With elections approaching in Germany this fall, one narrative that we will frequently see on the campaign trail has already taken shape. Two against one.
Two men against one woman.
Two 60(ish)-year-olds against a 40-year-old.
Two lawyers against a political scientist with a focus on international law. Two governing professionals against a parliamentarian with no executive experience. Two representatives from Germany's traditional big-tent parties against the candidate of a party hoping to become the next big-tent party.
It is astonishing how similar Armin Laschet, the chancellor candidate from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Olaf Scholz, who is running for the Social Democrats (SPD), really are when you look closely. Particularly when compared with the chancellor candidate from the Green Party: Annalena Baerbock.
Two against one. Or: Old against new. The question will be whether the old wins out once again. Or whether the time is ripe for something new.
At first glance, there are a number of factors in Germany suggesting that it is time to turn the page. Germany finds itself at a crossroads: The pandemic has mixed everything up and many erstwhile certainties have now been called into question. The old way of doing things did not prove itself in this crisis.
In September, an unsettled, unnerved country will be going to the polls. The pandemic could largely be under control by then, but the climate crisis certainly won't be. And that crisis, too, will result in significant upheavals.
And for the first time since 1949, the chancellor will not be up for reelection. There will be no incumbent bonus. The era of Angela Merkel is coming to an end and she is leaving behind a fragmented conservative camp. The Union – the conservative pairing of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – has held the reins of power in Germany since 2005. But the Union's claim to the Chancellery is weaker now than it has been in years.
It is a completely new situation for the country, and the outcome is open. But it looks as though there is no getting around Annalena Baerbock. The Greens, polls show, will almost certainly be part of Germany's next government, but in what capacity? What role will voters choose for Baerbock? That of chancellor? Or merely vice chancellor?
Can we even imagine a Chancellor Baerbock? For many, she is still something of an unknown, even if the Greens chose her as their candidate earlier this week. Perhaps that's not a bad thing at this moment of German history. Baerbock, in any case, has already promised to introduce a new leadership style.
First, though, she must survive the crucible of the campaign and defeat Laschet and Scholz if she wants to become the leader of a Green republic. On the eve of the 2017 campaign, SPD candidate Martin Schulz shot up in the polls and looked to be in prime position to challenge Merkel's primacy before his candidacy crashed and burned, with Schulz emerging from the election as a meaningless backbencher. There is hardly a career challenge around that is more difficult than the one now facing Baerbock.
Can she do it? What are her strengths and weaknesses relative to her adversaries? What roles do the parties play and what coalitions might emerge? Let's have a look.
Can She Do It?
Annalena Baerbock has already managed to achieve something that is rarely, if ever, seen in politics. Within the space of not even eight years, she has gone from being a freshly elected parliamentarian to her party's chancellor candidate. She moved past several others on the way, and yet none of them have a bad thing to say about her.
Such a climb is normally not possible without, as is frequently said in politics, leaving a few bodies on the side of the road: embittered losers who frequently have spine-chilling tales to tell about the methods employed by the victor. Such narratives tend to be even worse when a woman is involved. For years, Merkel was referred to in some quarters as a black widow, because she had managed to sideline her competitors within the CDU.
There are no such narratives about Baerbock, which says something about the unity within the Green Party, but also about Baerbock's character. It looks as though she doesn't play dirty, yet she nevertheless has the necessary thirst for power. Robert Habeck, who is the co-leader of the Green Party and who stepped aside to get out of Baerbock's way, told the influential German weekly Die Zeit: "There is nothing I wanted more than to serve this republic as chancellor."
It's not easy to get past someone with such clear ambitions. And to do so without stepping on anyone's toes.
Her working style isn't dissimilar to that of Angela Merkel. "Annalena Baerbock is always prepared, goal oriented and knows what she wants. At the same time, though, she is willing to compromise when she sees that a certain issue is important to someone." That quote doesn't come from a party ally, but from Volker Kauder, the former floor leader for German conservatives. It sounds almost as though he is speaking about the woman who has led his party for so long, Merkel.
