In Germany’s elections, candidates vie to be more Merkel

Martin Meissner/AP
People pass election posters of the three chancellor candidates, from left, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, Annalena Baerbock of the German Green party, and Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Sept. 23, 2021.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the longest-serving leader of a Western democracy, will see her successor chosen by elections on Sept. 26. She departs office of her own accord, scandal-free, with sky-high approval ratings at home and abroad.

The candidates to replace her have been emphasizing their ability to maintain the tenor of her tenure. Even Olaf Scholz, the current front-runner and head of the center-left rival party to Ms. Merkel’s own center-right party, has underscored the qualities he shares with “Madame Chancellor.”

Why We Wrote This

In the race to succeed Angela Merkel, all the major contenders are trying to present themselves as having the same style and stability of Germany’s “Madame Chancellor” – the men included.

It’s only natural that the leading candidates to replace her might seek to replicate her appeal. Yet what’s problematic, say policy experts, is that in promising they’ll continue her brand of stability, they’re ignoring the pressing challenges facing Germany and the world: climate change, the country’s staggeringly low levels of digitization, a growing inequality gap, and Europe’s place in the world.

“We’re at a moment in time, at the cusp of fundamental societal change, and we need radical answers,” says Sophia Becker of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, candidates are somewhat very calmly discussing incremental technical solutions to small problems. ... Nobody is presenting big visions of change.”

The leading candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor has made a point of emphasizing just how much he is like her.

It’s an odd parallel to draw, given that Olaf Scholz, the sitting finance minister and vice chancellor, hails from the center-left party that traditionally rivals that of Ms. Merkel’s center-right one. But Mr. Scholz clearly spots a winning strategy.

He’s been photographed with his hands held in the “Merkel rhombus” shape, positioned next to the words “He Can Do Chancellor,” where the words were conjugated in female gender. And in a slickly produced video, Mr. Scholz watches footage of Ms. Merkel at a negotiating table, before he struts away confidently with his eyes locked onto the viewer’s. The insinuation is clear: Vote for me if you want Merkel 2.0.

Why We Wrote This

In the race to succeed Angela Merkel, all the major contenders are trying to present themselves as having the same style and stability of Germany’s “Madame Chancellor” – the men included.

Chancellor Merkel, the longest-serving leader of a Western democracy, departs office of her own accord, scandal-free, with sky-high approval ratings at home and abroad. It’s only natural that the leading candidates to replace her might seek to replicate her appeal. Yet what’s problematic, say policy experts, is that in promising they’ll continue her brand of stability, they’re ignoring the pressing challenges facing Germany and the world: climate change, the country’s staggeringly low levels of digitization, a growing inequality gap, and Europe’s policy with respect to China and Russia. The political class seems to believe German voters crave continuity and stability. Will the elections bear that out?

“We’re at a moment in time, at the cusp of fundamental societal change and we need radical answers,” says Sophia Becker, political scientist and research fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, candidates are somewhat very calmly discussing incremental technical solutions to small problems. It feels to me they’re trying to cater to a sense of comfort to voters. Nobody is presenting big visions of change.”

Too much change?

In April, the Greens shook up the political landscape by landing squarely at the top of polls. With a platform to combat climate change and promote social justice, the party put forth the fresh-faced working mother Annalena Baerbock for chancellor. A generation of Green devotees finally felt heard.

“If we are represented on a federal level, it would be a huge win for our multicultural society,” says Samy Charchira, a Dusseldorf city politician who came to Germany at age 14 from Morocco.

Yet, over the ensuing months, missteps by Ms. Baerbock, a relative newcomer to the national stage, as well as what some called unfairly critical media coverage of a young woman on the rise, showcased her in a negative light. Ms. Baerbock also began to dial back rhetoric that might conjure up the Greens as a “ban party” – politicians who might forbid, say, automobiles or meat-eating – and she took pains to assure Germany’s powerful corporate class they won’t be unfairly penalized. The Greens began to lose momentum.

Another expected front-runner, Armin Laschet, the pick for chancellor of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also faltered this summer. Mr. Laschet, the famously gaffe-prone president of Germany’s most populous state, was filmed laughing during a somber event for victims of Germany’s summer floods, which killed nearly 200 people in the country’s worst natural disaster. Mr. Laschet looked callous and out of touch, and his party began falling in the polls, in a staggering reversal for a party that’s used to winning with Ms. Merkel at the helm.

Tobias Schwarz/AP
From left, Annalena Baerbock, Greens co-leader; Olaf Scholz, finance minister and SPD candidate; and Janine Wissler, co-leader of the left party Die Linke attend a final televised debate in Berlin, Sept. 23, 2021, ahead of the election on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Scholz, the chancellor pick of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who has run a campaign with measured rhetoric and few missteps, began to rise. His center-left party is polling in the lead going into this weekend’s elections.

As the polls have fluctuated, what has stayed remarkably steady is the absence of strong arguments and clear policy solutions. That’s partly because German voters have “had enough change,” says Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

“Whether it’s energy change in getting rid of nuclear, the immigration issue, they’ve had enough,” says Ms. Dempsey. “They don’t like verbal open public discussion about change. They’re afraid of it. They don’t know what it brings, and it’s open to all sorts of suspicions. So politicians play it safe. There’s a psychological yearning among a certain generation to want continuity. What that means is – we have no idea what the candidates stand for.”

More compromises for everyone

The truth is, there’s a huge number of things that Chancellor Merkel – who spent most of her tenure dealing with crisis after crisis from the eurozone to migration to the pandemic – has left undone. And with such a fragmented political landscape, it’s possible that the next German government will accomplish only marginally more.

For the first time in decades, it’s possible that three parties will be required to make up the majority coalition needed to form the government. Previously, it was always Ms. Merkel’s CDU along with a preferred coalition partner.

Five or six viably strong parties are now contending for votes. The two big forces in German politics – the CDU and the SPD – are built on the anchors of the working class, the church, and sports and social organizations, but have been losing support over the years. The far-right Alternative for Germany, which rose to parliament on an anti-migration platform, and other small parties have further fragmented the political landscape.

Now, with Ms. Merkel’s CDU not being able to count on their “usual voters, for them to just lose 10% of the vote from one week to the next is quite interesting,” says Ms. Becker of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

A three-party coalition means that “every party will have to make more compromises, not only because they are three, but also because the ‘small parties’ are presumably bigger than in the past,” says Julia Reuschenbach, political scientist at the University of Bonn. That kind of landscape doesn’t bode well for making radical change.

What’s important, says Ms. Dempsey, is that regardless of what happens after voting is finished, coalition negotiations move along quickly. Each party will be putting forth policy proposals, and forging an agreement. Big decisions are looming.

“We can’t have a lot of indecision,” says Ms. Dempsey. “Otherwise Germany will lose a lot of time. What happens in Germany has an impact on what happens in Europe – and the European Union is in very bad shape.”

Perhaps the true winner in all of this is Chancellor Merkel, who is leaving many problems to her successors, while enjoying higher confidence ratings than any major world leader including President Joe Biden, according to this week’s Pew Research Center report. But for those looking for dramatic change – for the climate, for migrants, for social justice – Ms. Merkel’s popularity, despite how little strategic vision she offered over 16 years, is frustrating.

“Germany is an important power in Europe, and if it’s not part of a solution [to pressing problems], then a solution from Europe is unlikely,” says Ms. Becker. “[The Germans are] not sufficient alone, but they’re necessary for European answers.”

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