New political era: Post-Merkel German election reaches final stretch

The race to choose German Chancellor Angela Merkel's successor has shaped up as the most suspenseful since her rise to power 16 years ago, signalling a potentially turbulent new political era in Europe's top economy.

New political era: Post-Merkel German election reaches final stretch
Chancellor Angela Merkel receives flowers from SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz for her July 17th birthday this year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Reuters/Pool | Axel Schmidt

With a month to go until the September 26th vote, Merkel’s conservative CDU-CSU bloc and their current junior partners in government, the Social Democrats, are running neck-and-neck, with the ecologist Greens close behind.

That leaves wide open the question of who will steer the EU’s most populous nation after the widely trusted Merkel retires from politics.

With the Afghanistan debacle triggering a crisis of confidence in the West and the climate emergency demanding urgent action, Germany may well be tied up for months to come with a messy struggle to form a coalition government under a new chancellor.

“It is only now dawning on many people that Merkel is leaving the stage,” Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education, near Munich, told AFP.

“Of course the candidates are being judged in comparison to her – they’re big shoes to fill.”

READ ALSO: After Merkel – who could be next in line to lead Germany?

‘Tide has turned’

The frontrunner by a whisker according to most polls remains Armin Laschet, the affable but gaffe-prone premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

The veteran leader sought to lend some of her enduring star power to Laschet at a joint campaign event in Berlin last weekend, calling him a “bridge-builder” and saying she was “deeply convinced” of his abilities.

Voters, however, do not appear to share her confidence.

READ ALSO: German chancellor candidate Laschet loses favour with voters: poll

After Laschet emerged from a bare-knuckle battle within the conservative bloc as the candidate in April, many Germans reacted sceptically to what they saw as his inconsistent strategy to confront the pandemic.

A disastrous appearance during deadly floods in July in which he was caught laughing on camera while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed his sympathies to victims reinforced doubts about his gravitas.

“The tide has turned against Laschet and his party,” news weekly Der Spiegel said. “That can change but it should be clear to him – it will get harder by the day.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel with conservative candidate Armin Laschet in August. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Meanwhile the Social Democrats, weakened for years by infighting, have mounted a remarkable surge, largely attributed to their competitors’ shaky showing.

Their centrist candidate, Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, has emerged as the campaign’s dark horse by remaining above the fray and avoiding embarrassing blunders.

“Scholz has appeared statesmanlike,” wrote the top-selling, traditionally right-wing daily Bild.

“He – not Laschet – seems the natural heir to the Merkel era. He is not making any mistakes.”

READ ALSO: Germany’s Social Democrats take surprise lead in election poll 

‘Almost tragic’ 

Many analysts noted that Laschet also made the tactical error of turning most of his firepower on the Greens’ untested candidate, Annalena Baerbock, instead of Scholz.

Her initially strong appeal has largely fizzled following accusations of plagiarism and padding her CV and in the face of a targeted “fake news” onslaught.

Münch, the political scientist, said the Greens had miscalculated in choosing Baerbock, an MP who has never led a state or a ministry, citing her
gender as justification.

“It is a shame she didn’t wait until she had gained more experience – her confidence is obviously shaken now and it’s almost tragic because I don’t know if she’ll get another chance to run.”

Polls put both the centre-right CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats on around 23 percent, with the Greens at about 17 percent.

Compared to the 2017 election, that would mark a whopping 10-point slide for the conservatives who have never scored below 30 percent in any election post-war. It would be a small gain for the SPD on their record low score and a doubling of the Greens’ vote.

READ ALSO: How Germany’s new legion of foreign voters are gearing up for the election

The pro-business Free Democrats, frequent kingmakers in post-war politics, are tallying around 13 percent meaning they could play an outsize role in the coalition horse-trading.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a key spoiler at the last election but spurned by the other parties, is trailing at about 12 percent as the national debate has shifted away from their signature issue of migration.

Assuming the race remains close, the parties are bracing for marathon coalition negotiations after an unusually ill-tempered campaign.

However, Bild highlighted that after a generation of Merkel coming out on top at the polls, “at long last, Germany may be able to look forward to a genuine race for the chancellery”.

By Deborah Cole

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Ex-chancellor Schröder sues German Bundestag for removing perks

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has sued the German parliament for removing some of his official post-retirement perks over his links to Russian energy giants, his lawyer said Friday.

Ex-chancellor Schröder sues German Bundestag for removing perks

Schröder, 78, has come under heavy criticism for his proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin and involvement with state-backed energy companies.

The decision to suspend Schröder’s taxpayer-funded office and staff in May was “contrary to the rule of law”, Michael Nagel, told public broadcaster NDR.

Schröder “heard of everything through the media”, Nagel said, noting that the Social Democrat had asked for a hearing before the budget committee responsible but was not given the chance to express himself.

READ ALSO: Germany strips Schröder of official perks over Russia ties

Schröder’s lawyers filed the complaint with an administrative Berlin court, a spokesman for the court confirmed.

In its decision to strip him of the perks, the committee concluded that Schröder, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, “no longer upholds the continuing obligations of his office”.

Most of Schröder’s office staff had already quit before the final ruling was made.

Despite resigning from the board of Russian oil company Rosneft and turning down a post on the supervisory board of gas giant Gazprom in May, Schröder has maintained close ties with the Kremlin.

The former chancellor met Putin in July, after which he said Moscow was ready for a “negotiated solution” to the war in Ukraine — comments branded as “disgusting” by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Last week, the Social Democrats concluded that Schröder would be allowed to remain a member after he was found not have breached party rules over his ties to the Russian President.

Schröder’s stance on the war and solo diplomacy has made him an embarrassment to the SPD, which is also the party of current Chancellor Olaf Scholz.