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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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Germany has been the bedrock of European centre-right politics for 16 years.

Inside

By Philip Oltermann BERLIN

But as Angela Merkel’s long chancellorship draws to a close, could a political revolution be about to hit the Bundestag? Polls suggest that, after September’s federal elections, the largest party may not be Merkel’s CDU but the Greens, whose candidate Annalena Baerbock may be in a position to choose from a range of coalition partners. Our Berlin bureau chief, Philip Oltermann, weighs up the chances of an outcome that could spell a seismic shift for green politics worldwide. Agreen wind of change is blowing through Germany’s political landscape as a poll-of-polls on Monday put the Green party above Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) only five months before national elections. The aggregate poll, published by Pollytix Strategic Research, puts the Greens in the lead for the first time since June 2019. Germany’s party landscape has long proven more resistant to sudden upheavals than its European neighbours, with the CDU holding on to its status as the country’s supreme political power while sister parties in France or Italy slipped into oblivion. But latest polls suggest the conservatives, who have governed Germany for the last 16 years, could no longer be the strongest party in the Bundestag after 26 September. Six out of 10 polls published in recent weeks instead show an advantage for the Greens, who scraped into sixth place when Germany last went to the polls in 2017. A survey published by pollster Kantar and Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday gave the Greens a three-point lead, on 27%. It suggests the ecological party’s candidate, Annalena Baerbock, could even find herself in the comfortable position of being able to choose from a variety of potential coalition partners, with power-sharing deals with the CDU, the Social Democratic party (SPD) and the Free Democrats, or the SPD and leftwing Die Linke all within a touching distance of a majority. Stefan Merz, the director of pollster Infratest Dimap, said the currently expressed voting intentions would need to remain in place for two to three weeks to prove reliable indicators. “But after years of very little movement in the hierarchy of Germany’s political parties, there is now a sense that the deck is being reshuffled and we could be on the threshold of a historic moment,” Merz said. Volatility is showing in the polls as the German public has increasingly turned against the government over a lengthy but ineffective semi-lockdown and a vaccination rollout that exposed the poor state of the country’s digital services and bureaucracy. Armin Laschet, the 60-year-old CDU leader and Merkel continuity candidate, was presented as the party’s man for the top job just as the outgoing chancellor has looked more powerless and short of ideas than at any point in her 16-year leadership of Europe’s largest economy. Baerbock, 40, who has been the Greens’ co-leader for three years but lacks experience in higher office, has launched her campaign on a message of reform, proposing, for example, a term limit for the chancellor under her leadership. The underlying theme of her campaign so far is that Germany is more innovative than its political class – a claim that got a boost last week when the country’s constitutional court ruled that the government’s climate targets do not go far enough. If there is still caution around the Green party’s hopes, it is because German voters have shown again and again how much they value continuity. “The question is whether the Greens can keep up their momentum once the majority of the country has been vaccinated, the shops reopen and people can go on holiday again,” said pollster Merz. “If the national debate shifts to the economy at that point, the CDU could regain some lost ground.” Whether Laschet, who has struggled to rally his own party behind his candidacy, can convince the public that he is the right man to keep the country on an even keel, will be one of the main questions of the coming months. One key factor distinguishes the vote in September from those that came before. For the first time since 1949, the incumbent chancellor will not be standing for reelection. All of Merkel’s predecessors either lost their last election or resigned before completing their last term in office. “When voters go to the polling booth, they tend to focus on their prospects in the future rather than the achievements of the past,” said Matthias Jung, a pollster for research institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen. “At best, the high points of the last 16 years will be remembered as a badge of basic competency,” Jung said. “Merkel’s successes are only inheritable to a very limited degree.”

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