BERLIN — Germans will elect a new government on September 26, and Angela Merkel will not be running for re-election for the first time since 2005. After nearly 16 years in power, Ms. Merkel, 67, will step down as leader of Europe’s largest economy and hand the reins over to a new leader.
The race for the chancellorship is wide open, and the world will be watching to see which direction Germany takes in the wake of Brexit and the election of Vice President Biden in the United States.
What is at stake?
On the domestic front, the most pressing issue continues to be guiding Germany out of the coronavirus pandemic with a particular emphasis on reviving the economy. Climate policies, which will become even more urgent in light of the recent floods, as well as the greening of the country’s industrial sector, are also on the minds of voters. In addition, issues such as digitization and ensuring social equality and security have come up in discussions.
Whoever takes over as leader will have to decide how much to build on Ms. Merkel’s policies and how much to chart a new course for the country. Her conservative party is more likely to remain in power than the environmentalist Green Party, which would make history by becoming the first green party to hold the chancellery.
Germany’s booming trade with China and its positioning toward Russia, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is expected to be completed later this year and will transport natural gas directly to Germany from Russia, bypassing Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, would be the primary priorities for the conservatives on the foreign policy front. The pipeline is opposed by the Green Party.
Aside from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), all of Germany’s political parties believe that the country belongs firmly within the European Union. The Greens are pushing for a more ambitious revival of the European project, with tougher action against Hungary and other members that fail to uphold democratic principles.
The German approach to China has been one of “change through trade” for many years. However, China’s repression of dissent at home and flexing of its muscles abroad have called that strategy into question. The United States has pressed its allies to take a tougher stance against China, despite their reservations.
The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has struggled to attract new voters this year, in contrast to four years ago, when migration was still on many Germans’ minds and the party first won seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. The party’s polling numbers have hovered around 10 percent, and analysts believe that it is weakened by deep internal divisions and a lack of a unifying issue.
Who will be chancellor?
In light of the polls’ predictions that no party will win a majority of seats in Parliament this time around as well, the party that wins the most seats would be given first dibs on the task of forming an alliance government and selecting a chancellor.
The candidates for chancellor are announced before the campaigning begins, but the public’s attention is focused primarily on the candidates for the leading parties who have a realistic chance of winning.
Traditionally, these have been the Christian Democrats (Ms. Merkel’s party) and the Social Democrats, who are both on the center-left of the spectrum. However, for the first time, the candidate for the environmentalist Green Party is considered to have a realistic chance of winning the election for chancellor.
The following are the leading contenders for the position of chancellor:
As a co-leader of the Green Party since 2018, Annalena Baerbock is seen as more pragmatic than many others in her party, which has its origins in the environmental and student protest movements that erupted in the previous century. She is the youngest candidate, the only woman, and the only one who has never previously held a position of public trust. She is 40 years old.
The Christian Democrats: Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union and the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, is the party’s presidential candidate. He is regarded as the logical choice for preserving the status quo, having largely agreed with Ms. Merkel on major policy decisions, such as allowing approximately 1 million migrants to enter the country in 2015. His chances of becoming chancellor were hampered, however, by a public disagreement with the leader of the Bavararian Christian Social Union (the two parties campaign and caucus together in Parliament). And the gaffes he has made in recent days, following massive flooding in Germany, have done nothing to help his cause.
Germany’s Social Democrats: Olaf Scholz, the party’s finance minister and vice chancellor since 2018, is widely regarded as the most experienced of the three candidates. He previously served as labour minister in a government led by Angela Merkel, and he has years of experience working at the state level in Hamburg, Germany. However, his party has consistently ranked third in polls, trailing only the conservatives and the Greens, and Mr. Scholz has struggled to generate enthusiasm for his campaign.
The free-market Free Democrats, the far-left Left Party, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) are among the other parties running for seats in Parliament. In addition to the major political parties, dozens of smaller parties are running for office, ranging from the anarchist Pogo Party to the Animal Protection Party and the Free Voters. However, none are expected to receive enough votes to gain representation in the Bundestag.
Why does Germany matter?
Germany is frequently referred to as the “de facto leader” of the European Union. In addition to having the largest economy and the largest population, it is widely regarded as a driving force behind policy and decision-making, alongside France in particular.
Under Ms. Merkel, who rose to become one of the 27-member bloc’s most senior leaders, that influence grew even more, despite her failure to forge a consensus among the member states on refugee policy or to prevent Hungary and Poland from slipping back into authoritarianism.
Germany’s fourth-largest economy and membership in the Group of Seven industrialised nations, as well as its influence on global climate policy and sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, were also used by Ms. Merkel to advocate for tougher sanctions against the Russian government. In addition to thorny issues such as how to deal with an increasingly powerful China, her successor will face pressure from some within Germany and the European Union who are eager to re-establish trade with Moscow. Despite the fact that the Trump administration has been in power for four years, the core relationship with the United States is only now beginning to regain its equilibrium.
During Ms. Merkel’s four terms in office, the nation of 83 million has undergone a generational shift, becoming more ethnically diverse while also ageing significantly — more than half of all eligible voters are 50 or older — and becoming more ethnically diverse. Social norms have shifted in recent years, with the legalisation of gay marriage and the inclusion of a nonbinary gender option on official documents. Although the far right has resurrected, there has been a breakdown in political discourse at the local level, which has jeopardised the country’s unity.
What role will Chancellor Merkel play?
Ms. Merkel will remain in office as acting head of the government until a new government can be formed, which could take several weeks to several months, depending on how long the process takes. The outcome of the election and the difficulty with which the winning party will be able to reach an agreement with smaller supporters in order to form a government will determine whether or not a government will be formed.
The chancellor stepped down as leader of her party in December 2018, but she continued to serve as prime minister until after the election, a position that has left her as a lame duck, making decision-making more difficult in the second year of the pandemic. She has vowed to stay out of the election campaign and has, for the time being, remained focused on containing the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.