As polls have opened in Germany and election day has begun for just over 60m eligible voters, Europe’s largest economy is seeing its first three-way contest for the chancellery as the environmentalist Greens join the country’s two traditional big parties in fielding a candidate for the top job.
The Social Democrats’ candidate, Olaf Scholz, is going head to head with Armin Laschet, who emerged as the candidate of Merkel’s centre-right Union after a bruising internal battle, as well as the candidate for the Greens, Annalena Baerbock.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said nearly three years ago that she would not seek a fifth four-year term, after more than 16 years in power. Her decision set up the first election since West Germany’s inaugural vote, in 1949, in which there is no incumbent seeking re-election.
About 60.4m people in the nation of 83m are eligible to elect the new Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, which will elect the next head of government. No party is expected to come anywhere near an outright majority, with polls showing support for all of them below 30 per cent.
Such a result could mean that many governing coalitions are mathematically possible, and trigger weeks or months of haggling to form a new government. Until it is in place, Merkel will remain in office on a caretaker basis.
The three contenders bring varying degrees of experience and different backgrounds to the race.
Laschet has been the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany’s most populous, since dislodging a centre-left regional government in 2017. His supporters often point to that success in a traditional stronghold of the left.
A miner’s son, 60-year-old Laschet still lives in his native city of Aachen, on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands.
Growing up in the heart of the continent made me a committed European.
Laschet has had an up-and-down political career, joining the German parliament in 1994 but losing his seat in 1998.
From 1999-2005, he was a member of the European Parliament, before becoming his state’s minister for the integration of immigrants – the first such position in Germany. He won the leadership of his party in North Rhine-Westphalia at the second attempt in 2012.
Laschet is largely a centrist in Merkel’s mould, backing her welcoming stance toward refugees and other migrants. However, he has been keener than the outgoing chancellor to relax restrictions during the pandemic and is treading a fine line between offering continuity and promising renewal.
In April, he outmanoeuvred Bavarian governor Markus Soeder, who had much better poll ratings, to claim the nomination to run for chancellor after a lengthy stand-off.
Laschet has a jovial image. He has frequently been seen in carnival outfits and last year won the “Order Against Brutal Seriousness”, an honour bestowed annually on celebrities who display a sense of humour.
But that trait hurt him after deadly floods in his home state in July, when he was seen laughing in the background as Germany’s president delivered solemn remarks.
The 63-year-old Scholz is currently finance minister and vice chancellor, the latest in a string of top posts that have allowed him to tout his experience.
He has a terse, no-nonsense style typical of his home city of Hamburg, where he once worked as a lawyer.
He is unflappable and unshakably self-confident, but no master of rhetoric: He once earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for what critics said was a habit of constantly repeating the same phrases regardless of the question.
He served a turbulent stint as the Social Democrats’ general secretary in the early 2000s, as then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder struggled with dissent over welfare-state trims and economic reforms.
Scholz first served in the national government from 2007 to 2009 as Merkel’s labour minister, during the global financial crisis.
Germany kept down unemployment, notably by using a government-backed salary support program to keep people on companies’ payrolls. The same device served it well during the coronavirus pandemic.
Scholz became Hamburg’s mayor in 2011. He hosted the 2017 Group of 20 summit, remembered largely for widespread rioting by hard-left protesters. Scholz had previously dismissed worries about the event.
The following year, he was elevated to the No. 2 job in Merkel’s government after his party reluctantly ditched a pledge to go into opposition. As finance minister, Scholz was a driving force behind moves to place a global minimum tax of at least 15 per cent on large companies and led efforts to cushion the pandemic’s financial impact.
But he also drew criticism over the collapse last year of payment processing company Wirecard.
Scholz ran for the Social Democrats’ leadership in 2019 but was spurned by members in favor of a left-leaning duo.
Still, the long-struggling party had no hesitation in turning to him as its candidate to succeed Merkel.
By far the youngest contender, 40-year-old Baerbock is also the only one with no government experience.
She said when she was nominated: “I stand for renewal, others stand for the status quo.”
Baerbock studied political science and international law in Hamburg and London, and has been a member of Germany’s national parliament since 2013. In her youth, she was a successful trampolinist.
Sport taught me the courage to keep pushing my limits, try new things
She and Robert Habeck, who is also on the traditionally left-leaning party’s centrist wing, have led the Greens since early 2018.
Under the unusually harmonious duo, the party has largely buried its left-right divisions and seen its poll ratings climb. The two leaders decided in March that Baerbock would make its first run for the chancellery.
A native of western Germany, Baerbock has been based for years in the rural eastern state of Brandenburg, where her party entered the regional government in 2019.
She did not fare well under intense scrutiny early in this year’s campaign. She had to correct details in a CV and belatedly declared payments from her party, which she said she was not immediately aware had to be declared, to parliamentary authorities.
A flap followed over allegations that she copied from others in a hastily put-together new book. Baerbock denied any wrongdoing but said she would have done better to use a list of sources.