As the Merkel era comes to a close, who will Germany choose to take her place?
This is a particularly challenging time—for the planet, for Europe, and for Germany, where the next federal election is scheduled to take place on 26 September. People the world over face a climate crisis that cries out for action, not in the future but now. In Germany, where it was widely believed that the country’s location in the centre of Europe would make it less susceptible to climate change, a new sense of urgency has emerged after torrential rains hit the Rhineland in July, causing floods that killed over 180 people.
Compounding the crisis is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to which there is still no end in sight, and the costs of which continue to skyrocket. So far, the German federal government has spent roughly 400 billion euro on softening the pandemic’s economic impact. While this was more or less the right thing to do, Berlin has yet to address the question of who will ultimately foot the bill for these measures.
Thirdly, the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the retreat of Germany’s troops, turned out to be a disaster. Twenty years of war and occupation are ending in a hasty retreat that evokes images of the American defeat in Saigon some five decades ago. In the German parliament, the governing Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) rejected proposals from Die Linke and the Greens to evacuate the German Army’s local staff as late as June. Ultimately, the government failed to keep its promises and left their staff behind. These former employees now face an uncertain future, to put it mildly.
Baerbock vs. Laschet
The aforementioned issues require decisive and timely action if even greater disasters are to be avoided in the years to come, and that in turn would require a tectonic shift in German government policy. Yet despite the urgency of the hour, the election campaign has been strikingly dull. Only a few weeks before Germans head to the polls to decide who will govern for the next four years, the country appears to be sleepwalking from one crisis into the next.
For months, the campaign was dominated by the competition between the two leading candidates for chancellor, the CDU’s Armin Laschet and the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock. This rivalry could have led to an interesting debate between different visions for the country’s future—a conservative “staying the course” vs. a Green New Deal, for instance. Instead, much of the campaign focused on exceedingly petty issues, many of which were dug up by partisan journalists. For weeks, issues such as minor mistakes in an online version of Baerbock’s CV, a slip of the tongue by Laschet, or missing footnotes in their books made bigger headlines than actual policies. This substitution of politics for attitude and affect has prevented the kinds of debates the country needs from taking place.
Both candidates went along with this negative campaigning as long as it seemed to benefit them, but in the meantime it has backfired. While they were leading in the polls several month ago, with both parties polling around 25 percent, both have since watched their numbers crater. By late August, not even 20 percent of the electorate wanted either of them to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
Both parties’ difficulties have something in common: they failed to nominate their best candidates. Robert Habeck, co-chair of the Greens along with Baerbock, had consistently polled much better with the electorate. Within the party, however, Baerbock nevertheless emerged ahead. In the Christian Democrats’ case, Laschet, who has only been chair of the party since January, was quite unpopular compared to Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria and head of the CDU’s Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Nonetheless, the party bureaucracy ended up favouring Laschet over the objections of many MPs.
In this light, the decrease in popularity for both parties is a case of self-inflicted misery. Had they chosen their more popular candidates, they might not have fallen behind so much. In other words, their ignorance of democratic preferences cost them badly. But while the Greens—compared to the 2017 election, when they got 8.9 percent—will probably still double their share of the vote, the Christian Democrats are facing their deepest electoral crisis in the history of the Federal Republic.
Social Democracy’s Rise from the Ashes
So who is set to gain from the frontrunners’ weakness?
There’s a German saying that goes, “when two people quarrel, the third is happy”. The “third” this time around is SPD candidate Olaf Scholz. To the surprise of many, the charisma-free politician (his nickname is the “Scholzomat”, a compound of Scholz and automaton) and his party appear to be rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
Ever since the last SPD-led government attacked the welfare state (or at least certain parts of it) in 2004, popular support for the party has dipped dramatically. During the last years, the SPD consistently polled between 15 and 18 percent, half of what they garnered 15 years ago. Now, right before the election, the Social Democrats are suddenly on the ascent. Polls show Scholz ahead of Laschet and Baerbock in popularity and his party above 20 percent. While this is largely the result of his contenders’ failures, it seems that the election could be a revival for the battered SPD.
Scholz currently serves as vice-chancellor to Angela Merkel and has been in German politics for decades. He is a representative of the SPD’s right wing and, while not ruling out a coalition with the Greens and Die Linke entirely, clearly prefers other, more moderate options, such as a coalition with the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). If the rise of the SPD continues until election day, the decisive question will be the governing coalition Scholz chooses to lead. The latter, a “coalition of the centre”, would mean that, given the differences between Greens and FDP, the parties would block each other reciprocally. A centre-left coalition, on the other hand, could potentially open a window of opportunity for a number of reforms the country desperately needs, including a foreign policy without combat missions and armaments sales, taxing the rich, a determined push to end poverty, a transition from individual to public mobility, and more.
