Berlin is sweltering in the late summer sun. On the banks of the river Ho, residents enjoy the last warm days before the weather changes. Germany – and the rest of Europe – are about to witness the end of an era: after 16 years, the sun is setting when Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to power.
Germans will vote on Sunday (26 September) for the country’s general election. Whichever party emerges with the largest share of the vote can appoint the leader of the coalition government.
Chancellor Merkel is hugely popular among German voters, whose approval rating is still around 60 percent, a remarkable figure after four terms. However, his Christian Democratic Union party is struggling in the election campaign, with the latest opinion polls showing a support of around 22 percent. In recent weeks, the figure has fallen below 20 percent for the first time since World War II.
The Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor is 60-year-old Armin Laschet, who is attempting to woo voters with a promise of continuity. “Europe’s reconciliation in these difficult times, a climate-neutral industry and strong economy, and a clear course for national security,” he promised voters in the latest TV debate last Sunday.
Voters can accept the message, but not necessarily the person themselves. Lechette was caught on camera laughing during a speech by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a visit to flood-ravaged regions of Germany in July. His approval rating has not been recovered.
Instead, Social Democrats (SPD) candidate Olaf Scholz is leading the election with about 25 percent. He is the former mayor of Hamburg and finance minister in the current coalition government, which now favors a successor to Merkel.
“The strong position of the Social Democrats is a surprise,” says Gero Neugebauer, a professor of political science at the Frei University in Berlin and an expert on the SPD. “Over the years, they have fallen short in successive elections. Many said this is not just a crisis for the party, but the beginning of their demise.
“The Social Democrats have benefited from the poor performance of the Conservatives (CDU). So really, in a crowd of blind people, Scholz is the one-eyed man, and that’s what makes him the king. His position in the elections is stable, with AAP ministers.” One might say a good performance in form, and where he lacks charisma and charm, he makes up for in consistency – all aided by the weaknesses of the competition,” Neugebauer told VOA.
Scholz appeared confident of victory in the latest TV debate on Sunday. “Many citizens may see me as the next head of government, the next chancellor … and I keep no secret that I want to form a (coalition) government with the Greens,” Scholz said.
Earlier in the summer, the Green Party was leading in the elections, and it looked like its 40-year-old leader, Annalena Berbock, was about to initiate a dramatic change of political guard in Germany. However, support for the Greens has dropped to around 15 percent, placing them in third place.
Paula Piechota, the Green Party’s candidate for the city of Leipzig, told VOA that the party is ready to form a coalition government – but there are clear red lines. “Because of the (little) time it takes to actually act successfully to combat climate change, we won’t be able to compromise too much when it comes to climate policies,” Piechota said.
Smaller parties, including the Free Democrats or the Left Party, may be kingmakers in coalitions and will seek specific government positions or policies in return.
All three main parties have refused to work with an far-right alternative to the Party of Germany, which holds about 10 percent of the national vote. Support for the AFD is much higher in some areas of former East Germany, analyst Neugebauer says. “If you move to areas with weak economic growth, high rates of unemployment, low levels of education, poor service especially in rural areas, such as health care, schools, transportation, you have a higher risk for AfD than those areas. There is more support where these problems do not exist.”
So what are the issues driving voters? Polls show a clear generational divide – reflected among voters who speak to the VOA. “I think the first important topic for me is definitely climate change,” said 28-year-old Berlin resident Jun Kinoshita. Thirty-five-year-old voter Corinna Anand agrees. “The most important issue for me is climate change. Climate, education, child care.”
For Dirk Zeller, 54, a voter in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, money is the biggest concern. “Pensions – that they are stable. Jobs. Many things are more expensive. Gas, electricity. How will it continue to grow? Can we afford it like ordinary people?”
Not wanting to give her full name, 54-year-old Brigitte said social inequality is increasing in Germany. “The richest Germans just got richer, even with the coronavirus. Meanwhile, many people saw their means of living deteriorate and today they face bigger problems than ever before. I don’t think any party is taking the initiative there,” she told VOA.
Some Germans expect immediate change. Negotiations to form a coalition government are likely to take months and Merkel will remain in charge until rival parties agree on her successor.
Merkel has been seen as a pillar of stability in Europe for nearly two decades – and the changes coming in Germany will be felt around the world, analyst Neugebauer says. “Based on her current international resume, no candidate can simply step into the role of Ms. Merkel. They have to grow in the role. “