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20 August 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 11:43am

How the SPD is narrowing the gap in the German election campaign

After years of stagnation, the Social Democrats are enjoying a modest recovery under Olaf Scholz  

By Ben Walker

The German federal election campaign has been characterised by candidates who have failed to inspire.

Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate and leader of Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has seen confidence in him and his party collapse. Hampered by an already sceptical electorate in the early months of his candidacy, his numbers nosedived in August following footage of him laughing in the flood-stricken town of Erfstadt in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The CDU and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are currently still in the lead – but that lead creeps downwards day by day.

The Green Party’s relatively inexperienced candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock has also floundered after a succession of media gaffes and plagiarism allegations. In May, nearly 30 per cent of Germans wanted her to be chancellor. Today that figure has halved to just 15 per cent.

By contrast, the Social Democrats’ (SPD) Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s vice-chancellor and the finance minister in the current coalition government, has enjoyed an upswing in public support in recent weeks.

Social Democrats overtake the Greens
New Statesman analysis of the latest German opinion polls

In May, Scholz and his party, the SPD, were firmly in third place: the Greens were on the march and the CDU/CSU alliance under Laschet was floundering. But today it is the Greens who are struggling. Once ahead in the polls, then second, the Greens are now trailing the Social Democrats. Their projected vote share is still significantly higher than in 2017, but their expected performance is much reduced from a few months ago.

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Why are voters turning to Scholz? Apathy, among other things, may be convincing Germans to reconsider their traditional party preferences. Scholz has so far been regarded as the level-headed, calm and statesmanlike candidate. Whether he can win over some of the “Merkel voters” (centrists, women, ethnic minorities) not traditionally wedded to the CDU/CSU but who have backed the centre-right in support of the chancellor in recent elections remains to be seen, but the data suggests it’s possible. A recent Infratest Dimap survey found just 43 per cent of CDU/CSU supporters want Laschet as chancellor, while 34 per cent want Scholz.

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Merkel and Laschet are in a situation comparable to that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton faced in 2016: the former still popular with the electorate, but nonetheless determined to bow out; and the latter hoping to continue their legacy, without being as popular.

[Listen to: Germany Elects from World Review – Episode 2]