If the traditionally cautious SPD leadership has the guts to move boldly, we may witness a rebirth for the party. If Scholz sticks with the coalition that is more popular with the media, he will probably pay the price politically in the long run.
Outliers on the Right
The centre-right, strictly neoliberal FDP stands to possibly gain a couple percentage points on the back of the CDU’s deep crisis. The party advocates “market-based solutions” to the climate crisis, the financial crisis, the pandemic-induced economic slump, and frankly to everything. One is tempted to ask whether they will come up with a “market-based solution” to the crisis in Afghanistan.
While this approach has been an ideological and economic dead-end at least since the financial crisis of 2008, the message still resonates with large swathes of the electorate, particularly small- and medium-sized businessowners. In this respect, the party presents itself as the “saviour of the market”, attracting voters who traditionally support the Christian Democrats. Since they are willing to govern with both CDU and SPD, they may very well end up in Germany’s next government.
The far-right “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) was elected to the Bundestag in 2017 for the first time, when it received almost six million votes (12.6 percent)—more than doubling its previous result. It is particularly strong in former East Germany and among male voters (two-thirds of its votes are cast by men). While polls show its support to be more or less stable—the party still polls around 20 percent in East Germany and close to 10 percent in the West—its rapid rise has come to a halt. This is largely due to two factors.
On the one hand, the issue of immigration is not as important to voters as it was in 2017. On the other hand, the party is deeply divided between a more or less openly fascist wing (known as Der Flügel, literally “The Wing”) and a conservative-nationalist wing that tries to tone down some of the rhetoric in order to avoid showing up on the radar of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (which is important to at least part of its constituency, particularly right-leaning civil servants). In addition, the AfD lacks a coherent position on the pandemic: many sympathize with the anti-vaccine movement and polemicize against lockdowns, while others hold a more mainstream position.
One of the negative side-effects of the AfD’s re-election is that the party will be entitled to federal funding for its own foundation, the Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung. This means that the AfD will receive millions of euro in state funds, which it may then use to expand its network of far-right organizations across Europe.
After receiving 9.2 percent of the vote in 2017 (more than the Green Party), the only socialist party in parliament, Die Linke, is currently polling at around 6–7 percent. Since a party needs to get at least 5 percent to enter parliament, Die Linke finds itself in a somewhat troubling position.
Theoretically, the party has the most consistent concepts for combatting the climate crisis, as well as for taxing the rich to pay for the crisis while at the same time providing financial relief for the majority of citizens. Moreover, the party has stood firm in its opposition to the Afghan war for 20 years, a truly unique selling point in the party landscape.
Practically, however, the public perception of Die Linke has been dominated by bitter internal fights over the future course of the party, in particular between the wing around Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, who represent a more traditional social-democratic approach, and more radical forces that claim to focus on extra-parliamentary movements, while the “radical reformists” are divided among themselves. This uneasy relationship makes it quite difficult, especially in the media, to bring across any policy positions. The recently elected chairwomen, Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, are working to overcome the divide within the pluralist party, but this is a challenging task that will take time—it will not be accomplished in weeks.
One hotly contested issue is whether the party should aim to be part of the next governing coalition. Polls show that large majorities of Die Linke’s voters as well as party members favour a centre-left coalition with the SPD and the Greens. On individual issues, however, priorities are more blurry. As a result, Die Linke has struggled to publicly articulate a coherent position. Given that the question of who will govern the country after Merkel is of overwhelming importance to voters, voicing “principled” opposition to joining government often has the effect of side-lining Die Linke in public debates.
Yet there is an additional, perhaps more critical factor that makes the current situation challenging for any left-wing alternative: Germany is still a wealthy country, and in times of crisis, many people cling to the status quo rather than embrace new, potentially radical changes. The COVID crisis in particular has put German voters in a position of fearing not only for their jobs, but for their future well-being in general. This is the main reason why the political centre in Germany continues to be much stronger than in neighbouring countries such as France, Italy, or Poland, where the social crisis goes deeper and the far-right wields much more electoral strength.
Under these circumstances, any message of solidarity, of a political alliance between the middle class and the working class, of fighting against the powers-that-be, is an uphill battle. But if Die Linke wants to build solidarity in the face of growing social inequality and the rise of the far-right in Europe and around the world, the party first must demonstrate that it can practice solidarity within its own ranks. Beyond that, Die Linke needs to focus on the dividing lines of the real world, instead of waging ideological battles that are largely irrelevant in the eyes of the broader public. Then, and only then, will popular support grow again. For the millions, not the millionaires.
Albert Scharenberg served as director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office from 2012 to 2018 and currently works on international politics at the foundation’s headquarters in Berlin.