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BERLIN — Germany heads into the final month of its national election campaign this week with the three largest parties in a virtual dead heat, in the latest sign that the contours of the country’s political typography will be redrawn after Angela Merkel’s exit.
A rash of polls in recent days points to a steady decline in support for the ruling Christian Democrats, whose candidate for chancellor, party leader Armin Laschet, appears to have so far failed to convince the public that he is a worthy successor to Merkel, who plans to step aside after 16 years in office.
The Christian Democrats (CDU) are supported by just 24 percent of the population, down from 29 percent last month, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates polling data from numerous sources. The Social Democrats (SPD), boosted by the popularity of their candidate for the chancellor, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, have jumped to 20 percent from 16 percent. The Greens, who many tipped to be the clear No. 2 party, have stagnated at 18 percent.
The most recent individual polls are even more worrying for the center-right Christian Democrats, who campaign together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). According to a weekly barometer published by the Bild am Sonntag newspaper over the weekend, the Christian Democrats are now even with the SPD at 22 percent, but still ahead of the Greens at 17 percent.
If confirmed at the ballot box, such a result would complicate Germany’s coalition math by forcing a three-way alliance for the first time since the early years of the postwar republic. Though all of the parties that have a chance of joining the government profess to be pro-European, a three-party coalition in the EU’s biggest and most important country would also be virgin territory for Brussels, which has relied on Merkel’s governments as a bulwark of stability in times of crisis.
Many observers are predicting a tie-up between the Christian Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), a conservative, pro-business party that is polling at about 12 percent.
If the Christian Democrats fail to win a clear mandate with a convincing victory, however, the Greens, who are likely to play a kingmaker role, would face pressure from their own base to build a coalition with ideological cousins — the Social Democrats and the Left party.
Another possible three-way option would be a combination of the SPD, the FDP and Greens, colloquially known as the “stoplight.” A further option would be an alliance between the CDU, the SPD and the FDP.
Each of the potential coalitions presents its own challenges, suggesting that the effort to build a coalition will be a drawn-out affair lasting well beyond election day on September 26.
The biggest surprise of the campaign so far has been the SPD’s surge, which many analysts had all but written off after poor showing in recent elections and its struggle to overcome internal squabbles.
Scholz, the party’s standard-bearer, appears to be benefiting both from the missteps of his main rivals — Laschet and Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock — and his status as the only candidate with a long and proven record of executive experience. The former mayor of Hamburg, Scholz has been a fixture in German politics for decades and is widely trusted by voters of all political stripes.
Many voters see Scholz, a moderate, as the next best thing to Merkel, whose centrist course has helped make her the country’s most popular politician.
“CDU and CSU should take a rest in the opposition. They governed this country long enough,” Scholz said at a campaign event in Karlsruhe on Monday.
When asked whom they support in a direct election for chancellor, Germans back Scholz by a wide margin. That’s partly due to campaign stumbles from Laschet and Baerbock, both of whom have committed a string of gaffes and faced uncomfortable questions about suspected plagiarism.
On Saturday, Laschet enlisted Merkel to help boost his flagging campaign with a joint appearance in Berlin. Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier whom Laschet bested for the chancellor run, also attended.
Yet like many of Lachet’s recent appearances, the event will be best remembered for its awkward moments. At one point, while recalling a famous story about a German police unit that rescued hostages from a hijacked Lufthansa airliner in the 1970s, Laschet misspoke and said the operation, which transpired in Mogadishu, had been in the German town of Landshut (the name of the plane). As Laschet spoke, Söder — who lost the inner-party race for the candidacy but is vastly more popular among the general population — sat staring at his mobile phone.
One of the most unexpected facets of the campaign is the degree to which it has been driven by personality, rather than issues.
For instance, the climate-change-focused Greens didn’t appear to get a polling boost after the recent devastating floods in western Germany highlighted concerns over extreme weather events. If anything, the Greens have lost ground amid the tepid performance of their candidate.
Voters appear similarly unmoved by the chaos in Afghanistan when it comes to their party preferences. Berlin’s failure to heed pleas from its embassy in Kabul to evacuate German and local staff weeks before the city fell into the hands of the Taliban — a call widely blamed on the SPD-led foreign ministry — hasn’t halted the party’s rise in the polls.
Voters may yet turn their focus to the nitty-gritty of the parties’ political programs and what direction they want their country to head in Europe, the transatlantic alliance or the battle against climate change.
But with political stability in short supply worldwide, ideology appears to be less important to many voters than finding what cautious Germany has relied on over the past 16 years — a safe pair of hands.