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14 April 2021updated 16 Apr 2021 7:30am

The race to be Germany’s next chancellor is also a race to define its evolving political centre

On the political economy of an unusually competitive German federal election

By Jeremy Cliffe

It is harder to define the political “centre” of Germany than it is that of France, the UK or the US. Unlike the first two, it is a polycentric, federal country. Unlike the second two, it does not use first-past-the-post. Also unlike the second two, its political order is still relatively new: the federal republic – founded in 1949 – is younger than Joe Biden. The “Berlin Republic”, the reunified Germany that emerged in the 1990s, is only on its third chancellor. After the federal election in September, Angela Merkel will step down and it will get a fourth. That looks most likely to be one of four figures, soon to be whittled down to two.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, will in the next few days settle the competition between Armin Laschet, the CDU’s affable but underwhelming leader, and Markus Söder, his cunning, more popular CSU counterpart. The alliance’s command of the political mainstream has long seemed unassailable; the choice of its candidate almost tantamount to the choice of next chancellor.

But Germany’s increasingly ramshackle Covid-19 response and corruption scandals in the two parties have pushed their joint polling average firmly below 30 per cent. It is now thinkable that the surging, second-placed Green Party will be able to form a Bundestag majority without the CDU/CSU and so pave its own way to the chancellery. On 19 April the Greens will announce which of Robert Habeck (a free-speaking novelist) and Annalena Baerbock (his younger, more disciplined co-leader) will be their candidate.

With both choices imminent, and an unusually competitive election looming, the focus is on the individual rivalries. But the contest also deserves to be seen as a broader one, on the character and location of Germany’s post-Merkel political centre. Laschet and Söder have similarities: avuncular, boisterous minister-presidents of Germany’s two most populous federal states, both also have a penchant for dressing up in silly costumes. But their contrasting traits and states point to distinct approaches to the country’s future. Baerbock and Habeck, who are closer in outlook, together ­represent a different political economy too, one rooted in the Green Party’s growing societal base.

[see also: As the Merkel era approaches its end, the German left has several paths to the chancellery]

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Laschet’s political economy is largely that of the state he leads. North Rhine-Westphalia is home to the heavy industry of the Ruhr and Rhine valleys and ranges from prosperous cities such as Cologne and Düsseldorf to struggling post-industrial regions and sleepy farming areas. Formerly led by the Social Democrats (SPD), it epitomises the old consensus-based corporatism of the Bonn Republic. So does Laschet. Averse to polarisation, he courts trade unions, is comparatively liberal on migration and Islam and is emotionally pro-European. But he can get stuck in the past: coddling the coal industry, dragging his feet on Covid-19 lockdowns, and in foreign policy terms still nursing the naive optimism of the 1990s. He is moderate, yes, but plodding.

Söder’s fiefdom of Bavaria is also a patchwork, but its political economy is different. The CSU has dominated its politics since the 1950s and in that time has transformed an agricultural state, one of the poorest in the federal republic, into a high-tech champion and one of the richest. Its method: a hyper-pragmatic, responsive, small-p populist politics combining economic modernism with social conservatism under the mantra “laptops and lederhosen”.

Söder reflects that tradition. Nimble, heterodox and utterly opportunistic, he courted anti-migrant sentiment around the refugee crisis but has since reinvented himself as a centrist and environmentalist. He was quick to grasp the new realities of the Covid 19 era, and has been rewarded for that in the polls.

Baerbock and Habeck both hail from bourgeois-bohemian stock in suburban northern Germany. But the Greens’ power base is more diffuse. The party’s surge is a product of lacklustre alternatives, but also deeper sociological shifts. Residents of big cities and university towns, people with migrant backgrounds, employees in green industrial and white-collar information sectors are all growing as a share of the electorate. This Germany can be found in fast-expanding cities such as Berlin, Munich or Leipzig, but also in smaller centres like Tübingen, Kiel or Potsdam, and in some prosperous, liberal-minded suburban and rural parts. This electorate may identify less with old class categories but is affected by market failures, such as unaffordable housing and pollution; it worries about inadequate investment in green and digital infrastructure; it is comfortable with a modern, expansive sense of German identity.

There are other milieux: the SPD clings on to strongholds like Hamburg, Hanover and parts of the Ruhr; the far-right AfD has stabilised as the voice of some 10 per cent of voters, particularly older male ones in the post-industrial former east; the Free Democrats get a similar share from yuppies and self-employed professionals; the Left Party manages the same, on a good day, from old eastern lefties and young western Corbynite types. But none of these looks capable of anchoring a Bundestag majority, taking the chancellery and defining the political centre in the Berlin Republic in the way that the CDU/CSU and Greens now both do.

It would be simplistic to claim that Laschet’s political economy represents Germany’s past centre, Söder’s the present one and Baerbock’s or Habeck’s the future one. There is significant overlap between the camps, the political embodiment of which is Merkel herself. But whoever leads the next federal government, and the sociological and political-economic basis of their authority, will be crucial. A fascinating few months await. 

[see also: The Franco-German election season begins]

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people