Who will join the CDU and its CSU sister party to govern Germany in the future? This long seemed like the only question worth asking. But in an evolving campaign, the Greens may have the best hand.
If Armin Laschet gets his way in the September general election, he'll succeed his fellow Christian Democrat and friend Angela Merkel and become Germany's next chancellor. The state premier of the country's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia – with 18 million inhabitants – stands for a similar style of politics: like the chancellor, he's more moderate than he is confrontational and has said, when looking back at the career of the woman who led Germany since 2005, that he has "a great deal of respect for the chancellor's life's work."
During an interview with the public television station ARD, the 60-year-old talked about the four international crises the chancellor has mastered: the refugee crisis, the European debt crisis, the world financial crisis and the current coronavirus pandemic.
Back in February, no one thought the Christian Democrats (CDU) could lose the chancellorship after 16 years with Merkel at the helm. And why would they? The Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), polled together at 34%, far ahead of the opposition Greens at 21%. Fast-forward a few months, and the Greens are now 3 percentage points ahead of the CDU/CSU bloc. They're currently at 26%, with the CDU/CSU at 23%.
Many put the conservative bloc's misfortunes down to an internal power struggle that went on for weeks between CDU leader Lachet and his CSU counterpart Markus Söder, who both had aspirations of becoming Germany's next chancellor.
Laschet became the center-right bloc's candidate and told ARD people running to be chancellor of Germany need to be convinced they're right for the job. He said he's convinced of this and that he will make the most of his opportunities if he is chosen to lead Germany. If he wants to accomplish this, he has four months to turn things around before September's elections.
The Greens'Annalena Baerbock also stressed the great deal of respect she had for the office she's vying to enter. "It's, of course, something very special to lead Europe's most industrialized country," she told the public broadcaster RBB. She said she doesn't see her lack of experience governing at the state level as a disadvantage.
"What's experience?" she asked, then answered her own question: "I believe that it's important, especially in times like these, to have life experience. To know what it means to spend an entire year at home, for example, with small children."
Baerbock is alluding to the consequences of the current pandemic and her personal situation at home. The 40-year-old is the mother of two children, and when considering this, she said, "Political experience isn't just government experience."
Political scientist Oskar Niedermayer of the Free University of Berlin told DW he thinks Baerbock's alleged disadvantage could help her in the eyes of voters, who see her as embodying something "new" and "fresh" on the German political scene.
Niedermayer said he thinks Baerbock's lack of government experience is viewed negatively beyond Germany's borders, unlike Olaf Scholz, who is the Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor and Germany's finance minister. A political veteran, Scholz is also a known entity "who we have known for years in international negotiations." This is something he's banking on to give him an advantage, according to Niedermayer.
"It's all about bringing together international politics, European politics and German politics," he said. "And those who want to lead a new government can't be afraid of 'leadership.'"
As it stands, the SPD's chances of winning in September are almost nonexistent considering that it is polling nationally at around 15%. If the center-left party wants to keep a seat in governmentafter eight years as Merkel's junior coalition partner, it will have to do so, likely again as the smaller coalition partner, in a three-way coalition sandwiched between the Greens and the even smaller business-friendly Free Democrats. But strong Green polling numbers could also mean the environmental party will have another option: a three-party coalition with the Social Democrats and the socialist Left party.
The Left party's foreign policy and security goals are seen as nearly insurmountable obstacles when it comes to governing at the national level. The Left is still fighting for the dissolution of the NATO military alliance, a goal it shared with the Greens back in the 1980s. But there are no irreconcilable differences to keep the Left out of a coalition with today's Greens and SPD, according to Left party co-chairwoman Janine Wissler.
She noted with "joy and interest" that the majority of Greens voted against extending the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan and added that within the SPD there's "clear resistance" to the use of armed drones.
But Wissler also knows that both parties are not fundamentally against German soldiers abroad — unlike the Left: "We want to end Bundeswehr missions. This is also a central plank in our political program and, of course, we are sticking with it."
Political scientist Niedermayer said the Greens would be able to work with the Left Party if they win the election and would have first dibs to the chancellery as the country's strongest political party. The differences between them on the foreign policy and security front and the biggest stumbling blocks, but Niedermayer said he has no doubt that representatives from all three parties are already working on "things to compromise on."
Christian Lindner, the chairman of the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), is also concerned with what the Greens are up to and whether his party could have a place in Germany's next coalition government considering that his party is now again polling in the double-digits.
"I have never been more motivated than now to lead the FDP back into a position in which it can take responsibility for shaping the future of this country," he said, referring to the political atmosphere that saw the FDP as political kingmakers for almost five decades between 1949 and 2013. "We want Germany to become more modern, more digital and freer."
He said he trusts the people who, back in 2017, missed the opportunity to participate in a so-called Jamaica coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens. His party's next chance might just come following September's elections if the Greens and the center-right CDU/CSU don't get enough votes to form a government by themselves. Whichever way it turns out, both a Jamaica coalition and one involving the Greens, the Social Democrats and the Left Party would be a first-ever three-party coalition at the national level.
Whoever wins in September, it seems certain that Germany will be entering into a new political era following a decade and a half of Angela Merkel. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that 62% of those polled believe a change of government would be a good idea following the September elections.
"These are the highest numbers since the beginning of the 1990s, since this question was first asked," said Robert Vehrkamp, the head of the study.
This article was translated from German.
While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.