German Chancellor Candidates in Focus as Tough Coalition Talks Loom

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SPD election candidate Olaf Scholz visits a hybrid power station in Brandenburg. Four weeks before the Bundestag elections, the three candidates hoping to be the next German chancellor clash in a first live television debate on Sunday, with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) still surging in the polls. Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa
SPD election candidate Olaf Scholz visits a hybrid power station in Brandenburg. Four weeks before the Bundestag elections, the three candidates hoping to be the next German chancellor clash in a first live television debate on Sunday, with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) still surging in the polls. Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa

As the dust settles after the general election in Germany, with an uncertain political future, all eyes are on the candidates for chancellor of the three leading political parties — the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, the CDU/CSU’s Armin Laschet, and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock — to see what their next moves will be.

While Germany’s Social Democrats emerged as de facto winners of the election, their 25.7% of the vote is not enough to form a government on their own, requiring some coalition-building in order to ensure a majority in parliament.

Meanwhile, Laschet has also vowed to form a CDU/CSU government, which is not impossible given that his party is just behind the SPD with 24.1%. At the same time, this is the conservative alliance’s worst showing in history, as the CDU/CSU has never won less them 30% before — not a good look for a party that played a pivotal role in the creation of post-WWII Germany.

This puts the Greens in a kingmaker position, with decisions by their leader, Baerbock, capable of making or breaking a potential coalition.

With this in mind, it is worth taking a closer look at the main players in the current political drama.

DER SCHOLZOMAT

A member of the Social Democratic Party since 1975, Scholz started his political career as a young radical writing about “overcoming the capitalist economy” and ended up as a finance minister in the conservative government of Angela Merkel.

He was appointed the SPD’s candidate last August — earlier than his rivals from other parties — and immediately announced that his goal was to win the election and, thus, send the CDU/CSU into opposition for the first time in sixteen years.

The reaction to those lofty aspirations was quite ambivalent at the time, considering the conservatives’ formerly high approval ratings and his own party’s gradual decline in popularity since 2005.

A year later, however, it proved to be not just an idle boast, as Scholz’s handling of the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as his reserved and terse manner of speaking — which earned him the “Scholzomat” nickname in German media — made him a more attractive candidate than his opponents.

FAILED SUCCESSOR

Armin Laschet was supposed to preserve the political dominance of the CDU/CSU achieved by his predecessor, Angela Merkel, but wound up presiding over a party in crisis and dodging questions about his possible resignation.

His bid for chancellorship got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning as he had to fight for the CDU/CSU nomination with CSU leader Markus Soeder, who made some unflattering comments about his nominal ally throughout the election campaign and questioned his competence.

His public appearances didn’t do him any favors either, as Laschet found himself with a bullseye painted on his back after having been caught on camera joking and laughing with several people, while German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was expressing sympathy for victims during the July flooding in North Rhine-Westphalia. This, along with his admission of plagiarism in his 2009 book, did not help the electoral prospects of Laschet or his party.

Laschet did manage to improve his standing in the polls somewhat ahead of the election by actively campaigning across the country and being more polemical in his statements. Nevertheless, he still trailed Scholz, his main rival, in personal ratings.

Despite less-than-impressive election results, Laschet still has a chance to become the next German chancellor — he “just” needs to convince the Greens and the Free Democratic Party to turn their backs on the Social Democrats and join forces with the CDU/CSU.

FIRST GREEN CANDIDATE FOR CHANCELLOR

Annalena Baerbock, a co-chair of the Greens, was her party’s first candidate for the chancellorship and presided over its best election result in history — 14.8%.

While her campaign got off to a good start, Baerbock has been plagued by a series of scandals that undermined her reputation among the electorate and fellow party members, and almost cost her the candidacy.

In May, Baerbock was said to have been late to report to the lower house about a bonus received from her party as a co-chair. She admitted to her mistake, saying she “did not have everything under control.”

This was followed by journalists questioning parts of her credentials — disputing Baerbock’s claim that she studied political science and public law at the University of Hamburg. The university stated that she had not finished the public law course. Baerbock later studied international law at the London School of Economics and then worked on an unfinished doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Berlin. However, after a painstaking investigation, German media announced their verdict: not a lawyer.

This, along with other discrepancies in Baerbock’s biography and a plagiarism scandal of her own, caused journalists to speculate that she would resign her candidacy in favor of her colleague, Robert Habeck.

That didn’t happen, and now Baerbock and her party are being courted by potential coalition partners after the election.

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