A bounce in the polls for the “new kid on the block” in German politics, leader of the Green party Annalena Baerbock, throws the race to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor after September's general election wide open.
Ms Baerbock, a former trampolining medal winner, is seeking to become Germany's youngest post-war leader after she was named on Monday as the Green party's candidate for chancellor.
The 40-year-old won the joint leadership of the party in 2018 and helped the Greens to shed their image as hippy peace activists in favour of a more pragmatic brand that puts them in contention for the chancellorship for the first time.
With five months to go until the German election – when Ms Merkel will not run for a fifth term – polls show the Greens only a few points behind Ms Merkel’s faltering CDU/CSU bloc.
One poll published on Tuesday showed the Greens moving into a seven-point lead, with 28 per cent of the vote compared with 21 per cent for the CDU/CSU.
Even if Ms Baerbock does not win the chancellorship, she is poised to play a crucial role in coalition talks and become Germany’s pre-eminent female politician of the post-Merkel era.
“It is an asset for the Greens that she is the only female candidate in the race right now,” said Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist and former aide to Green politicians.
Ms Baerbock is one of two party leaders with Robert Habeck, but the two agreed in private that Ms Baerbock would seek the chancellorship at September's election.
The amicable announcement came against the backdrop of a chaotic week-long saga over who would lead the CDU/CSU into the election, which finally ended on Tuesday with victory for CDU leader Armin Laschet.
"For the Greens this is somewhat good timing, I would say," Mr Jungjohann told The National.
“The Greens are currently performing well and they look solid and calm, and they look like they have a plan – and that is in sharp contrast currently to the conservative party.”
Raised on a farm near Hannover, Ms Baerbock accompanied her parents to anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s that spurred the rise of the Greens.
But as a party leader, she has helped to complete the party’s move to the centre, making it a likely kingmaker in coalition talks after the election.
“Under Habeck and Baerbock, the Greens have developed into a progressive centrist force,” Mr Jungjohann said.
“They’re the strongest leadership the party has ever seen.
“It’s a kind of modernisation strategy that Habeck and Baerbock have pushed over the last years, and that’s also what her candidacy is building upon.”
Experts describe Ms Baerbock as smart and determined, with a meticulous attention to policy details.
Critics point out that she has never held a government role, raising doubts about her suitability for the chancellorship.
Ms Baerbock countered that “three years as party leader, being a lawmaker and mother of young children tend to toughen you up”.
“We’re talking about a 40-year-old new kid on the block that not many people have heard of before,” Anna Rosenberg, an analyst at Signum Global, told Monocle 24 radio.
“But she’s now really going to be quite influential as we’re heading into the elections.
"[She] could potentially even become the next chancellor … but nevertheless she's going to shape [what] Germany will look like a few months down the line."
Greens gather momentum ahead of September's election
As a teenager, Ms Baerbock won three bronze medals in German trampolining championships. The sport taught her to "be brave", she said.
She studied law and political science in Hannover before taking a master’s degree in international law at the London School of Economics.
After trying her hand at journalism, she joined the Greens in 2005 and entered the German parliament in 2013.
The Greens, who were junior partners in a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) from 1998 to 2005, won 8.9 per cent of the vote at the last election in 2017.
But growing concern about climate change and disenchantment with the political establishment fuelled a surge in support over the past few years.
Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU poll numbers slumped in February and March amid anger over Germany's handling of the pandemic.
Current polls suggest the Greens could take more than 20 per cent of the vote at September’s election and vault into second place – or even first.
That could open the door to a coalition with the CDU/CSU, in which either Mr Laschet or Ms Baerbock would probably become chancellor.
Alternatively, the Greens could seek a centre-left alliance with other parties, including the SPD.
A Green-led government would make Ms Baerbock Germany's youngest chancellor yet, beating the record set by Ms Merkel when she came to office in 2005 at the age of 51.
Ms Baerbock would also be the first Green leader of a major world economy.
If the Greens come to power, Ms Baerbock said they would bring forward Germany's coal exit to 2030, the same year that they want to ban the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars.
Ms Baerbock is a critic of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia, which is backed by Ms Merkel but has irked German allies.
On a regional level, the Greens are already part of government coalitions in more than half of Germany's 16 states.
The success of the Greens forced other parties to respond by emphasising climate change as a top priority, Mr Jungjohann said.
“In a nutshell, that means all other parties see their main rivals in the Green party,” he said.