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With only a month until voters determine Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor, her party has lost what had seemed a near certain path to victory, breaking open the German election and raising the chances of a government led by the centre-left Social Democrats.
Armin Laschet, candidate for Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats, is now under pressure to step up his campaign and prevent what could become his party’s worst electoral outcome in 70 years.
Germany watchers are also for the first time in this campaign considering the possibility of not only a left-leaning coalition, but a government that excludes the CDU entirely.
The upset comes as, for the first time in 15 years, the SPD has squeaked ahead in polls. The latest Forsa survey has the SPD at 23 per cent compared to the CDU’s 22 per cent. In betting markets, the SPD has a 50-50 chance of leading the next government after the September 26 vote.
“What’s most striking here is the weakness of the CDU, rather than the relative success of the SPD,” said Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at polling group Forsa, noting a roughly 10 percentage point drop in CDU ratings since the last Bundestag election. “When you look at the numbers, 23 per cent for SPD would not have been a great result in previous elections.”
The SPD’s current poll rating is only three points higher than its historically poor turnout in the last federal election, when it became junior partner to the CDU.
The narrowing race means that for the first time in postwar history, Germany may be headed for a three-way coalition. The Green Party, while consistently polling in third place, has a good shot at entering government. Meanwhile, the pro-business Free Democrats, polling in fourth place, might act as kingmaker in either a CDU-Green-FDP coalition or an SPD-Green-FDP coalition.
“I admit that a few weeks ago, I would have had higher goals,” said Markus Söder, head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, during a Bloomberg webinar on Tuesday. “That’s becoming more and more difficult — and, one has to admit, not entirely realistic.”
The SPD is being helped by a surge of support for its candidate, Olaf Scholz, with a 35 per cent rating in polls.
As Merkel’s finance minister he steered the economy through the pandemic and has more government experience than either Laschet, governor of Germany’s largest state, who has an 11 per cent rating in polls, or the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock, with 15 per cent.
However, the most popular candidate for chancellor consistently remains “none of the above”, at some 44 per cent.
Merkel has sought to play down her party’s apparent change of fortune. “We will work every day for a good result and we are not looking at polls every day,” she said Tuesday.
Laschet’s campaign has been lacklustre. He also stumbled in the wake of July floods that killed more than 180 people when he was caught on television laughing while the German president gave a sombre speech to flood victims.
Bitter internal divisions that have resurfaced within the centre-right have also not helped. Söder had originally sought the candidacy but was rebuffed by CDU leaders despite his popularity. A Civey poll released on Wednesday said 70 per cent of CDU-CSU supporters still wanted Söder to replace Laschet — an option he has ruled out.
Söder has now joined Laschet on the offensive, warning of the “brutal indebtedness” an SPD-led government would bring. Laschet, speaking to the German Institute for Economic Research on Tuesday, warned that the Greens and SPD were threatening “social peace” by prioritising climate change policies over jobs.
Other CDU leaders say such attacks are not enough to explain to voters what the party will stand for after Merkel.
“We need to hit the […] reset button,” said the CDU’s Michael Kretschmer, prime minister of Saxony. “This election campaign in Germany is bumbling along.”