After 15 years in power a staggering three-quarters of Germans are satisfied with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political performance in these last months of crisis.
Ahead of her departure next year, however, the pandemic has exposed ruthlessly the weaknesses of those aiming to take power and inherit the chancellery after next September’s federal election.
In a year’s time, all going well, Germany’s political leaders will be locked in negotiations to form a new government. But no one knows who exactly will be at the negotiating table. The race for power in Germany is completely open, and the political talent on offer is about as promising as the dry and shrivelled autumn leaves blowing through Berlin’s ghostly government quarter.
The only party with its house in order, and the only party almost certain to be in power in a year’s time, are the Greens. At the weekend the party delivered a masterclass in political discipline and pandemic logistics: holding an online party conference to plot a course for the looming election year and agree a party programme for the decade ahead.
In normal times the Greens love internecine feuds even more than they love attracting voters. Last weekend they prioritised the latter, followed the example of US Democrats. Some 800 delegates from the Greens’ rival left-wing and centrist “Realo” wings set aside their ideological differences to present a united pragmatic front for the looming election battle.
After nearly two years as the Green leadership duo, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck are assured and confident in their roles, reflected in broad support in all camps – and a steady party support in polls of about 20 per cent.
The coming months will be a delicate balancing act. To would-be new moderate voters, who realise the urgency of the climate question, Baerbock said: “Don’t be afraid: the climate revolution is about as crazy as a building society account.”
And she reminded veteran Green voters, worried that party leaders will sacrifice every principle for a ministerial car, that implementing Green policies depends on securing power with a popular pitch that “addresses society as a whole, with the welfare of people at the heart of our economic system”.
Their new programme has many pragmatic Green notes: an ambitious yet realistic line on climate targets and an end to its total rejection of genetically modified crops.
The smooth online conference lent credence to the Greens’ promise to expedite Germany’s snail’s-pace digital transformation.
Compare and contrast with the Greens’ likely senior coalition partner. For most of 2020 the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has failed to elect a new leader. Like internet-age Keystone Kops, the party is promising some sort of online party conference in January. Each passing week of uncertainty, though, sees enthusiasm ebb away for the likely winner.
Armin Laschet, state premier of western Germany’s North Rhine Westphalia, is presenting himself as a continuity candidate. He made his pitch to party members on Monday in a page-long article in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.
After 15 years in power the CDU needs new ideas, he wrote, mentioning the word “idea” six times over 4,500 words, without actually presenting any.
He praised Angela Merkel’s steady hand on the tiller in her crisis-wracked 15 years as leader, boosting the party to a record 37 per cent in recent weeks, but conceded that her coalitions had invested too little in innovation.
A recent poll ranked Germany’s internet infrastructure 34th in the world.
“In short, we have looked too little into the future,” said Laschet, without presenting his vision for the future.
Nervous CDU grandees may yet dump Laschet for the more popular Jens Spahn, the 40-year-old health minister in Merkel’s cabinet.
Things look even worse over at its junior grand coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Five points behind the Greens on 15 per cent in some polls, the SPD’s left-wing leadership duo – in power for a year – are as unknown to voters as they are considered irrelevant.
SPD finance minister Olaf Scholz, the party’s chancellor hopeful, has proven a canny Covid crisis manager but may yet be tripped up by a building scandal over digital payments company Wirecard.
Meanwhile, Germany’s others parties – the Free Democrats (FDP), the Left Party and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland – are all facing existential policy and leadership questions.
One certainty accompanies Europe’s heavyweight into its election year: the German political outlook matches the popular German phrase “grün ist die hoffung” – hope is green.