The most popular politician who would like to be chancellor isn’t on the ballot. The leading candidate is so boring people compare him to a machine. Instead of “Yes, We Can!” voters are being fired up with promises of “Stability.”
Germany is having its most important election in a generation but you would never know it. The newspaper Die Welt recently asked in a headline: “Is this the most boring election ever?”
Yes and no.
The campaign to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years of her dominating German and European politics is the tightest in Germany since 2005, and it just got tighter. The Social Democrats, written off as recently as a month ago, have overtaken Merkel’s conservatives for the first time in years.
But the campaign has also revealed a charisma vacuum that is at once typical of postwar German politics and exceptional for just how bland Merkel’s two most likely successors are. No party is polling more than 25%, and for much of the race the candidate the public has preferred was none of the above.
Whoever wins, however, will have the job of shepherding the continent’s largest economy, making that person one of Europe’s most important leaders, which has left some observers wondering if the charisma deficit will extend to a leadership deficit as well.
While the election outcome may be exciting, the two leading candidates are anything but.
Less than a month before the vote, the field is being led by two male suit-wearing career politicians — one balding, one bespectacled, both over 60 — who represent the parties that have governed the country jointly for the better part of two decades.
There is Armin Laschet, the governor of the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, who is running for Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats. And then there is Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who is Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor.
The candidate of change, Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old co-leader of the Greens, has a bold reform agenda and plenty of verve — and has been lagging in the polls after a brief surge before the summer.
It’s a nail-biter, German-style: Who can most effectively channel stability and continuity? Or put another way: Who can channel Merkel?
For now it seems to be Scholz — a man Germans have long known as the “Scholz-o-mat” or the “Scholz machine” — a technocrat and veteran politician who can seem almost robotically on message. Where others have slipped up in the campaign, he has avoided mistakes, mostly by saying very little.