Baerbock is an able speaker who can excite her audience, though she sometimes gets carried away and stumbles. In her first speeches as a chancellor candidate, she tried out a new tone – more staid and controlled. But she seemed stiff and unsure of herself, as though she was trying to be someone else. Andrea Nahles, who took over the helm of the SPD for a brief stint from 2018 to 2019, tried to do the same, with her advisers telling her that she spoke too loudly, that she was too unpolished. The result was a robotic, impersonal speaking style. It could be that Baerbock would be well-advised to just be herself.
Baerbock, 40, has never been part of a government nor held a senior administration position. In the debate as to whether she or Habeck should be the party's candidate for chancellor, that was the strongest argument against her. It will no doubt be a frequent theme in the coming campaign against Laschet and Scholz. But does it hold water?
The challenges facing Germany in the coming years are so new, so fundamentally different, that experience could even be a hindrance. Laschet knows how to put more police officers on the street while Scholz can write a budget in his sleep. But will such skills help in the battle against global warming? The pandemic served to show how much the experience amassed by a politician such as Economics Minister Peter Altmaier is worth in extreme, unexpected situations: little or nothing.
Experience can act as drag, tying you to the past. New, visionary ideas often come from young minds.
But it's a different story when it comes to implementation and the mechanics of power. In those times, it is extremely helpful to be familiar with all aspects of political operations.
When it comes to experience, Baerbock has both an advantage and a disadvantage, where risks may lurk. But these risks aren't so great that one could say she isn't qualified for the Chancellery.
Is Her Party Ready?
The Greens used to be notoriously divided, a party that loved to argue. These days, though, they are focused on achieving the greatest degree of unity possible. And this dedication to consensus sometimes seems almost like a fetish.
Baerbock, in any case, doesn't need to worry that she will meet the same fate as Jürgen Trittin, the Green Party candidate in the 2013 campaign. Back then, the Greens were cleaved into two camps: the left-wing and the "Realo" wing, made up of pragmatists. Trittin had managed to force through a left-leaning platform, complete with wide-ranging tax increases. But the Realos began launching salvos of criticism aimed at Trittin even as the ultimately unsuccessful campaign was still underway. Under Baerbock, though, there are no leftists and Realos anymore, just Greens.
Within the Green Party group in parliament, Baerbock has assembled a group of confidants with whom she exchanges views. It includes deputy floor leader Oliver Krischer and senior whip Britta Hasselmann, who is seen as a possible future floor leader. Baerbock also has close ties with senior party members Katharina Dröge and Agnieszka Brugger – and that is just her closest circle. Baerbock is very good at assembling allies.
The Greens haven't been part of a federal government in Germany since 2005 and the party is hungry for power. It used to be that at Green Party conferences, it was necessary to provide an extensive argument for why one wanted to be in government. This time around, though, the opposite is true, with those preferring to remain in the opposition more of a rarity.
This primarily has to do with the fact that the biggest issue facing the country is climate change. And many Greens believe that they are the only party in Germany capable of meeting that challenge. "We have a mission, and the others have made it clear that they aren't up to the task," says Green Party parliamentarian Renate Künast.
But who would actually be part of government? Who stands to receive cabinet appointments?
Baerbock and Habeck are clear. Habeck has recently been engaging much more deeply with financial issues and could also be interested in running a Climate Protection Ministry.
But as soon as positions of power are up for grabs, the party's wings, which have remained quiet for so long, will once again become apparent. Both Habeck and Baerbock are seen as Realos, which means that those from the left camp, such as floor leader Anton Hofreiter, will expect to receive senior positions. His deputy Agnieszka Brugger, who enjoys a solid reputation across party lines as an expert on defense issues, could also be in line.
As ever, though, making such appointments could prove to be the biggest early challenge facing Baerbock, should the Greens end up in government. A mistake here could put an end to the party's newfound unity.
How Could Baerbock End Up in the Chancellery?
Mathematically, the most likely coalition that fall elections might produce is a pairing of the Green Party with the Union. That would mean that Baerbock would only end up chancellor if the Greens were able to eke out a victory over the conservatives, as has happened in the last two state elections in Baden-Württemberg. Thus far, though, there has been little to indicate that such a thing might happen at the federal level. On the other hand, though, public opinion has been more volatile than normal this year, with political sentiment changing quickly. Results that seemed absurd not too long ago are now within the realm of possibility.
