German elections will set direction after 16 years under Merkel

BERLIN (AP) – Sunday’s close elections in Germany will determine the leadership of the most populous country in the European Union after 16 years under Angela Merkel, whose party scrambles to avoid defeat by center-left rivals after a roller coaster countryside. Green environmentalists are also targeting at least some power.

About 60.4 million people in the nation of 83 million are eligible to elect the new parliament, which decides who will be the next head of government. Recent polls point to a neck and neck race between Merkel’s center-right Union bloc and the Social Democrats, with the latter slightly ahead.

Polls show the Greens, making their first candidacy for the chancellery, in third place after a campaign in which all three held the lead. The candidate of the Social Democrats, current Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has seen his personal ratings climb amid the error-ridden campaigns of his rivals, Armin Laschet of the Union and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.

Merkel, who remains personally popular after leading Germany through a series of crises, announced in 2018 that she would not run for a fifth term. This set up the first election since West Germany’s initial vote in 1949 in which there is no outgoing chancellor seeking re-election.

Voters seem disappointed with the choices. Whoever finishes first is expected to get a historically low share of the vote, with polls showing no party should get 30% support. The lowest score to date for a winning party is the Union’s 31% in 1949, which is also the bloc’s worst result to date.

Such a result would likely trigger a long haggling over a new government coalition, with the party that finishes first in the best position – but not guaranteed – for its candidate to succeed Merkel.

A top spot for the Social Democrats, who supplied three of Germany’s eight chancellors after World War II but have been Merkel’s junior government partners for 12 of the past 16 years, would be remarkable after a long electoral crisis for the party. When the Union and the Greens picked their candidates this spring, the election was generally expected to be a race between the two.

The Union was prepared for a Laschet-Baerbock battle and “Laschet practically wanted to act as titular, with all his leadership expertise” of his current post as governor of Germany’s most populous state, Rhineland from North Westphalia, political science professor Andrea Roemmele from the Hertie school in Berlin said this week.

“But now the duel is not Laschet against Baerbock, it is Laschet against Scholz, and in this combination Mr Laschet was forced to play the role of challenger,” she said. “Scholz deploys all the power of his vice-chancellor, the finance minister, and likes to campaign that way; he just succeeded in building trust.

Scholz also had the most fluid campaign, although opponents sought to capitalize on a recent police search of his ministry. Baerbock suffered from early blunders, including having to correct details in a resume and facing allegations of plagiarism in a new book.

Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, was appointed after a contentious internal battle with a rival, then suffered from the perception that he had mismanaged the deadly floods that hit his state in July. A scene in which he was seen laughing in the background as the German president made solemn remarks about the disaster did not help his campaign image.

These woes have often distracted attention from political issues.

The main parties have significant differences in their proposals for tackling climate change. The Laschet Union is pinning its hopes on technological solutions and a market-oriented approach, while the Greens want to raise carbon prices and end the use of coal sooner than expected. Scholz stressed the need to protect jobs as Europe’s largest economy shifts to greener energy.

Laschet insists there should be no tax increases as Germany pulls out of the coronavirus pandemic, that the country has weathered well economically thanks to major bailouts that have contracted new debts. Scholz and Baerbock support tax hikes for the wealthiest Germans, and also support an increase in the country’s minimum wage.

Foreign policy did not play a big role in the campaign, although the Greens favor a tougher stance on China and Russia.

As their poll scores plummeted, Laschet and other Union leaders constantly warned that Scholz and the Greens would form a coalition with the Opposition Party, which opposes the military deployments of the NATO and Germany abroad. It is questionable whether such a partnership is realistic, given foreign policy and other differences.

Scholz’s first choice would likely be an alliance with the pro-business Greens and Free Democrats – and a coalition with these two parties is also Laschet’s most likely path to power. The Greens favor an alliance with the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats an alliance with the Union.

The outcome of the election may also allow a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the mainstream mainstream parties, under Scholz or Laschet, although there is unlikely to be much appetite for it on either side. But no party wants to bring the far-right Alternative for Germany into government.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the German elections at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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