German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

Say what you will about how underwhelming the current German election campaign is one aspect of it is rather exciting, and telling: The two front-running parties’ candidates for the chancellorship have been accused, with seemingly compelling cause, of plagiarism. In the run-up to the Sep. 26 election, these accusations are noticeably depressing the top parties’ performance and reinforcing the impression that their candidates don’t have what it takes to lead the country — at least not in comparison with Angela Merkel, whose integrity and intellectual power are recognised even by her enemies.

In June, Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock’s book “Now: How We Can Renew Our Country” came under fire. An Austria-based website cited passages in it that appeared lifted from various sources without a proper reference. Baerbock mounted a maladroit defence, enriching the German political discourse with some extravagant excuses, such as “I didn’t write a textbook but rather a book about what I want to do with this country” and even “Nobody writes a book alone” — a statement that caused an angry backlash from German authors. More allegedly copied passages have kept surfacing.

In late July, Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, developed a plagiarism problem of his own, when parts of his 2009 book, “The Upwardly Mobile Republic: Immigration as an Opportunity,” were found to be unacknowledged quotes from, among other sources, Wikipedia. Laschet didn’t try to counterattack and apologised immediately, but that didn’t stop discussion of the borrowings in the German media.

Of course, both Baerbock and Laschet have made other mistakes: The former was dinged for airbrushing her resume, the latter was filmed laughing with his associates during a visit to a flood-ravaged region. But polling averages show how the Greens’ popularity reached the year’s nadir after Baerbock’s book scandal and started recovering only after Laschet ran into similar trouble.

The centre-left SPD was the main beneficiary. Its chancellorship candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the only one of the top three not to face plagiarism charges, is now the most popular of the top three with 27% support, compared with 14% for Laschet and 13% for Baerbock.

No matter who ends up winning next month, the plagiarism accusations are something for which the campaign will be remembered.

Neither scandal involves an academic work, but the tradition of looking for plagiarism in politicians’ writing stems from a 2011 case that ended the career of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, then defence minister and the Christian Social Union’s rising star. After plagiarism in his law dissertation was confirmed, he lost his doctorate and was forced to leave politics. The collective of volunteer researchers that dug into Guttenberg’s work, GuttenPlag, evolved into Germany’s pre-eminent plagiarism-hunting community, VroniPlag, which doesn’t concern itself just with politicians’ doctoral theses but also with the work of career academics. VroniPlag founder Martin Heidingsfelder, a prominent German expert in the field, has contributed to both the Baerbock and the Laschet revelations.

Since the landmark Guttenberg case, the list of German politicians accused of plagiarism has included former Education Minister and Merkel ally Annette Schavan, who lost her degree and resigned in 2013, and former CSU Secretary General Andreas Scheuer, who stopped using the Dr. title amid a controversy over unattributed borrowings in his thesis. Former Family Minister Franziska Giffey, an SPD member, whose degree was withdrawn by Berlin’s Free University in June, resigned before the university made it final, although she is now her party’s candidate for Berlin’s mayor. Accusations have been made against President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but they and the universities that conferred their doctorates have managed to prove any errors had been unintentional.

The close attention paid in Germany to politicians’ plagiarism isn’t just about the value of the doctorate, as this year’s campaign shows. Even unacknowledged borrowings in political books — which in most countries would be seen, a priori, as slapped-together products of much teamwork — can result in poll setbacks. They don’t just point to a character flaw; they also show a politician is superficial, unwilling to delve into the issues. In German politics, that’s a major sin. Keep in mind that for the last 16 years, the country has been run by a bona fide scientist who has listened to experts and become an expert herself in the issues she has faced. Germany’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic reflects that strength: After a few initial fumbles, Germany has generally handled it well, with a much lower per capita death rate than the UK, the US and most European nations.

Many in Germany bemoan the current campaign’s focus on the candidates rather than the agendas. But, with Merkel about to go, it’s important to make sure the next chancellor will be as thorough and intellectually honest as she has been; that should be seen as an issue in its own right, and it’s why the competence of the uncharismatic Scholz has made him the most popular chancellor candidate.

Chancellors, of course, are not directly elected but picked by parliament, usually from the party with a plurality of seats, and the likelihood of Scholz’s getting the job is low because of his party’s relative unpopularity. Yet the front-runner, Laschet, and his strongest rival, Baerbock, are being reminded that Germans want integrity, brains and a certain depth in their next leader. Sadly, the plagiarism scandals suggest that so far, these most likely candidates haven’t demonstrated that they have the write stuff.

Leonid Bershidsky is a noted columnist