German Federal Elections: An Underwhelming New Era

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY ZACH ROBERTS (2nd year - PAIS - Aylesbury, UK)

By the end of September, the reign of Angela Merkel will finally come to an end after over 15 years as Germany’s first female, and longest-serving, Chancellor. Her leadership certainly leaves a remarkable legacy: Chancellor of Europe’s largest economy, a wide range of progressive social policies, and most notably, her influence on the European Union that led to Forbes describing her as ‘The World’s Most Powerful Woman’ in 2018.


It would be fair to believe, therefore, that this upcoming federal election, where there is no incumbent candidate running, should carry an air of excitement and anticipation as Germany prepares for a new political era. Those running for Chancellor, however, have caused such anticipation to fall like a lead balloon due to a mixture of status-quo politics, lack of meaningful progressive policies, and easily avoidable PR blunders.


But who are the candidates? Firstly, there is Armin Laschet, Merkel’s party colleague from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), differing vastly in style and thus lacking the same personal support that she enjoyed. Despite this, he was enjoying a healthy 11-point lead in the polls. That was until he was recorded laughing during a sombre speech by Germany’s President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a town in his own home state that had been hit by lethal floods, which led to his lead dropping by 8 points, leaving the race wide open.


The other two main candidates share the same aura of tepid excitement. There is Olaf Scholz, a centre-left candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD), who seems to be the least unpopular candidate, but he also lacks charisma. Moreover, he is currently Merkel’s Vice Chancellor and has thus spent many years in her shadow, meaning he doesn’t exactly represent a drastic change.


Finally, there is Annalena Baerbock with the Green Party, who seems to be the candidate that most represents a change in political direction considering Merkel’s comparative pragmatism. Climate change is on the agenda of any major election today, but the horrifying flooding in West Germany will have pushed its significance up in such a way that may be beneficial to Baerbock and the Greens. However, she is untested at a national level, and since her nomination she has handled several PR issues poorly, including a plagiarism scandal. Additionally, she has since faded into obscurity, leading many experts to consider it a two-horse race for Chancellor.


All the three front-runners lack excitement around their campaigns due to their personal and political attachments to Merkel, and many Germans are underwhelmed by the fact that her retirement represents a major political opportunity for change, as no one has really ignited the imaginations of the electorate.


The future of the EU is something that the major parties have different approaches towards, with the current coalition of the CDU and SPD considering the EU to be a central part of Germany’s future, and the Greens having a stronger pro-integration, federalist vision for the EU’s future. It is additionally crucial to consider the influence of smaller parties. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) are also in favour of a Green-style EU federalism model, whereas the leftist party, Die Linke, are explicit in their criticism of the EU, with a desire to instead focus on public investment initiatives and to cut all funding for military projects. Likewise, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are also critical of the EU but would favour Germany leaving the Bloc altogether.


Another important consideration is the individual popularity of Merkel herself. She commanded a support of ‘Merkel Voters’ that largely consists of women, fiscal centrists, and ethnic minority voters. They represent a significant proportion of the electorate and there is no guarantee that their support will be passed onto the next CDU candidate, Laschet. So the question is: where will they go?


Whatever happens, whoever becomes Chancellor, or whichever parties make up the governing coalition, there are various combinations that could be formed, and that is what will make the upcoming elections interesting to follow. Germany’s vital role on the global stage will make the outcome significant, as the nation, Europe, and the rest of the world prepares to move on from the Merkel legacy.


IMAGE: Flickr/ Tim Reckmann