Merkel’s decision to retire after 16 years at the top of German politics has left her Christian Democrats struggling to stifle her immense popularity and, under new leader Armin Laschet, they could be heading for their worst result in the l post-war history.
The main beneficiaries are their junior partners in power, the center-left Social Democrats (SDP).
Numerous polls have shown a remarkable turnaround for the SDP, which, after years of withering in the shadow of its biggest partner in power, found new life during the campaign under the leadership of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz .
A Forsa poll released on Tuesday saw the SDP overtake the Christian Democrats for the first time in 15 years, by a 23-22 margin, closing a gap of more than 10 points from the previous month.
Meanwhile, the Greens, who showed momentum at the start of the year, slumped to third place to 18%.
“This is the first time in Germany that the outgoing Chancellor has not run again,” said Arndt Leininger, political scientist at Chemnitz University of Technology.
“We haven’t seen a race that seems so open since 2005, when Merkel’s CDU narrowly beat Schroeder’s SDP. “
The prospect of Merkel’s absence further fractured the German political landscape and eroded the sense of stability that defined her years as Chancellor.
If reality reflects the polls, this will be the first time in post-war history that a party fails to win 30% of the vote – a scenario that will likely require a rare three-way coalition to form a governing majority.
“The days of big catch-all parties are over,” said political scientist Gero Neugebauer, comparing the situation to the decline of many other traditionally dominant European parties.
“The divisions in German society and between different interest groups, taken together, result in what we should expect that coalitions formed by three parties are more reliable,” he told Al Jazeera. .
Scholz’s rising SDP could partner with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – a so-called “traffic light coalition”, according to their colors – or possibly turn to a left-wing union with the Greens and the Left Party.
The SDP has promised modest taxes on the rich and increased support for low-income people if it leads the next government, and is more willing to a common EU fiscal policy and debt sharing, red lines long-time conservatives of Merkel and the FDP.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister Bavarian party, the CSU, could seek to renew the attempts of a black, green and yellow “Jamaican coalition” with the Greens and the FDP.
The three men spent weeks discussing a potential alliance after the 2017 election before FDP leader Christian Lindner withdrew his support, leading Merkel to renew her ‘grand coalition’ with her historic rivals , the SDP.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has maintained a constant rate of 10% in the polls in recent months, but remains a pariah for other parties.
Significant conflicts over budgeting and policy exist between the parties, which can complicate negotiations.
The CDU and FDP have rejected the tax increases and are staunch adherents to Germany’s constitutional debt limit, while the SDP and Greens want to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow and spend on social protection and climate protection.
Neugebauer expects negotiations to drag on for a few weeks after the votes are counted, a process that could be extended if parties hold confirmation votes with their members.
Who could replace Merkel?
That voters base their decisions on party rather than personality is seen as an article of faith by many in Germany.
However, the expected leadership vacuum Merkel will allow has seen most party campaigns focus on the candidates, rather than their political platforms and ideologies.
Scholz of the SDP, a former mayor of Hamburg and centrist in his own party, is by far the most popular candidate.
His reputation as a predictable and reliable steward of the German economy, even among supporters of other parties, gave a surprising jolt to what until recently appeared to be a dying SDP.
In the polls of individual candidates, Scholz leads a long way, but her popularity is pale compared to that of Merkel.
When Laschet emerged victorious in April after a deadly competition with Bavarian leader Markus Soeder for the nomination of the Christian Democrats, party notables hoped that the disturbing state of his popularity with the public would increase as his face grew larger. familiar.
The jovial Rheinlander failed to project Merkel’s characteristic seriousness and suffered many blunders and slips.
He faced serious criticism when cameras caught him joking in the background during a grim speech by the German president in remembrance of those killed in this summer’s devastating flooding in western England. ‘Germany.
“Maybe because Laschet doesn’t project the sense of stability and reliability that Merkel did and therefore voters looking for this are more likely to find it in Finance Minister Scholz,” Leininger told Al Jazeera.
After a long winter lockdown, Green leader Annalena Baerbock’s message of change and renewal struck a chord in the spring, with many commentators touting her as the first green chancellor on hold.
But since then his campaign has stalled and his reputation has been tarnished by allegations of filling out his CV and plagiarizing sections of his book.
A series of televised leaders’ debates in the coming weeks will provide some additional chances for leaders to convince the public.
The big conservatives may regret the choice of Laschet over the much more popular Soeder.
However, with so little time to change course, their party will have to hope that its lost voters return to the fold when they vote.
The Greens will want to return to a serious discussion of their ambitious climate policies, which have been derailed by media attacks and ridiculed for their plans to raise fuel taxes and subsidize bicycles.
The increase in a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the Delta variant and a stagnant 60% full vaccination rate, could also play a role.
Previous waves have shaken the popularity of the CDU, which controls the health ministry and is leading the German pandemic response, and created openings for other parties.