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17 September 2021

German election 2021: Can the SPD hold its lead?

The continuity factor is working in favour of Angela Merkel’s deputy and finance minister Olaf Scholz as election day looms.

By Ben Walker

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current vice-chancellor and the Social Democrat Party (SPD)’s candidate for chancellor, is a man on the rise. At the start of August, his party came from a distant third in the polls to leapfrog the Greens and snatch second place. By the month’s end, it had overtaken its coalition partners the Christian Democrats (CDU), and at time of writing stands six points ahead of the pack with 26 per cent of the projected vote.

In contrast, the CDU/CSU’s campaign under Armin Laschet is in disarray. But it is also not going down without a fight.

At a party meeting in early September, Laschet, still languishing in third place in the polls on preferred chancellor, went on the offensive, attacking the SPD for being “in all postwar decisions, on the wrong side of history”.

Laschet’s tirade also turned to specifics, attempting to associate his centre-left opponent with the left-wing radicalism of its potential coalition partner Die Linke. Such associations do, admittedly, echo public anxiety: very few Germans want Die Linke in government. But so far, such concerns have done little to move the dial of public opinion.

With just over a week to go until the 26 September election, projections by poll aggregator show the SPD on course to win more first-past-the-post constituencies than at any point since 2005.

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But have we reached peak SPD? A glance at the past week’s voting intentions suggest yes, that the six point lead for the SPD is all Scholz can get. The numbers are stabilising, the surge has stalled. But there’s still a phalanx of undecided voters out there, a great many of whom previously voted for the CDU. And amid signs that pollsters may be herding over the SPD number (all showing the same, rather than the variations they’ve shown historically), there’s the possibility the SPD’s lead could grow even further.

Here’s how.

1. Germans like the SPD

The imminent departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel has left many Germans unenthused about who they want as successor. Confidence among her CDU party’s own base has collapsed. Middle-class voters, a disproportionate number of whom are women, tell pollsters they are undecided about who to vote for. That suggests the driver for Scholz’s numbers so far is that his party is the least offensive option available.

In a poll by INSA, 46 per cent of the country’s voters said they were already voting for or are considering voting for Scholz’s SPD. This compares to 41 per cent for the CDU/CSU, and 33 per cent for the Greens.

46 per cent of Germans are considering the SPD
INSA Meinungstrend survey, 20 – 23 Aug
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Just 20 per cent of Germans categorically rule out voting for the SPD. This compares to 28 per cent for the CDU/CSU, 37 per cent for the Greens, 40 per cent for Die Linke, and, for posterity, a substantial 70 per cent for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.

Here we can see ceilings of support, and the ceiling for the SPD is markedly higher than their competitors.

2. Germans like the current government

It’s an unfashionable thing to be satisfied with the status quo, but when it comes to Germany’s own government, most voters are content. Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, net satisfaction with the current CDU-SPD coalition has been in the black, with close to 70 per cent of Germans regarding the work of the federal government favourably.

Extrapolating from pollster Forschungsgruppe Wahlen’s own Politbarometer, we find 43 per cent of Germans want a coalition after the election featuring the SPD. 33 per cent say they want one with the CDU/CSU (the lowest recorded figure since 2018), and, more notably, a higher figure of 38 per cent say they want one featuring the Greens.

43 per cent of Germans want the SPD in the next government
Mentions of [party] in the respondent’s preferred coalition
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Just 7 per cent, meanwhile, want one featuring Die Linke.

3. Germans will miss Merkel

More than eight in ten of those living in Germany today say Angela Merkel is doing a good job as chancellor. So it’s only natural for some of those vying to replace her to think the best strategy is to appear as Merkelesque as possible. For example, as my colleague Jeremy Cliffe notes, posters and PR campaigns show Scholz donning Merkel’s signature hand pose. And why not? He is the most popular of chancellor candidates in an election characterised by voters content with continuity.

More than 60 per cent of Germans regard Scholz as suitable for the job of chancellor, compared with less than three in ten for Armin Laschet and a touch over two in ten for Annalena Baerbock. To the public, he is all but Merkel mk2. But he is of the wrong party. The challenge, therefore, is for the SPD to overcome that and advance accordingly.

And right now, that doesn’t seem too hard a task to accomplish.

[See also: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world]

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