties in parliament. It has mainly figured in the campaign as a bogeyman invoked by the CDU to warn against a coalition led by Mr Scholz.

Despite Mr Laschet’s demands, Mr Scholz has not ruled out working with the party, which traces its roots to East Germany’s former ruling Communists.

Another 40 minor parties are standing at the election but are unlikely to clear the 5 per cent threshold needed to enter parliament.

The pro-EU movement Volt advertises heavily in Hamburg. The pro-vegan V-Party claims to be “greener than the Greens”. The disgruntled Free Voters have been as high as 3 per cent in the polls.

The Basis, an anti-lockdown party that supports Swiss-style direct democracy, hired a plane to fly its name in Hamburg’s skies this week.

Handing out leaflets in the city centre, one activist insisted the party was not on the far-right fringe. “We’re a complete mixture,” she said. But it has been linked to the conspiracy theorist “Querdenker” scene.

Complex coalition talks loom

The shape of the new parliament should be clear by late on Sunday, but Ms Merkel is set for a long goodbye as complex coalition talks follow.

Making things even more complicated is the ballooning size of the German parliament, the Bundestag.

German election law allows it to inflate as much as necessary to ensure a proportional result while guaranteeing a seat to the winners of 299 constituencies.

The CDU and SPD tend to win more of these than is justified by their overall vote share, meaning smaller parties get scores of new seats to compensate.

Ms Merkel will remain in office until a new government is formed. After the 2017 election, it took six months for a coalition to be agreed.

“I’m sure that in the long run most people will realise how much stability Merkel, due to her very long term in office, has given,” Mr Guenter said.

“She certainly lacked the kind of male chauvinism and often aggressiveness that is so typical in a time of Trumpism and Russia under Putin.”

Mr Richter expects an SPD-Green-FDP coalition. Mr Luedtke likes the CDU-Green-FDP pact that runs the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein but is unsure whether it would work in Berlin.

His wife Renate, 61, is voting for the Greens. "The most important thing is the climate," she said. He may do so too but considers the race too close to call.

“I don’t vote for the Linke, I don’t vote for the AfD. As a democrat I could vote for all of the others,” he said. “I have no idea what will happen next Sunday.”

Updated: September 25, 2021, 8:48 AM