An absurd election for Germany

Dr Oliver Hartwich
24 August, 2021

Germany will go to the polls on September 26. But that is about the only thing you can count on.

Everything else about this election is a guessing game. All bets are off in Germany’s strangest election campaign in decades. It featured a fraudulent candidate, an embarrassing laughing fit, and a miraculous political comeback.

A slow-slip earthquake has changed the tectonics of politics since I last dedicated a piece to Germany (‘The backroom deal to find Germany’s next Chancellor,’ March 9, 2021).

Back then, I expected a coalition led by the Christian Democrats, with the Greens as a junior partner. The sole question was who would lead the Christian Democrats to succeed Angela Merkel.

No-one would have argued with such a prediction because the polls had been stable for a long period. But then, the leading candidates bungled their way through the campaign in an odd sequence of events. The outcome may now be an election result the country has never seen before.

The single prediction I got right in March was whom the Christian Democrats would pick as their candidate for the chancellery.

The political grouping had the choice between North Rhine-Westphalian state premier Armin Laschet (CDU) and his Bavarian counterpart Markus Söder (CSU). Since Laschet leads the larger of the two parties, I expected him to gain the two parties’ joint nomination. That was correct.

What I did not see coming in my wildest dreams: the dispute between Laschet and Söder turned so ugly, it nearly split their parties. It also left the winner Laschet so battered and humiliated that he had to begin his campaign with a tremendous burden. Running for chancellor is hard enough. If the candidate does not have a cohesive party behind him, it is nearly impossible.

Unlike those Christian Democrat nominating troubles, the Greens’ selection was a display of pure harmony. Except it all fell apart quickly.

The German Greens, too, had two options: their male and female co-leaders. They chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, over Robert Habeck, a 51-year-old former Schleswig-Holstein Deputy Prime Minister.

Habeck would have been the obvious choice if experience, qualifications, or media skills had been requirements. For a party that regards itself as the political incarnation of feminism, however, that would have been too difficult to explain. In that way, Baerbock became the candidate of the Greens.

For her, everything looked to be going swimmingly. Baerbock’s youth was a selling point. The media celebrated her with front-page publicity in major magazines.

Baerbock-mania swept Germany for a few weeks. The country’s first Greens chancellor appeared to be a possibility, if not a foregone conclusion.

But, as Baerbock’s spectacular rise to popularity was swift, so was her fall from grace. A few journalists, bloggers and academics checked the claims on her CV. They discovered fabricated entries, exaggerations and plain lies.

No, Baerbock has never been a member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, not least since the UNHCR does not have individual members. She was not a member of the German Marshall Fund, either. And, although claiming to be an international lawyer, she had never actually studied law.

The book Baerbock released later was much worse than the falsified information in her resume. Meant to be a statement of Baerbock’s personal views and values, it turned out to be a copy-and-paste job.

Baerbock had replicated entire paragraphs from websites, journal articles, and newspaper articles, barely paraphrasing them. Plagiarism checkers found almost nothing in her book to be original, including autobiographical passages.

With Baerbock’s credibility shattered and a grumbling Robert Habeck lurking in the background, the Greens’ polling numbers plummeted. The erstwhile front-runner had become an embarrassment to her own party, now running as a candidate in hiding.

The collapse of the Greens appeared to aid Armin Laschet’s political comeback. Following his bruising battle with Markus Söder, the Christian Democrat candidate withdrew from the public’s view for a time. It was supposed to give voters some time to forget about the events surrounding his nomination.

When Laschet’s primary adversary Baerbock then crumbled on the big stage, he only had to stand by and watch. Which is exactly what he did.

It worked wonders. Without a significant contribution to debates, without offering a unique thought or idea, Laschet found himself in the lead. The miracles of democracy.

Laschet’s advantage did not last long in this odd campaign. Because it rained. Then it poured. So much so, vast areas of Laschet’s state were inundated.

Catastrophic events are usually a blessing in disguise for campaigning politicians, especially those already in office. They can display leadership, crisis management, and closeness to the people.

Laschet usually ticks these boxes. He is good with people. Except this time, he got caught laughing – not good in a crisis. Worse still, Laschet chuckled alongside his advisors in the background as the Federal President was speaking to the victims of the flood.

Laschet’s laughing fit shifted the narrative of the campaign – again. The media now had a field day describing how unfit he was for office.

Last weekend, a video circulated which showed Laschet unable to answer a journalist’s question about his priorities as chancellor. He mentions the digitisation of the country and climate change, but when the reporter asks, “And any third issue?”, Laschet looks bewildered. So, he glances into the air and then replies helplessly, “Well, what else do we do?” Oh dear.

Many German observers have by now concluded that both the Christian Democrats and the Greens made the same error: They chose the wrong candidates. The Greens would not appear unskilled or deceitful with Robert Habeck. The Christian Democrats might run a competent and aggressive election campaign with Markus Söder.

Instead, the parties have nominated Baerbock and Laschet. And both parties are being penalised in the polls in the same way. Recently, they were both in the high twenties or even low thirties, but they have since both lost roughly 10 percentage points.

The winner of these two personal tragedies is Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party’s top candidate. He appeared to have no chance until recently – not when his party was polling around 14 percent.

Scholz is a former mayor of Hamburg, Merkel’s finance minister, and her deputy. But one thing he is not: charismatic. Nor is his party popular by any measure.

Years ago, Scholz earned the nickname ‘Scholzomat’ for his monotonous behaviour and predictability. He has always had a robotic quality to him. But his monotony and consistency make him such an appealing alternative against both Laschet and Baerbock.

The inconceivable has occurred in recent surveys. Scholz’s Social Democrats and Laschet’s Christian Democrats are now neck-and-neck. The Greens, meanwhile, are back to levels last seen before the Baerbock hype.

The outcome of the German election is unpredictable with just over a month to go. A two-party coalition appears improbable. No two political parties are powerful enough to form a parliamentary majority.

It is impossible to say who would lead a future coalition government: Scholz, Laschet, or – by chance – Baerbock.

Then there is the question of whether the alliance will be centrist, centre-left, or hard-left. It is impossible to rule out any option. The outcome depends on a few percentage points either way.

Germany’s voters are not to be envied. With an MMP voting system and a choice of unpalatable parties, they must find a way to form a coalition.

And find the candidate for chancellor with the least flaws.

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