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3 August 2021

Will Armin Laschet succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor?

As Germany's leader prepares to step down, the past five years of polling show a country willing to consider political change.

By Ben Walker

Germany’s Christian Democrats are down in the polls, but Angela Merkel’s party still commands a ten point lead over its nearest rivals. Merkel will leave frontline politics at the next election, and the question is whether her successor as party leader, Armin Laschet, will become the country’s next chancellor.

This year I tasked myself with creating the New Statesman’s German poll tracker, a page which will cover German voting intentions and preferences for chancellor in the build-up to the federal vote in September. And at present the picture it provides is one of marked uncertainty.

Hear more on the Germany Elects podcast

In 2017, Merkel went up against the Social Democrats’ Martin Schulz, a veteran politician from the European Parliament. He proved competent and was a serious challenger to Merkel’s leadership. Yet around 15 per cent of voters felt unsure about who they wanted as chancellor.

With less than eight weeks to go until polling day, and the proportion of the public expressing uncertainty sits at nearly half. When offered the options of Laschet (CDU), Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock (Green) for chancellor, most of the German electorate appears perplexed and unenthused. 

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Who do Germans want to succeed Merkel? They don’t know
New Statesman analysis of the latest polling

It is a trend that has intensified in recent days. Images of the CDU’s candidate Laschet laughing at a joke in a town struck by fatal flooding have prompted Twitter hashtags, scores of condemnation, and mumbled apologies – an event which seems to have negatively impacted his ratings. In the space of seven days, the number of Germans who want Laschet as chancellor has fallen five points, from 25 per cent to 20 per cent. The biggest beneficiaries haven’t been Baerbock and Scholz, but the growing phalanx of “don’t knows”. 

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In terms of voting intention, support for the alliance between the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU) has fallen one percentage point. This solid lead over their opponents, however, hasn’t always been firm. Over the past five months the CDU/CSU has moved from a 15pt lead in March to a 2pt deficit (behind the Greens) in May. In June, it returned to an impressive 11pt lead, but now the numbers are drifting downwards again.

If you trend the polls over the past five years, you find a country content with Merkel’s chancellorship, but on occasion willing to entertain alternatives. The surge of the Greens has been all but confirmed, with the latest polling putting them on more than double their 2017 score. That tendency for change from Germany’s roughly 70 million voters undermines the notion that Laschet is a certain win. 

The Greens are polling at more than double their vote share in 2017
New Statesman analysis of the latest polling compared to 2017

As my colleague Jeremy Cliffe writes, the 2021 election has the markings of a volatile race. Key to the potential for change is that as many voters appear to want the Greens in government as they do the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Voting intentions have yet to solidly shift from the incumbent party, but the public mood is clear: it’s all to play for.

[See also: Why Germany’s 2021 election could be the most significant in decades]

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