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POLITICS

Germany gets ready for election that will mark the start of a new era

Germany goes to the polls on Sunday in an election that will see Angela Merkel step down after 16 years in power, sparking a knife-edge race.

Germany gets ready for election that will mark the start of a new era
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel with CDU candidate Armin Laschet in her Stralsund constituency on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Bernd Wüstneck

The first chancellor not to seek re-election since 1949, Merkel’s decision to bow out sets the country synonymous with stability on course for change no
matter who wins when the final count is in.

Western allies are watching nervously, wary of an uncertain outcome and coalition negotiations that would blunt for weeks, if not months participation on the international scene by Europe’s biggest power of 83 million people.

For Merkel’s centre-right CDU-CSU bloc, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Their pick for chancellor, the affable but gaffe-prone Armin Laschet, 60, has seen his popularity dwindle since he was caught chuckling during a tribute to victims of floods in July, the deadliest in Germany for decades.

The conservatives now face the prospect of not just losing the chancellery, but of being booted out of government altogether — unless Laschet can pull off one of his trademark last-minute comebacks.

The latest polls show the SPD are still ahead with 25 percent, while the CDU/CSU has 21 percent.

His main rival is Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, 63, from the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in three out of four Merkel-led governments.

READ ALSO: Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany 

Hunger strike 

Often described as capable but boring, Scholz has cast himself as a safe pair of hands and the natural Merkel heir.

The latest opinion polls put Scholz’s SPD in the lead with around 25 percent support, but the gap with the conservatives has narrowed in recent days to just three percent.

With just over three days left to win over undecided voters, “it’s getting really exciting”, said Jan Schaefer, politics editor of Germany’s best-selling Bild newspaper.

Polling in third place at around 15 percent are the centre-left Greens, who are poised to play a key role in post-election coalition haggling.

Climate change has emerged as a top voter concern among the 60.4 million people eligible to vote, including about 2.8 million able to do so for the first time.

The Greens’ candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, 40, has warned that the next government “will be the last that can still actively influence the climate crisis”.

Huge crowds are set to take to the streets Friday for a global climate demo, while young climate activists have been on hunger strike outside the Reichstag parliament in Berlin.

Sunflowers bloom near the Mehrum coal-fired power station in Hohenhameln, Lower Saxony. Climate protection and the coal exit are central issues in the election campaign. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

After steering Germany safely through crises such as the 2009-10 eurozone financial crunch, a massive influx of refugees in 2015 and the coronavirus pandemic, Merkel leaves behind an economic powerhouse in relatively robust health.

READ ALSO: An era ends – how will the Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?

Merkel legacy could be ‘lost’

But critics say years of under-investment in infrastructure and education have left the European Union’s most populous country unprepared for a greener and more digital future, while social inequality has worsened.

Scholz and Baerbock have vowed more public investment to help the economy adapt, and higher taxes for top earners.

The three top candidates – the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock and the CDU/CSU’s Armin Laschet – at the TV debate on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Laschet says tax hikes could stifle the pandemic rebound and has pledged to cut red tape for businesses.

Although all three candidates are pro-EU, little attention has been paid to foreign policy on the campaign trail, and none of them have Merkel’s gravitas on the global stage.

READ ALSO: 

During a farewell visit to her Baltic coast constituency of Stralsund on Tuesday, Merkel threw Laschet a lifeline by saying he was the right choice to “secure Germany’s prosperity” and security.

The still immensely popular chancellor had planned to keep a low profile throughout the campaign, before Laschet’s dwindling fortunes forced her to jump into the fray.

“Everyone knows: if Laschet loses, Merkel’s legacy is lost too,” said conservative newspaper Die Welt.

Coalition wrangling 

The unpredictable election is expected to yield a number of coalition options.

In an unusual move, Laschet has already said that even if he comes second, he will try to cobble together an alliance with the Greens and the pro-business FDP.

The Greens have signalled they are more comfortable governing with the SPD.

Should they require a third partner for a parliamentary majority, the far-left Linke could step in but their anti-NATO stance makes them a controversial choice.

None of the parties will partner with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Tortuous coalition talks are likely to drag on for weeks, possibly months, keeping Merkel in office a little longer.

The veteran leader has been tight-lipped about what she’ll do next, but she has said she pictures herself reading and maybe taking “a little nap”.

By Michelle FITZPATRICK

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CITIZENSHIP

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

Politicians will gather in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon for an urgent session on Germany's planned changes to citizenship law.

German parliament to hold urgent debate on citizenship

According to information on the Bundestag website, the urgent discussion was scheduled on the request of the opposition CDU party, who have been fiercely critical of the planned reforms in recent days.

The debate, which is scheduled to start at 2:50pm and last an hour, will see MPs air their views on the government’s planned changes to citizenship law.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) is currently in the process of drafting a bill that will simplify and speed up the naturalisation process in Germany, which she said this week is “as good as done”.  

The law will end a ban on dual nationality for non-EU citizens, meaning people from places like India, the USA and the UK can naturalise as Germans without losing their current citizenship – or citizenships. 

It also foresees a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it takes to become eligible for German citizenship.

In future, people would be able to naturalise after five years of residence in the country rather than the current eight, while people who speak good German or fulfil other integration criteria could naturalise after three years rather than six.

Additionally, the Interior Ministry wants to grant automatic German citizenship to the children of foreign parents – provided their parents have been in the country at least five years – and remove language requirements for members of the guest-worker generation who want to become German. 

READ ALSO:

‘We don’t need reform’

High-profile politicians from the CDU have slammed the government’s plans to ease citizenship rules, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei describing the move as an attempt to “sell-off” German passports as a “junk commodity”.

“We don’t need reform,” Frei told public broadcaster ZDF. “There would no majority whatsoever in any party’s supporters for this change.”

Earlier this week, CDU leader Friedrich Merz had argued that expediting the naturalisation process would damage integration and allow people to immigrate into the benefits system more easily. 

“The CDU will not close its mind to a further modernisation of immigration law and the citizenship law of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merz told a meeting of CDU and CSU MPs in Berlin on Tuesday.

“However, we also attach importance to the fact that the granting of citizenship takes place at the end of an integration process and not at the beginning of it.” 

The CDU and CSU have previously been vocal opponents of permitting dual nationality, arguing that holding more than one citizenship would prevent people from fully integrating into German life. 

Nevertheless, it remains unclear if the opposition will be able to block the legislation in any meaningful way.

If there aren’t any substantial changes to the core of the citizenship bill when the amendments are made, the Interior Ministry believes it won’t need to be put to a vote in the Bundesrat – the upper house where the CDU and CSU hold a majority.

Instead, the parties of the traffic-light coalition – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – would simply be able to vote it through in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

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