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22 Sep 2021

A Changing EU

The last television debate of the German election campaign has confirmed that Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) are in the driving seat. It leaves Armin Laschet’s ruling Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) with an uphill struggle.

The three contenders looking to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel went head-to-head in their third and final primetime television debate on Sunday, 19 September. The three candidates – the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock, Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister from the centre-left SPD, and Armin Laschet of the centre-right CDU/CSU – debated about climate change policy, Covid-19 and social affairs.

For Germany as a key player on the global stage, the debate was insular in its outlook. Across the three debates, there has been no real discussion of EU affairs, such as the European Green deal or the future of the Eurozone. In the final debate, there was just one indirect mention of Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission.

Major foreign policies, such as relations with Russia and China, global trade disputes, the transatlantic alliance, Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Afghanistan were not on the agenda. This is even though Germany’s next leader will spend much of his or her time dealing with an increasingly unpredictable world.

According to a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations released ahead of the German federal election, 52% of Germans say their country is a power in decline. Of the dozen EU nations surveyed, Germans were the most pessimistic about a post-Merkel Germany.

A post-debate survey showed that 42% of viewers said Scholz, who had won the first and second debates and again positioned himself as the incumbent, performed best. Baerbock claimed 25% of the debate votes, while Laschet, received 27% of positive impressions.

Both Scholz and Baerbock suggested they were optimistic their parties could get sufficient seats to form a coalition without a third partner, whether the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) or the far-left Die Linke. The polls so far do not support their assessment. Only if The Left (Die Linke), which is hovering around six per cent, does not win enough votes to pass the necessary five per cent threshold, the SPD and Greens would have a chance of an absolute majority in the Bundestag.

Following the first and second television debates, Scholz has been building momentum. In a chancellor candidate poll published on 18 September by INSA for Bild on Sunday, before the third debate, he received 31% of the support, while Laschet  and Baerbock were tied at only 12% each.

In another party poll published on 20 September by politico poll of polls the CDU/CSU were on 21%. The poll put the SPD at 26%, the Greens at 16%, the FDP at 11%, the hard right Alternative for Germany (AfD) at 11%, and the Left party at 6%. In individual polls the SPD lead over the CDU has been between six to three per cent.

If recent polling is correct, the only possible governing coalitions would need three parties to work together. Coalitions of three parties have often been adopted at the state level in Germany, but never at the federal level. While no two-party combination would be capable now of mustering the 338 seats needed for a majority, four three-way combinations would be possible:

The ‘German coalition’, named after the colours of the parties – the CDU/CSU (black), SPD (red) and FDP (yellow) – which reflect those on the German flag.

Next, the ‘Jamaica coalition’ – the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP. Efforts to build a coalition of these parties failed in the wake of the 2017 general election.

Third, there is also the possible ‘Traffic Light coalition’ – the SPD, FDP, and the Greens. Finally, there is the possible left-wing (red-red-green) alliance – the SPD, the Left party, and the Greens. Given the likely complexity, coalition talks could last for months, and this could keep Angela Merkel in office into the early months of 2022 – several months after the German elections.

The Greens’ Annalena Baerbock has received much more harassment online than her top two competitors, and it may have undermined her campaign, according to a report published on 16 September. The report, published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank, found that Baerbock was subject to more conspiracy theories and disinformation than Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz and Christian Democrat candidate Armin Laschet. She was also the recipient of sexist attacks that the other candidates, both men, did not receive.

The institute found that Facebook posts aimed at Baerbock pointedly referred to her gender, including sexist slurs. When referring to Baerbock, users put chancellor candidate in quotation marks and used other forms of belittling language, like calling her ‘the little one,’ which users did not apply to the other candidates. Several posts questioned the competence of women in politics altogether.

In the final stretch of the election campaign, the SPD will likely stay focused on Scholz’s personal popularity with the central message: If you want Olaf Scholz as chancellor, you must vote SPD. This is a message that seems to be working and Scholz’s popularity has been rising steadily in the polls.

The pragmatic Social Democrat looks increasing likely to succeed Angela Merkel by emulating her, and he has got by far the most governing experience. After 16 years of Angela Merkel at the top, voters are showing no appetite for radical change in German politics. Scholz as a safe pair of hands is therefore an attractive proposition post-Merkel.

The prospect of both Scholz and Baerbock coming into power would, however, suggest a more proactive chancellorship, especially on climate change and digital policies which are widely seen as a failure of Merkel and the CDU/CSU during their time in office.

There is no doubt, though, that Merkel has delivered decent and mature leadership. She remains the most popular policy maker in Germany today, yet her popularity is not carrying through to Laschet or to her party at large as the election approaches. Laschet is caught in contradictory behaviour: cheerful but aggressive, and Merkel’s successor but critical of her policies, like the phase-out of nuclear energy.

With few days remaining, Laschet has only limited time to win over undecided voters. The chances of him succeeding Merkel as chancellor look slim, while there is a real chance of the CDU not even becoming part of a new ruling coalition.

Chancellor Angela Merkel will campaign with Laschet over the next few days to lend her support in the final days before the election. The German electorate, however, may yet deliver a shift in the country’s post-Merkel political landscape away from the CDU/CSU.

By Professor John Ryan, a Network Research Fellow at CESifo, Munich, Germany.

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