Will a Social Democrat become Chancellor again: sensation is ripening before the elections in Germany

Vyacheslav Filippov

Less than a month is left until the most, perhaps, the most important elections in a united Europe (September 26) – to the German Bundestag, as a result of which a new government of the FRG will be created and a new chancellor elected. Angela Merkel did not nominate her candidacy this time and earlier announced her intention to leave politics altogether after the formation of the next Cabinet of Ministers. A new era awaits Germany after 16 years of the “iron frau” rule: what it will be depends on the outcome of the vote. 

The ruling parties – the conservative bloc of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Unions (CDU / CSU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) – have recently come under pressure more than ever in the postwar history of the Federal Republic. Several years ago, the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” swiftly burst into the political horizon, having achieved impressive success in the east of the country and to a large extent ousted the SPD in some lands of the former GDR. In the spring, the “greens” made a splash, which, led by candidate for Chancellor Annalena Berbock, seemed ready to take a solid first place in the popularity rating among German parties in the wake of the discussion about climate change. Everyone has already started talking about Berbock as the next chancellor and went through all kinds of coalitions.

However, then the rating of the “green” began to consistently decline and now stands at only about 17-18%. One of the reasons was the scandals that followed Berbock. First, the media found out that she did not timely declare her income for 2018-2020, later – that some points indicated in the candidate’s biography did not correspond to reality. In addition, plagiarism was discovered in her book “Now. How We Will Renew Our Country.” All this could not but affect the popularity of the “green”. Many representatives of the environmental party would like to see not Berbock as a candidate for chancellor, but co-chairman Robert Habek.

Problems of the Conservative Bloc

A similar problem has developed in the conservative CDU / CSU. In April, the chairman of the Christian Democrats, Armin Laschet, became the bloc’s single candidate for chancellor. This came after his rival Markus Söder, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, abandoned his ambitions. However, a split occurred in the bloc – most of the ordinary members of the CDU, like the deputies of the conservative faction in the Bundestag, supported Söder, and disappointment with the decision of the federal government of the CDU in favor of Lashet was great. Then many conservatives demanded to postpone the vote on the candidacy of the bloc faction in the Bundestag, to which the CDU leadership still did not agree.

So far, Lashet has not been able to unite his supporters and opponents in the ranks of the bloc, and the struggle for the right to lead the Conservatives took away precious time, which was necessary for the preparation for the election campaign. Later, scandals caught up with the leader of the CDU – like Berbock, he was caught casually quoting while writing a book, even if it was not about such blatant plagiarism.

But the biggest mistake the leader of the Christian Democrats made was during a trip with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to one of the flood-hit areas. While the head of state was giving his condolences, Laschet in the background laughed casually, which was filmed. The shots spread all over Germany. As a result, his image suffered a lot.

Laschet’s problem is also in the very manner of conducting the election campaign. Its essence boils down to not making serious mistakes at the finish line, so he tries to avoid harsh statements, in particular about a possible change in the current course of Merkel. Laschet is generally considered to be a follower of her line, while not only many CDU / CSU members, but also most of the voters would like a “new beginning” in Berlin’s policy on many issues of the internal and external agenda. According to insiders, tension is growing in the ranks of the bloc and even an extreme option is being discussed – changing the candidate at the final stage before the vote.

Strange pre-election struggle

The period of the pre-election struggle is always, as they say in Germany, a holiday of democracy, when politicians offer bold ideas, promising projects and present their vision of the further development of the country and society. During the last elections, she was “spoiled” by the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel, who largely reduced the campaign in 2017 to three words: “You [voters] know me.” And the majority of voters really understood to whom they owed the overcoming of the financial crisis, the rapid development of the German economy, and the creation of millions of jobs. According to a poll presented in early August by the ARD TV channel, three quarters of German citizens believe that Merkel “was, on the whole, a good chancellor.”

Now “mutti” is leaving, and the election campaign revolves around things, to put it mildly, not so important for Germany and the world – there is little foreign and security policy, NATO, the topic of building relations with Russia, China, ways to overcome international conflicts, EU development, digitalization, demographic issues and even the fight against climate change.

The press and the public primarily discuss not the content of election programs, but plagiarism in Berbock’s book, the situation when she somehow got a strong word on the air after speaking at an election event, the internal party struggle with Habek. The topic of flooding, which seemed to add to the seriousness of the election campaign, was raised to a greater extent in connection with Laschet’s inappropriate behavior against the background of Steinmeier. The candidate for Chancellor from the CDU / CSU himself is trying to present himself as a continuation of Merkel’s course and does not offer anything fundamentally new, just not to scare away a potential voter.

In Germany, the current campaign has already been called “the pre-election struggle around the little things,” when no one really expresses innovative ideas, does not make programmatic speeches. Even the “greens”, with their still drastic measures to combat global warming, remain silent, and Berbock says nothing about the need to impose a ban on short-haul flights and raise gasoline prices. It can be said that candidates do not mobilize, but demobilize voters.

Only one person is conducting an open pre-election campaign – this is the Prime Minister of Bavaria Söder, who, obviously, was extremely annoyed that the Conservatives had not nominated him as a candidate for chancellor, but Lashet. The CSU leader is not afraid of such sensitive topics as tax cuts, tightening or easing of coronavirus restrictions. It is possible that in the event of a failure in the elections to the Bundestag, Söder will blame Laschet and the CDU for the failures and will declare himself even louder.

Competitors’ weaknesses – a win for Scholz

The pre-election struggle could have become completely boring and uninteresting if it were not for the intrigue: at the final stage, the Social Democrats made a rapid leap forward, and for more than a week, according to a number of polls, have been leading the popularity rating among the FRG parties. Until recently, they occupied the third place with a meager 13-15%, and now they are ahead of the CDU / CSU and continue to add point by point day by day.

How did you manage it? Largely thanks to the candidate for Chancellor, the current Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. When he was chosen as the SPD candidate for chancellor and openly declared his desire to win the elections, many observers apparently only chuckled, considering that the 63-year-old politician’s chances are zero. In 2019, he ran for the post of SPD co-chairman (in a duet with Clara Gaywitz), but lost. Nevertheless, there was no discord in the party before the elections: the current leaders – Norbert Walter-Boryans and Saskia Esken – have now deliberately completely receded into the background, leaving the stage for Scholz, the Social Democrats, unlike the CDU / CSU and the “greens” rallied around your candidate. The SPD became the first German party to decide on a candidate for chancellor.

At the same time, Scholz manages to behave in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish who will be the best follower of Merkel’s course – a social democrat or a representative of her own party Laschet. In the photo for one of the publications, Scholz even folded his hands in the favorite “mutti” manner, when the fingers of both hands touch each other, forming something like a rhombus – in Germany it is called the “Merkel rhombus”.

On August 29, the “triel” (similar to the duel) took place – the first televised debates of the main candidates for chancellor: Scholz, Laschette and Berbock. According to the results of a survey conducted by the Forsa Institute, 36% of respondents considered Scholz the winner. 30% voted for the candidate from the “green”, 25% – the candidate from the conservative bloc. Triel has certainly strengthened the image of the SPD candidate and strengthened the party’s advantage over the CDU / CSU.

Scholz positions himself primarily as a reliable politician with experience in the federal government. At the same time, according to experts, the popularity of the vice-chancellor is promoted to a greater extent not so much by his advantages as by the weaknesses of competitors. Laschet and Berbock have less and less time to correct past mistakes and direct the election campaign in a direction favorable to them, so that the sensation – the election of a Social Democrat as chancellor – is getting closer and closer.

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