BERLIN — Germans will vote on a new government on Sept. 26 and for the first time since 2005, Angela Merkel is not running. After nearly 16 years in power, Ms. Merkel, 67, will leave control of Europe’s largest economy to a new chancellor.
The race for the chancellery is wide open and in the wake of Brexit and the election of President Biden in the United States, the world will be watching to see which direction Germans take their country.
What is at stake?
Guiding Germany out of the coronavirus pandemic, with a focus on reviving the economy, remains a most pressing issue on the domestic front. Climate policies, which have become more urgent after recent floods, and greening of the country’s industrial sector are also on voters’ minds. And digitization and ensuring social equality and security have also featured in debates.
Whoever takes power will decide how much to build on Ms. Merkel’s policies and how much to set the country on a new course. If her conservative party remains in power, there is likely to be more consistency than if the Social Democrats are returned to power, or the environmentalist Greens make history and take the chancellery for the first time.
On the foreign policy front, both the conservatives and the Social Democrats would largely seek continuity on Germany’s booming trade with China and its positioning on Russia. That includes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was completed in early September. German authorities now have four months to approve the pipeline before it can begin transporting natural gas directly to Germany from Russia, circumventing Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. The Greens are against the pipeline.
All political parties — except the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD — agree that Germany belongs firmly in the European Union. The Greens are pushing for a more ambitious revival of the European project, with tougher action against Hungary and other members that fail to uphold democratic principles.
For years, Germany’s approach to China has been “change through trade,” but China’s repression of dissent at home and flexing of its muscles abroad have called that strategy into question. The United States has pressed reluctant allies to take a harder line on China, but Germany under Ms. Merkel has been reluctant to deliver, and that is not expected to change under a government led by her party or the Social Democrats.
Despite the recent upheaval in Afghanistan, the anti-immigrant AfD has so far not been able to capitalize on fears surrounding migration, as it did four years ago, when it first won seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament. The party has been polling around 11 percent, and analysts say that it is weakened by deep inner divides and lack of a galvanizing issue.
Who will be chancellor?
Polls indicate that, as usual, no party will win a majority of seats in the Parliament, so the one that wins the most seats would be given first crack at forming a coalition government and choosing a chancellor.
Each party names its candidate for chancellor before campaigning begins, although the public focuses more heavily on the candidates for the leading parties who have a realistic chance of winning.
Traditionally, those have been the center-right Christian Democrats (Ms. Merkel’s party) and the center-left Social Democrats. But for the first time, the candidate for the environmentalist Greens is viewed as having a real shot at the chancellery.
Here are the leading hopefuls for chancellor:
The Greens: Annalena Baerbock, a co-leader of the Greens since 2018, is considered more pragmatic than many in her party, which has its roots in the environmental and student protest movements of the previous century. At 40, she is the youngest candidate, the only woman, and the only one who has not previously held an elected office.
After a strong start, Ms. Baerbock’s popularity has suffered after scandals surrounding a book she published and errors in her résumé.
The Social Democrats: Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats, Germany’s finance minister and vice chancellor since 2018, is considered the most experienced of the three, and he has seen his popularity rise in recent weeks. He has years of experience at the state level in Hamburg and served as labor minister in a previous government under Ms. Merkel. Since the end of August, Mr. Scholz has capitalized on his proximity to the chancellor, convincing voters that despite their different parties, he is the choice to provide the steady hand that Germans crave. His party overtook the conservatives in the polls in early September and have remained in the lead since, giving him a strong chance at forming Germany’s next government.
Other parties running for seats in Parliament are the far-left Left Party, the AfD and the free-market Free Democrats, who are hoping to play a role in a future government coalition. Dozens of smaller parties, from the Anarchist Pogo Party to the Animal Protection Party and the Free Voters, are also on the ballot, but are not expected to cross the 5 percent hurdle necessary to earn representation in the Bundestag.
Why does Germany matter?
Within the European Union, Germany is often seen as a de facto leader. It has both the largest economy and the largest population, and together with France is widely viewed as a motor for policy and decision-making.
Under Ms. Merkel, who became one of the most senior leaders within the 27-member bloc, that influence grew even further, although she failed to win a consensus among the member states on refugee policy and on preventing Hungary and Poland from democratic backsliding.
Ms. Merkel also used her country’s weight as the world’s fourth-largest economy and a member of the Group of 7 industrialized nations to champion global climate policy and push for tough sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea. Her successor will inherit thorny issues of how to deal with an increasingly powerful China and a push from some within Germany and the E.U. who are ready to restore trade with Moscow. The core relationship with the United States is only beginning to find its footing again after four destabilizing years of the Trump administration.
During Ms. Merkel’s four terms in office, the nation of 83 million has undergone a generational shift, becoming more ethnically diverse, but also aging considerably — more than half of all eligible voters are 50 or older. Social norms have become more liberal, with a legal right to gay marriage and a nonbinary gender option on official documents. But a resurgent far right and a breakdown of political discourse at the local level have threatened the country’s cohesion.
What role will Chancellor Merkel play?
Until a new government can be formed, a process that can take several weeks to several months, Ms. Merkel will remain in office as acting head of the government. Forming the government will depend on how the vote falls and how difficult it is for the winning party to reach agreement with smaller supporters to build a government.
The chancellor gave up leadership of her party in December 2018, but remained as head of government until after the election, a position that has left her a lame duck, rendering her decision-making more difficult in the second year of the pandemic. She had promised to stay out of the election campaign, but has since made several remarks aimed at bolstering Mr. Laschet’s flagging support.