The question is whether the Union would accept a junior role. The party has learned in Baden-Württemberg that it's not easy to find your way out of little brother status once it has been established. The Greens have now solidified their role as the supreme political power in the state.
The next option would be a potential "traffic-light coalition," matching the Greens with the SPD (traditionally represented by red) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP – yellow). For Baerbock to become the chancellor of such a coalition, the Greens would only have to beat out the SPD, a far lower hurdle to clear. Such a coalition already exists in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate – though under SPD leadership – and it has proven itself. Many Greens in Baden-Württemberg had been hoping for such a coalition in that state, too, following elections there in March, but Governor Winfried Kretschmann preferred to retain his partnership with the CDU.
What would be the primary project of such a coalition government? It wouldn't likely be social equality, since the gulf between the SPD and the FDP is far too wide for that. There would also be significant differences on climate issues between the Greens, the pro-industry SPD and pro-business FDP. One could, though, easily imagine an alliance focused primarily on updating the country's technological infrastructure, particularly when it comes to digitalization – an area where Germany fell behind during the Merkel years.
The question is whether the Greens are really as fresh and modern as they look. The party remains home to plenty of skeptics who see technological innovation as more of a risk than an opportunity. That's one of the reasons why FDP leader Christian Lindner is rather cautious in his approach to Baerbock and her party. After she was named the party's chancellor candidate, he said he was looking forward to "exchanging political viewpoints" with Baerbock. Internally, though, he was more direct: Before it would be possible to assess her suitability as chancellor, he said, Baerbock will have to declare whether she would accept support from the far-left Left Party.
Because elements of the Left Party are rooted in the former East German communist party, the FDP and the Union are extremely skeptical of working with them. But there are those within the Green Party who would be happy to form a coalition with the SPD and the Left Party – known as a "green-red-red" in German political parlance. "It's no secret that we have far more policy similarities with the SPD and the Left Party than we do with the Union and FDP," says parliamentarian Sven-Christian Kindler.
Still, many in the Greens don't trust the Left Party, believing that its parliamentary group is unreliable – that it includes too many fundamentalists whose support couldn't be depended on when it came to important parliamentary votes on sensitive issues. Against that backdrop, such a coalition would likely only be considered if it could assemble a clear majority. If there was such a majority, believes Left Party parliamentarian Klaus Ernst, the Green Party base would not be happy were it to go unused.
Even senior Left Party parliamentarian Sahra Wagenknecht sees "possibilities for cooperation" on social, environmental and tax issues. The biggest hurdles to such an alliance, she says, are "in foreign policy, with Ms. Baerbock's support for rearmament, the expansion of German military operations and the confrontation with Russia."
What Are Laschet's Advantages Over Baerbock?
In recent months, CDU chair Armin Laschet, the Union's candidate for chancellor, has displayed two qualities that are indispensable for the office of chancellor: resilience and tenacity.
In the battle for the position of CDU chair, he managed to beat out Friedrich Merz, who is the better speaker, and Norbert Röttgen, who possesses the greater intellect. He also had to withstand being widely portrayed as a kind of sad clown following a number of awkward public appearances and an inconsistent approach to pandemic response efforts. And, to become the Union's candidate for chancellor, he had to outmaneuver CSU head Markus Söder, who is known for enjoying a political scrap, from which he usually emerges victorious. It seems safe to assume, then, that Laschet would also be able to stand up to the Söders of global politics.
He has plenty of experience, having spent the last four years as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state by population. Indeed, it is home to almost a quarter of Germany's voters, and the political issues that must be addressed there are the same ones that a chancellor must deal with: large, expensive cities versus rural areas that have been left behind; a wealthy Rhineland versus a poor Ruhr Valley; an industrial base that provides lots of jobs versus environmentally minded groups who are hostile to industry. The state is also home to a large population of people with migration backgrounds. Laschet spent five years as his state's minister for integration.
His approach has always been one based on compromise and consensus. Like Angela Merkel, he has sought to avoid open conflict and to avoid pushing others away. He mediates more than he leads.
