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Vulcan Insight | Head-to-head race to succeed Merkel continues

With only some six weeks until Germany goes to the polls on 26 September to replace incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leading parties continue to be a in head-to-head race – even if their lead candidates seem to disappoint. 

After 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy, the race to move into the Chancellery continues to be tighter and more unpredictable than most analysts had expected as a result of mini (and very German) scandals, uninspiring leadership candidates and the Germany’s response and management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Typically, election strategists will describe every general election as “the most important election yet” in order to fire up their respective bases. With this being the first election in almost two decades without Angela Merkel on the ballot sheet, however, the message seems to have arrived with voters. Despite her successive governments being increasingly fragile in recent years, her successive re-elections had never been in question.

Now, however, for the first time in years, voters can imagine their votes to effect actual deep political and societal change. In fact, according to one polling about the most important topics on Germans’ minds ahead of the election’s traditional issues such as migration, inequality, pensions and education all rank below 11%. While the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic still (just about) comes out on top with 45%, 44% of respondents indicated that climate change and the energy transition is the most important issue.

The recent deadly floods in Western and Southern Germany, paired with the widespread German media coverage of the record forest fires in Turkey, Greece, and Italy, all popular German tourist destinations, have quickly pushed the topic back at the top of the political agenda.

This change in voters’ priorities has also had a significant effect on the fortunes of the various political parties and their leader, with especially the CDU’s party leader Armin Laschet, falling from grace. According to the most recent opinion polls, only 14% of respondents consider him personally as the right man to lead the country, coming last between the three major contestants. To a large extend, his fall from grace comes from a video that emerged of him, flanked by aides, laughing in the background as Germany’s President consoled flood victims.

In addition, having flip flopped on policies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many question his leadership abilities and whether his cautious style can be trusted.

While climate change had always high on German voters’ minds, the issue had somewhat been forgotten in recent weeks as concerns about the COVID delta variant increased. In addition, the Greens, which had been riding high in the polls in early May, had steadily lost support after its lead candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had been embroiled in a number of very German scandals around allegations of plagiarism and her amending sections of her CV.

Despite this, however, while Baerbocks’ personal favourability ratings hover just above those of Mr. Laschet, her party continues to steadily around the 20% mark while the CDU’s polling numbers have significantly bled in recent weeks. This, although the rise of US-inspired negative campaign tactics, directed against the Greens, has arrived with a bang in the country.

This all leaves the social democratic SPD, and its leader Olaf Scholz, who is the current Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister, top in the personal favourability rating and the SPD rising in the polls. However, despite his reputation, only the most hard-core SPD voters would actually believe that Mr. Scholz will move into the Chancellery.

After all, Germans vote for parties, not politicians. While Olaf Scholz may be the most popular of the three main parties, the SPD has significantly lost votes and seats over the past years. With six weeks to go until Germans go to the polls on 26 September, the election continues to be a head-to-head fight with everything yet to win or lose. Based on current opinion polls, however, the electorate is yet to be convinced of the new Chancellor’s leadership qualities – whoever it may be.

Compliments of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.