Gradually, Germans are coming to realize that Chancellor Merkel is no longer going to be on the ballot this year. This could shake things up. Under the current polls, a black-green coalition is the most likely outcome in the federal elections on September 26. The strong showing of the CDU/CSU for most of the last year, however, could turn out to be inflated. To some degree, the strong approval rating is due to a highly popular Chancellor Angela Merkel, in part thanks to her role in the Corona crisis. But support for her government’s handling of the vaccine roll-out is dropping – and, of course, Merkel herself is not running again. It is the first time since World War II that an incumbent Chancellor is not seeking re-election. It is also for the first time that three parties will be campaigning with a candidate for the Chancellery.
Germany’s super election year kicks off on March 14, with two state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, followed by Saxony-Anhalt on June 6 and three state elections (Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Thuringia) on the same day of the federal elections.
No match made in heaven
In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, all signs point toward the re-election of the popular Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann. His Greens are likely to become the strongest party again and even increase their edge over the Christian Democrats (CDU). The Green-Black coalition, which has been governing since 2017, is not exactly a match made in heaven, so the Greens are expected to consider another Green-Red coalition if the Social Democrats catch up enough for this option to become a numerical possibility.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the opposition CDU has been leading the polls over the last year, but the governing Social Democrats (SPD) have diminished the CDU’s lead to just a few percentage points. Their popular Minister-President Malu Dreyer will fight hard to get the CDU across the finish line, as the party did in 2017. The main obstacle to a continuation of the current “traffic light coalition” lies in the FDP’s potential failure to clear the five-percent hurdle for entering parliament. If that were the case, the Greens might as well find themselves in the position of kingmaker – a scenario in which they would most likely favor a red-green coalition, though even a black-green coalition might technically be possible.
Both elections will be a close call. Observers will try to read broader political implications into the outcomes: Can the Social Democrats defend one of their last governing resorts? Will the Greens continue their rise as a major political force despite the pandemic? And what do the state elections portend for the first black-green coalition on the federal level?
Laschet or Söder? Habeck or Baerbock?
This last question in particular will bring momentum into the parties’ election campaigns. The Social Democrats were the first to announce their candidate for the Chancellery, Olaf Scholz, currently serving as a Minister of Finance in Angela Merkel’s cabinet. After Easter, both the CDU/CSU and the Greens will announce their chancellor candidates in turn. The co-leaders of the Green Party, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, have explained that they will mutually agree on which of them will run. While Habeck has more governing experience and a stronger popularity, Baerbock has continuously impressed with her strong performance and could be the tactically smarter choice as the only female competitor in the race for the post-Merkel era. For the conservatives, it will come down to either Armin Laschet or Markus Söder as the top candidate. Both have high ambitions, though Laschet has been fickly as Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia in the fight against the pandemic. In his role as Bavarian Minister-President, Söder is ranking more popular these days, but he has yet to demonstrate his ability to appeal more broadly to voters across the country. In the end, Laschet as CDU party leader will decide whether he will run himself or whether he will let his rival from the smaller Bavarian sister party go first.
The state elections in Saxony-Anhalt in early summer may also impact the national debate. The current coalition of the CDU, SPD and Greens has not exactly shown stability throughout the recent months, since parts of the CDU there have been openly cooperating with the right-wing extremist AfD. This collaboration is a thorn in the side of the new CDU chairman Armin Laschet, and it also runs contrary to his centrist course for the CDU.
The climate crisis is back
With the Corona crisis looking to lose its urgency with vaccination and milder temperatures, Germany is heading towards a dynamic election campaign this summer. Despite their continuing good position in the polls, the Greens still have a considerable amount of untapped voter potential, as shown by a recent study by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a foundation affiliated with the CDU. It found that 25 percent of CDU/CSU supporters, 30 percent of The Left supporters, and 39 percent of SPD supporters could imagine giving their vote to the Green Party. The strategic challenge for these parties is not to win back AfD voters, but (worst case) prevent a loss of votes to the Greens or (best case) perhaps even win back some. In light of these figures, it is certain that the Greens and their core issue will be at the center of the Bundestag election campaign this year. The first draft of the SPD’s climate-heavy election program underscores this. The climate crisis will thus return to the public agenda, which is perhaps not the worst outcome.
Arne Jungjohann is a political scientist and member of the Green Academy at the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.