But the climate issue is so large and existential that it requires a clear, radical response. Baerbock and the Greens will begin calling for such answers during the campaign. Passing sweeping climate legislation won't be possible without tough debates and bitterly fought political battles. And there will be those, at least for a time, who are disadvantaged as a result – just as there were following the deep welfare reforms pushed through by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s, before the desired results began emerging. The courage that such a reform project requires is something that Laschet hasn't yet demonstrated.
The only possible exception came in 2015, when he threw his support behind Chancellor Merkel in the refugee crisis. Still, he was opposition leader in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia at the time and didn't have much to lose.
Laschet does need to work on his public presence. Merkel, too, never placed much emphasis on that aspect of leadership, which has been her Achilles' heel in the corona crisis. She always has a firm grasp on the subject matter, but had demonstrated a lack of tact in her public appearances. That's not good enough any longer. Laschet, though, did put his oratorical capabilities on full display at the CDU convention in January when he was chosen to lead the party. He held an emotional speech and was the only one of the three candidates to tell a story. It is a well he must return to in the campaign.
In a direct comparison with Baerbock, Laschet's experience stands out. But if voters are looking for significant political change, then the Green Party candidate would be the better choice.
Does the Union Still Have the Strength To Lead?
Armin Laschet is running as a candidate for chancellor for two parties, the CDU and the CSU. The CSU did not and does not want him as their candidate, and there are also significant doubts about him in large parts of the CDU party base. The CDU’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag actually preferred Söder. The reality is that Laschet seems to only have the support of half a party instead of two.
The CDU has always been an election campaign machine – highly disciplined with its sights fixed on the goal: power. In normal times, it isn’t as plagued by doubts as the parties on the left. In the 2021 election year, though, it’s the other way around. The Greens seem like a machine that is just warming up. In the case of the CDU and CSU, you almost have to wonder if they still have enough fuel. Baerbock is leading a political fight, whereas Laschet seems to be heading up a kind of self-help group.
The CDU has never been overly focused on political platforms. Members have generally been satisfied with a rough political direction. After 16 years with Angela Merkel in the Chancellery, it's not really clear any longer where the party stands. Is the CDU still a conservative party? And what does that even mean today? What does it stand for, and what niche in the political market does it occupy exclusively? Answering that question requires quiet and time – but neither exist.
For many decades, voters could expect solid governance from the CDU and the CSU, but that’s no longer a given. The parties’ management of the pandemic has looked amateurish for months. And when the CDU’s federal executive committee tried to crown Laschet as its candidate for chancellor late on Monday night, it got tangled up in procedural issues. The top committee of the largest party in the German government came across like a bunch of hyper-nervous student body representatives – and that right after the Greens pushed Baerbock into the spotlight, the result of a carefully choreographed process.
The CDU and CSU also have a shortage of top talent. The party has some young governors in power – Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein and Tobias Hans in Saarland are trying to make their mark – but in the federal government, the most prominent representatives of the parties are either at the end of their careers (Interior Minister Horst Seehofer), seem overmatched (Economics Minister Peter Altmaier or member of parliament Andreas Scheuer) or aren’t taken very seriously (Health Minister Jens Spahn). A person like Friedrich Merz, 65 – who is once again running for a seat in the Bundestag, two decades after Merkel defeated him to become head of the CDU’s parliamentary group – is considered a fresh face in the party. Norbert Röttgen, 55, who was fired by Merkel as environment minister in 2012, has also worked his way back up the ranks. But he is deeply distrusted by Laschet.
Who, then, can Laschet rely on? He can count on party General Secretary Paul Ziemiak, on the CDU state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia and on his experience that everything somehow seems to work out for him in the end. That, though, isn't much of a foundation to build on.
Would a Chancellor Laschet Work Well with Baerbock as his Vice Chancellor?
An image from the Munich Security Conference in February 2020 made waves across Germany. It showed Annalena Baerbock and Armin Laschet together on a podium. The two seemed to get along quite well, which led to the usual coalition rumblings: After the election, could those two possibly …? Now, such a scenario has become a very real possibility.
