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2 September 2021

The SPD’s surge reveals the essence of the German election: the search for Merkel 2.0

Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate, is by far the most popular of Merkel’s potential successors – and the one who has most convincingly styled himself in her image.

By Jeremy Cliffe

It is rare indeed for major democratic leaders to leave office at a time of their own choosing. The vast majority do so when they reach their term limits, lose elections, their majorities collapse, or a political or health crisis makes remaining in post untenable.

Yet Angela Merkel steps down as German chancellor after the federal election on 26 September under no such duress. No political or health crisis prevents her from running. Fully 66 per cent of Germans say they are satisfied with her work; 57 per cent say they consider their economic situation good or very good (compared with 9 per cent who say bad or very bad); when asked to grade politicians on a scale of +5 to -5, she scores +2.3, the best by a distance. If she did run, every indication suggests she would lead her Christian Democratic Union and its Christian Social Union sister party (collectively shortened to CDU/CSU) to victory.

Merkel has for decades insisted that she does not want to leave politics a “half-dead wreck”. She had intended to stand down at the 2017 election, and was persuaded otherwise by the election of Donald Trump and on the encouragement of the departing Barack Obama. “Merkel didn’t want to leave the playing field empty,” writes the journalist Robin Alexander in his new book Machtverfall (“decline of power): “Not for Trump.” But this time it is final. The chancellor is embracing a retirement in which, as one acquaintance predicts, her priority will be to retreat to her dacha north of Berlin to “read, listen to Wagner and make potato soup”.

Merkel’s voluntary departure has defined the election campaign, now in its final four weeks. It leaves a gap that Germans, broadly, would happily have seen her fill once more. And her three prospective successors are all auditioning to occupy it.

Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU candidate, is, like Merkel, a moderate within the party. But unlike the departing leader he is seemingly unable to stop so-called Merkel voters (especially female voters, those from migrant backgrounds and older centrists) from drifting off to the social democratic SPD or the Greens. He is also gaffe-prone – he was caught on film laughing in the background of a sombre speech by Germany’s president on a visit to a flood-hit town in July – and has a poor record on handling Covid-19 in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state he leads.

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[see also: German election TV debate win adds to Olaf Scholz’s momentum in the race to succeed Angela Merkel]

Annalena Baerbock of the Greens looked for part of the spring like a possible Merkel 2.0. Her party has had a good few years and is at one with the zeitgeist of the Germany the chancellor bequeaths – a broadly bourgeois country with a cautiously progressive self-image. The Greens have struggled in recent weeks but are attempting a fightback by appealing directly to Merkel voters, launching a mildly embarrassing TV ad in which a wholesome, CDU-ish cast sing an old folk song, which goes: “there is no country more beautiful than ours at this time.”

That makes Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate, by far the most popular of Merkel’s potential successors. Like the chancellor, he promises experience and familiarity: he has been a national figure for two decades, rising through the roles of SPD general secretary, chief whip, labour minister, mayor of Hamburg and now Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister. Also like Merkel, he is a centrist, pragmatic and placid product of Germany’s Protestant north, with few airs or ideological postures.

After 16 years of Merkel, Scholz looks the most like what Germans have come to think a chancellor looks like. One poll shows 49 per cent prefer him for the role, compared with 17 per cent for Laschet and 16 per cent for Baerbock. That has fed through into the SPD’s polling. Having long languished in third place, the party overtook the Greens in the New Statesman’s poll tracker on 18 August and passed the CDU/CSU to take first place on 31 August. One poll puts the SPD on 25 per cent, five points ahead of the CDU/CSU.

Scholz has cultivated the comparison. After interviewing him for the Economist in 2018, I wrote: “Scholz seems to be styling himself as a reassuring father of the nation, a ‘Vati’ (dad) to the chancellor’s ‘Mutti’ (mum).” In recent weeks the effort has become more explicit, with Scholz performing Merkel’s trademark steepled fingers pose and running ads with the strapline: “He’s got what it takes to be Madame Chancellor.” In the first TV debate on 29 August he performed the impression to a fault. Where Laschet and Baerbock sniped and sparred, he talked in genial generalities and posed as the experienced, familiar, reasonable middle ground between them. “Mine and the chancellor’s wish is that…” he said at one point.

With time running out, Laschet’s panicking campaign is now ramping up its efforts. The CSU leader Markus Söder has accused Scholz of Erbschleichelei (“sneaking into someone’s legacy”). On 31 August Merkel herself described Scholz’s reluctance to rule out a coalition with the socialist Left party as a “huge difference” between her and him. In practice, Scholz’s preferred coalition would be with the Greens and the conservative-liberal FDP, not the Left. His unwillingness to say so stems from his desire to placate the SPD left and maximise his leverage in coalition talks.

But such is the ground on which the final weeks of the campaign will be fought. Scholz has momentum as the most convincing Merkel 2.0. The CDU/CSU is doing all it can to claim back her mantle. Many imponderables persist – the smaller parties, unexpected events, last-minute voter changes of heart – but as a general rule, the party with the most effective claim to her legacy by 26 September stands the best chance of leading Europe’s biggest economy through the 2020s. 

[see also: German election 2021: The New Statesman’s poll tracker]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future