May 24 is Whit Monday, a day in Germany that marks the psychological shift between seasons as spring turns to summer. It also signals the political season too is kicking off in earnest with federal elections looming just four months later. And for the first time in a generation, Germans will be choosing a new government that won’t be led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
For the past 30 months, Merkel has made it clear she is stepping aside, leaving a gaping hole in the top ranks of Germany’s political echelon — but also leaving the European Union without its most experienced leader at the helm and certainly leaving western powers without such an experienced, cautious and seasoned figure as it faces a rising geopolitical and economic potency from Beijing.
Fiscally conservative, deliberately coy, dependable and predictable, Merkel has been a constant on the domestic and international stages for so long that her tenure has spanned four US and French presidencies, five UK Prime Ministers and watched as political rivals rise, fall and simply faded away.
But what happens now? For the next four months, Germans will make their minds up before casting ballots in federal elections come September 28.
It is a vote that will have repercussions far beyond Baden-Baden, Bonn or Berlin, one that will shape how the 27 nations of the EU will cope with the political fallout from Brexit, the economic effects of coronavirus and the ability of the G7, G20 and a host of other international organisations ranging from Nato to the UN as they respond to existential, environmental and economic crises either nascent, nescient or niggling now.
And the biggest question is who will succeed her? Which of the three main party leaders who up Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Greens, will resonate with Germans in the coming months? And who has the political acumen to partly fill Merkel’s shoes in the national, European and world stages?
As things stand now — at least according to a majority of opinion polls since the middle of April, Germany will be taking a decidedly left turn come September, placing the Greens on centre stage and advancing the environmental platform as never before. Six out of 10 opinion polls put the Greens and their evangelical co-leader Annalena Baerbock ahead of the Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian counterparts. Should indeed Baerbock win enough Bundestag seats come September 26 to be elected Chancellor, it will represent a seismic change, potentially with knock-on effects for Germany’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, placing environmental and climate change concerns firmly at the heart of the G7 and G20, and one that would fast-forward Germany and the entire EU when it comes to seriously tackling the issues that are warming this blue planet we share on its trips around the Sun.
Just 40 years of age, she represents a generation of Germans who don’t fully understand the ideological and political divisions that divided East from West, placed half of her nation behind an Iron Curtain of minefields, massed tanks, and nuclear-tipped Cruise missiles. She’s the working mother of two young children, a sharp negotiator and is refreshingly frank — an absolute sea change to Merkel’s behind-closed-doors power persona.
Those opinion polls put the Greens at between 25 and 27 per cent support overall — not enough to gain an overall majority in the Bundestag, certainly enough to make it the largest party and place Baerbock as kingmaker in negotiations with either the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats to form a governing coalition.
As a youth, Baerbock was a competitive trampoline gymnast, present the German press with a field day when it comes to political metaphors. Yes, her party has bounced in the polls, and yes, she’s well able for the rough and tumble of politics. But are Germans ready to place their political future with someone who has a recording of jumping into the unknown but who has the proven ability to land feet first?
If it is more of the same that Germans seek when the summer is over, then Armin Laschet represents continuity and conservatism and the conventions of Merkel. Aged 60 and a devout Roman Catholic, the leader of the Christian Democrats is Premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The son of a coalminer, he grew up in a working-class family. He’s a career politician, has been a Member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and once was editor of a Catholic newspaper.
Ultimately, he represents the status quo. After nearly two decades of Merkel, that might not be to his advantage. Roughly fifth of Germans who will vote come September have never known any other Chancellor than Merkel. That’s the glass half-empty scenario. The half-full scenario is that four fifths know what to expect — or what is expected from a Chancellor of Germany. Yes, there will be change — just how much change will Germans want is the thing.
They could, of course, always head back to the future and opt for the Social Democrats — a party that reaches back before unification, before the Second World War, even the First, and back to the time of Otto Von Bismarck when the modern German state was first formed.
Olaf Scholz leads the Social Democrats, is the German Finance Minister and is a former mayor of Hamburg and labour lawyer. He won’t win marks for flair or panache, but he does score heavily on trust — and there’s also a plus that his party is more of a natural fit with the wider political philosophy of the Greens, making any potential coalition talks that little easier to find common ground. As a young socialist in the 1980s — while Baerbock was taking her first bounces on the trampoline — Scholtz was fiercely anti-capitalist and dismissed Nato as “imperialist”. It all goes to show you just never know how things work out.