For Laschet, forming a coalition government with the Greens is probably the only way he can become chancellor – assuming the two parties can get enough votes. If not, the CDU/CSU would have to consider a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). The first requirement would be that the CDU/CSU gets the most votes of any party in the election. And that is in no way a certainty in this election.
Laschet first established contacts within the Greens as a young member of the Bundestag, and he is close to them on many issues, including immigration policy. Laschet served as North Rhine-Westphalia’s state integration minister at a time when most people in his party didn’t want to hear anything about immigrants. Internally, some referred to him disparagingly as "Armin the Turk.” Laschet is popular among the Greens – but that won’t be enough to forge a coalition government and keep it stable.
There are still many in the CDU and the CSU who are suspicious of the Greens and regard climate protection as little more than an expensive hobby. Clear dividing lines would be needed to convince them to join a coalition with their former opponents. As governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet proved that he knows how to draw those boundaries.
He governs in the state in a coalition with the business-friendly FDP, but also pursues classic law-and-order policies with Interior Minister Herbert Reul. And when an utility company in the state sought to destroy forest land to expand an opencast lignite coal mine, Laschet initially sided with industry. It could be that when it comes to negotiating a government coalition, Baerbock and the Greens would no longer recognize the once so friendly Mr. Laschet.
The CDU/CSU and the SPD have never enjoyed much common ground in terms of political platforms, but that would be different with a coalition between the conservatives and the Greens. Environmental preservation is a major concern deeply embedded in both parties. It won't be easy – there would be a constant howl from the business community, a tussle over every requirement and every limit.
But Laschet and Baerbock could still make it work, because they are such different types of people. Laschet’s speeches feel like lectures, whereas Baerbock’s feel like rock concerts. She’s loud and direct, whereas he’s cryptic and sly. They might actually complement each other rather than having to outdo each other. In terms of age, the order of rank would also work: the 40-year-old vice chancellor and a chancellor who is 20 years older. It would be much more difficult the other way around.
What this government would not be, though, is a coalition of social justice. That’s a product of priorities. As the junior partner, the Greens would have to concentrate on pushing through as much as possible in their core area: a decisive climate policy. The CDU/CSU would have to make concessions here, but it would be unlikely that it would budge much on social issues. And that would apply to an even greater extent if the FDP were to be part of the coalition.
This could have consequences for one of the central issues of the next few years: That of who pays for the consequences of the pandemic. With the end of the pandemic on the horizon, it is time to start thinking about clean-up, and cuts will have to be made. Deciding where to make those cuts will be a point of contention: at the top, in the middle or at the bottom?
In 1998, the left-leaning coalition government between the SPD and the Greens modernized German social policy. A pairing of the conservatives and the Greens would face the same task in 2021, only this time, the focus would be on technology and climate policy. And that task is infinitely greater, epochal even.
Does the SPD, and Scholz, Stand a Chance?
Even considering Olaf Scholz as a serious candidate for chancellor requires a certain amount of goodwill. The SPD is languishing in the polls at 15 percent, far behind the Greens and the CDU/CSU.
Scholz might himself say that he’s the only serious candidate for chancellor in terms of political skill. Of the three, he certainly brings the most and broadest political experience to the table. In this respect, he is far ahead of Baerbock. He has served as interior minister of the city-state of Hamburg, mayor of the city with its population of nearly 2 million and, for the past three years, as Germany’s finance minister and vice chancellor. In the SPD, he served as an official with the youth wing of the party, as the head of the state chapter in Hamburg, as the general secretary of the national party, as deputy chair of the national executive committee and as acting party chairman.
Scholz is a man with an eye for detail. He can plow his way through massive mountains of files, he knows his facts and enjoys the reputation of being a reliable and highly intelligent politician. But he has suffered a few blemishes in his career. During his time as Hamburg’s mayor, he failed to prepare the city for the massive riots that accompanied the 2017 G-20 summit when it was hosted there. As finance minister, he also bears political responsibility for the failure of the financial supervisory authorities to detect irregularities at Wirecard, a German blue-chip company that went bust after reporting that 1.9 billion euros in assets it had reported probably didn’t exist. That shadow lies over his election campaign. Baerbock, meanwhile, doe no have such shadows looming over her: She’s had fewer chances to make serious mistakes so far.
