The German election – a tale of two campaigns

By Robin Powell, dpa

The lack of shocks and surprises from the German election campaign hides what has been an extraordinary journey for two parties – the SPD and the Greens – that could well continue after Sunday’s poll.

It’s not yet over for Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate for the German chancellorship.

He could still succeed outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, but the most their Christian Democrats (CDU) are hoping for, with just days to go, is a knife-edge win over their main rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD) – and this would still likely represent their worst election ever.

The story of this campaign has not been about Laschet’s disappointing performance as the CDU standard-bearer, however. Without Merkel’s star power, it was always going to be a more difficult campaign for the conservatives that have ruled Germany for 16 years.

The campaign has been about two other parties: the centre-left SPD, which was largely written off but rose relentlessly to the top of the polls. And the mirror image fortunes of the Greens, which briefly sensed an extraordinary victory only to see it vanish almost immediately from sight.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate for chancellor, has been a solid pair of hands as the frontman of the party’s campaign. The former Hamburg mayor appears to have enjoyed the attention he’s getting as a possible next chancellor.

Stepping off the stage in Soltau in the state of Lower Saxony on Tuesday, he approached the gathered supporters straight away.

“Well, how are you?” he asked, posing for selfies and signing autographs – especially if they went inside the red SPD party books.

Throughout the election campaign, the SPD relied entirely on its candidate: Scholz on the posters, Scholz on the podiums, Scholz in debates, Scholz’s political programme.

Unlike Laschet, there have been no ‘future teams’ of advisors, no shadow cabinet indications, no repackaged initiatives, no distractions.

That gamble has paid off: Scholz has hardly put a foot wrong, and since the start of July his party’s poll numbers and his personal popularity rose steadily.

He produced no fireworks during the televised debates, but voters seemed to welcome his steady, unruffled delivery in the face of persistent attacks from Laschet: Would he raise taxes? (Scholz: yes, up to 45 per cent for the very top earners) Why had he not prevented a series of financial scandals? (Scholz: some happened before his time) Would he consider a coalition with the far-left? (Scholz: no comment).

But he hasn’t reached the top on his own. In fact, he isn’t even leader of his own party. Just last December, he lost out to Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans in the race for the party leadership.

They, and the former SPD youth leader Kevin Kuehnert are the puppet-masters, say the critics.

“Scholz is hiding his left-wing team,” said conservative heavyweight Markus Soeder.

That team is bound to play a major role in the event of a Scholz victory, but he has said he would decide on his own ministers. “Where I was head of a government, in Hamburg, I never let anyone interfere with the formation of the government,” he said.

Unlike the current finance minister, the Greens have had no national government experience to lean on during the campaign.

The last time the Greens were in power at a federal level was before Merkel – so 16 years ago, in coalition with Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD.

Political inexperience was a big hurdle to Annalena Baerbock, who attracted most of the attention during the campaign as the Greens’ first ever official candidate for chancellor.

But their campaign has really been a double-act: party co-leader Robert Habeck was until the last year the most well-known face of the Greens, and has done almost as many campaign appearances as Baerbock herself.

It was in the period just after Baerbock was put forward as chancellor candidate in April that the Greens soared to 27 per cent in the polls and thought they might even win the top prize: Merkel’s chair.

Even businesses generally wary of environmental regulations didn’t seem scared of Baerbock as chancellor, according to a survey of business leaders at the time.

But she was soon dragged down by minor inconsistencies in her official CV, an accounting irregularity over party expenses, and plagiarism accusations over her recent book. In debate performances she never quite emerged from the shadows of the two political behemoths of post-war Germany, the SPD and CDU.

She accused both of them of “ducking away” from their responsibility as part of the outgoing coalition government, and argued for a “new start,” but this didn’t seem to be the new start people wanted.

In this final stage of the campaign, commentators have had no shortage of explanations for the Greens’ failure to capitalize on their early surge.

The campaign had revealed that Germany was “No Green country,” the Spiegel news magazine exclaimed on its front page this week. The Greens, it said, had squandered their chance.

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung judged that she had tried to “steer the Greens to the middle” with positive messages, but that in the end she fell back on “old tropes” inherited from the party’s founders regarding a coming environmental apocalypse.

“It’s over, Baerbock!” shouted left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung as early as July.

The paper’s chief reporter Peter Unfried did however put a more positive spin on the Greens’ fall from grace: “There are many who see climate policy as important and want Annalena Baerbock in government – but absolutely not in the chancellery.”

With this in mind, he argued, the party can go with some confidence into the lengthy coalition negotiations – most likely with the SPD – that are sure to start as soon as the votes are counted on Sunday.

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