BERLIN — As the clock winds down on Germany’s election campaign, it looks increasingly likely that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will be exiting the halls of power with the chancellor, clearing the way for the first center-left-led government in 16 years.
With less than a week until next Sunday’s general election, the conservative bloc Merkel has dominated since the early 2000s, the so-called Union, remains well behind the first-placed Social Democrats (SPD), a trend that has remained unchanged for weeks. With many Germans having already voted via postal ballot, a last-minute shift is unlikely.
During the final debate of the campaign Sunday night, Armin Laschet, the Union’s candidate to succeed Merkel, put in another lackluster performance, failing to land the knock-out blow he needed to catch up with frontrunner Olaf Scholz of the SPD. Though Laschet was the early favorite in the campaign, he stumbled during the devastating floods that hit western Germany over the summer and never recovered.
Meanwhile, Scholz, the soft-spoken federal finance minister and former mayor of Hamburg, succeeded in convincing voters he was the closest they could get to keeping Merkel, who is not running for reelection but remains the country’s most popular politician.
A snap poll at the end of the 90-minute debate found Scholz was the clear victor with 42 percent of those questioned declaring him winner, well ahead of Laschet with 27 percent and Greens leader Annalena Baerbock with 25 percent. That completed a hat trick of debate victories for Scholz, whose personal approval ratings dwarf those of his rivals.
Even Laschet’s potential coalition partners have begun to publicly abandon him.
“It’s time for the Union to go into opposition,” Baerbock, whose party had prepared for months for a possible alliance with the conservatives, said at the debate’s conclusion.
In recent weeks, Laschet and his camp have tried to convince voters that a victory for the SPD would usher in a leftist coalition between the SPD, Greens and the Left party, the political heirs of the communists who ruled East Germany.
Yet recent polls suggest Laschet’s warnings have failed to move the needle. In POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, which aggregates the results of several leading polling institutes, the Union is on 21 percent, well behind the SPD at 26 percent. The Greens are at 16 percent, followed by the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) at 11 percent and the Left at 6 percent. (The far-right Alternative for Germany is at 11 percent, but does not factor into the coalition math because the other parties have refused to collaborate with it.)
That suggests that both a “traffic light” coalition — SPD, Greens and FDP — as well as a leftist alliance would be the most likely options. Scholz, who is considered a moderate within his party, has made overtures to the right-of-center FDP in recent days. Though the Left would be a better fit in many respects, especially on social issues, the party’s communist history and controversial foreign policy positions (it wants to take Germany out of NATO) make it the less likely partner.
Even so, finding common ground with the FDP won’t be easy for the SPD and Greens either. FDP leader Christian Lindner reiterated on Sunday that his party would accept neither tax increases nor continued violations of the country’s balanced budget rules. He is also skeptical of many of the Greens’ environmental prescriptions.
But if the only other viable option is a leftist alliance, Lindner, who pulled the plug on negotiations over a three-way coalition with the Union and Greens in 2017, could find himself facing intense pressure to cut a deal. He has already made it known that his price for entering any coalition would be the finance ministry, a big prize in any coalition that would give him control over policies most important to his party base.
After governing Germany together for 12 of the past 16 years, the Union and SPD, long the country’s dominant political forces, have both made clear the time has come to end their coalition, making a reprise, even with a third partner, unlikely.
Sunday’s debate, which was staged by commercial broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, was a serious exchange with few fireworks. Like the other debates, the focus was solidly on domestic affairs, such as the minimum wage and welfare, as well as the pandemic and climate policy. Neither Europe, nor broader foreign policy questions such as China, was discussed.
At times, it seemed as though Scholz and Baerbock were working in tandem. After election day, they’re likely to have a chance at teaming up for the longer term.