Scholz’s biggest problem is his arrogance. It’s possible he’ll feel superior to Annalena Baerbock – and any derogatory remarks about the younger woman would hurt him. He’s going to have to hold it together. And that’s something he is capable of doing.
It’s likely he would be a solid leader for Germany – in that sense, he’s not much of a risk. But it’s also unlikely that he would bring much that is new to the table.
Is the SPD a Help or a Hindrance to Scholz?
The SPD didn’t want Scholz as chairman. He landed in second place in the party-member vote. But he was nevertheless able to secure the party’s nomination for chancellor because of the lack of an alternative. All the same, the SPD has been unusually united behind their candidate since August. This also has to do with the fact that Scholz hasn’t claimed any "legroom” for himself like former SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück.
Scholz’s positions have long since ceased to be part of the party’s mainstream, which has moved significantly to the left in recent years. But he has been holding back on issues like the recent controversy over arming drones. That’s also a difference between the SPD and the Greens. There, Baerbock and Habeck are firmly calling the shots in their party.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic allowed Scholz to abandond his balanced budget policy, which was unpopular with the left of the party, without being seen as a flip-flopper. It has given him room to make some promises for social spending during the campaign.
Scholz and party chair Saskia Esken are worlds apart in terms of their political views, meaning it is quite possible that heated conflicts will erupt during the election campaign. Kevin Kühnert, the SPD’s most gifted power player, is always good for a surprise. Esken is, as well. But if that were to happen, the Greens would be the ones who stood to profit. In terms of political views, there are no significant differences between Baerbock and Habeck.
Scholz has decided to campaign for the next few months without assembling a shadow cabinet. And who would he have to fill it with anyway? SPD political heavyweights like Andrea Nahles, Sigmar Gabriel and Martin Schulz have all stepped aside. Besides Scholz, the only other SPD member of the current government cabinet still considered suitable for a ministry post in the next government is Labor Minister Hubertus Heil. The SPD also seems to be drained of its energy at the end of the Merkel era.
What About a Green-SPD-Left Party Coalition?
Scholz and the more economically liberal wing of the party are hoping for a coalition together with the FDP and the Greens – and they point to the example in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. An SPD/Green/FDP government coalition was formed in the state under SPD leadership after recent elections.
Sources within the SPD at the national level say there is plenty of policy overlap between the Social Democrats and the FDP. Those sources are also still harboring the illusion that it might still be possible under that constellation to appoint an SPD chancellor. The hope at the SPD national headquarters is that the party can win back the one-third of votes who only cast ballots for the CDU because of Angela Merkel.
"Our main opponent is clearly the CDU/CSU,” says party General Secretary Lars Klingbeil, with Merkel voters firmly in his sights. The reality, though, is that the SPD needs to get more votes than the Greens for Scholz to be able to take office in the Chancellery. The way things look now, that would be a real upset.
A second constellation would also be conceivable then. "No one should be afraid” of a coalition between the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party, SPD chair Esken asserted repeatedly at the beginning of April. Two weeks ago, she and her co-chair Norbert Walter-Borjans held their first video conference call with Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, the two new leaders of the Left Party.
And how well would Scholz be able to work together with a Vice Chancellor Baerbock? In terms of political policies, the two would be closer on many points than Laschet and Baerbock, but that doesn’t mean they would necessarily work together better. Laschet is nowhere near as conceited as Scholz. Laschet would likely treat an inexperienced vice chancellor far better than Scholz would.
Does that cover it? Well, there’s also the possibility of another grand coalition, of course, the government coalition between the conservatives and the SPD that Germans became accustomed to during the Merkel era. During this election campaign, we are sure to hear over and over again that this is out of the question and that this government was the exception and that the CDU/CSU and SPD have too little in common to be able to seriously push the country forward.
Those were the same words we heard during the 2017 election. Then, on the night of the election, a majority was secured for a government that would include the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens. The SPD was all too happy to be able to leave the government and go into the political opposition. But then negotiations between the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP collapsed, forcing another grand coalition with the Social Democrats.
Is history repeating itself? Annalena Baerbock, more than anybody, has the answer to that question in her hands.