At the end of March, we are six months away from the September 26 legislative elections, and such is the importance of the ballot, the Germans have called 2021 a “Superwahljahr” or “super election year”.
German politics may be considered a somewhat restrained affair compared to the merry-go-round of Italian prime ministers or British election hysteria, but this year promises to reverse that trend and move away from the yawn.
Two key things make this election remarkable: Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after 16 years in power and, perhaps even more important, the fact that no one can quite predict what will happen next after years of certainty.
Before the big vote, when the Germans will elect a new federal parliament and, consequently, a new chancellor, several local and regional elections will serve as warm-up acts.
With polls showing the Greens overtaking the Social Democrats as Germany’s second most popular party, logic based on previous results had them joining Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) to form a new “grand coalition”.
But with ‘Mutti’ set to step down and a series of pandemic-related missteps seeing the CDU take a hit, the next six months could prove crucial for Germany’s political future.
What do the recent municipal elections tell us?
The first major political test in Superwahljahr were tight regional elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in mid-March.
While Merkel’s CDU historically enjoyed strong support in both areas, it lost ground, with the Greens clinging to power in Baden-Württemberg and the left-wing Social Democrats (SPD) retaining Rhineland- Palatinate.
Could this be a sign of things to come in the national vote? The outcome would certainly have been cause for concern for CDU leaders but Manes Weisskircher, a political scientist at Dresden University of Technology, warned against seeing it as a prediction of the result in September.
“It’s impossible to make predictions at this stage,” he told Euronews.
He added that several players had an interest in interpreting the regional results as a forecast of the national results, but while the CDU did not expect such bad results, it “did not particularly have hope for the regional elections, to begin with, especially in Baden-Württemberg”.
Opposition parties, including the Greens and Social Democrats, have an interest in treating this round of regional elections as predictors of the overall vote and Weisskircher believes that “some within the CDU will also have an interest in advocating for the existence of a crisis for the party.”
This includes the leader of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, Markus Söder, who is “widely seen as having an interest in becoming the top CDU/CSU candidate for the September elections”.
What are the key issues?
The choice of the CDU’s candidate for chancellery and the government’s handling of the pandemic are the factors most likely to tip the September result, according to Weisskircher.
Merkel’s government has recently come under fire for its handling of Germany’s vaccine rollout and a scandal over allegations of mask-buying bribery involving two Tory MPs has seen her party take a beating.
“The important thing, I think here, is that there is still time,” said the political scientist. “If the handling of the pandemic is improving in the eyes of voters, it could have been forgotten by September.”
The spot for the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate remains empty and who fills it and what they do in the months that follow will be critical, Weisskircher said.
Pollsters say Söder is more popular both within the CDU and in Germany than Armin Laschet, who was elected party leader in January.
Recent regional elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, where the CDU performed poorly, were seen by many as Laschet’s first major test.
“It is possible that if Söder were to become the first candidate, the CDU could see an increase in the number of polls: from their optimistic point of view, the question would be settled and there would be no internal unrest within the party” , explained Weisskircher. .
Söder could “rally the troops behind him”, which could eventually give them new strength.
The question of who will take the helm will be answered in the coming weeks, but until it’s settled, the CDU’s ranking in the polls isn’t likely to improve, according to Weisskircher.
“Of course, there are possible coalition scenarios that do not include the Union,” he added. “But I don’t think they are any more likely at the moment than the scenarios with the CDU.”
How corruption scandals, the pandemic and the CDU’s choice of the best candidate influence all voters, but six months from the election nothing is certain and there is plenty of room for speculation.
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