In September 1998, when a relatively youthful Gerhard Schröder defeated Helmut Kohl and ended his 16-year reign as German chancellor, the victorious leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) told supporters that the country had opted for “a change of generation”. Mr Schröder’s triumph turned a page on the cold war era, aligning Germany with a fresh-faced centre-left resurgence in western democracies led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. It was, in the political vernacular, a quintessential “change” election.
Almost a quarter of a century later, Angela Merkel will stand down of her own accord later this month – the first chancellor to do so – after equalling Mr Kohl’s longevity in office. But this time, ahead of a 26 September election, German voters seem to be somewhat reluctant to move on. None of Ms Merkel’s prospective replacements come close to matching her popularity. Fewer than one in five see the chancellor’s own preferred successor, the CDU/CSU candidate, Armin Laschet, as the best option to replace her. Caught on camera laughing during a visit to a town devastated by floods, Mr Laschet has fought a lacklustre campaign and has become a liability for his party. A poll last week found that from highs of around 35% at the start of the year, the CDU/CSU’s ratings have plunged on Mr Laschet’s watch to the low twenties and fallen just behind the SPD for the first time since 2006. The Greens electrified the contest by topping polls in the spring. Their extraordinary surge seemed to embody a widespread desire for a more environmentally driven politics to meet net zero pledges. But they too have lost their mojo as the party’s candidate for chancellor, the inexperienced Annalena Baerbock, struggles to recover from allegations of plagiarism and financial mismanagement.
The travails of the two former frontrunners have thus cleared the stage for the battered and bruised SPD, for years a symbol of the apparently terminal decline of European centre-left parties. Remarkably, the SPD now narrowly leads the race to take charge of the new era. Yet even this Lazarus-style resurrection can be seen as a tribute to the enduring appeal of Merkelism. The 63-year-old SPD candidate, Olaf Scholz, has served as a fiscally cautious finance minister in the outgoing government. He is basing his pitch on being a safe pair of hands, much in the former chancellor’s mould. A recent SPD campaign ad even joked of Mr Scholz as being “er kann Kanzerlin” (the can-do chancellor), using the feminine form of the German word to underline a message of continuity with his predecessor.
If Ms Merkel were standing, she would almost certainly win. After 16 years in office, that is some compliment to her political skills and consensual style of government. But as Germany faces up to major challenges, such as meeting some of the most ambitious climate targets in the world and dealing with a rapidly ageing population, a new generation of leaders will need to make their mark in new times. The makeup of any future coalition is almost impossible to predict, such is the uncertainty of a race in which the lead has changed hands three times. The economically liberal FDP, for example, could become a kingmaker after 26 September, cancelling out centre-left commitments to higher taxes, more state spending and green investment. With three weeks to go until polling day, Germans find themselves looking through a glass darkly at the country’s post-Merkel future.