Find out how the race to replace Merkel is going

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at Bundestag session, German Parliament, Berlin, 7 September

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at Bundestag session, German Parliament, Berlin, 7 September| Photo: EFE/EPA/CLEMENS BILAN / POOL

The Germans will go to the polls on September 26 to choose a new federal parliament and, consequently, the successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not running for re-election after 16 years in power. In recent weeks, the race for the post of prime minister of Europe’s biggest economy has taken a turn.

Merkel will leave office with high popularity, but her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its candidate, Armin Laschet, have been falling in the voter intention polls since July.

Laschet was the favorite in the dispute, but suffered a drop in popularity after campaign errors. Governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the CDU candidate faced harsh criticism when he was seen laughing during a visit to one of the cities most devastated by the floods that hit Germany in July.

With the drop in support for the conservative alliance between Merkel’s CDU and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the chancellor used her last speech to Parliament, on Tuesday (7), to criticize candidate Olaf Scholz , from the Social-Democratic Party (SPD), its partner in the current government coalition, and which came to lead the polls.

Merkel, who was not involved in the race to nominate a candidate from her party and was staying away from the election campaign, urged voters to vote for Laschet, who she said was the best option to succeed her. For her, an SPD victory would represent a shift to the socialist left.

“Citizens have a choice in the coming days: either a government that accepts the support of the Left party, with the SPD and the Greens, or that at least doesn’t reject it […] or a federal government led by the CDU and CSU with Armin Laschet as chancellor – a government that will guide our country into the future in moderation,” Merkel declared.

For the chancellor, a Laschet government would represent “stability, confidence, moderation and balance, exactly what Germany needs”.

Olaf Scholz, who is Merkel’s deputy chancellor and finance minister, sought to distance himself from the Left during the campaign, saying the party is not committed to sound public finances and to NATO, the mutual defense alliance between European countries and the USA, which for the candidate is “indispensable”. But he did not rule out a coalition with the Left, which is the successor to the parties that ruled East Germany.

On Monday, the Left introduced itself as a possible coalition partner with the SPD and the Greens.

Merkel also directly criticized Olaf Scholz, who in an interview last week, asking citizens to be vaccinated against Covid-19, said that those vaccinated, including himself, are “guinea pigs”.

“Nobody is a guinea pig in relation to vaccination. Not Olaf Scholz and not me,” he said, noting that all vaccines being applied in Germany have met the requirements to obtain regulatory approval.

What do the surveys say?

With less than three weeks to go before polling day, polls show support for Merkel’s party at its lowest level. In late August, the SPD surpassed the CDU/CSU block, and took the lead in the dispute for the first time.

According to the Politico website, which compiles data from major opinion polls, the most recent polls indicate that the center-left SPD is in the lead with 25% of the vote intention, while the Christian Union among the CDU of Merkel and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) dropped to 21%. The Greens appear in third with 17%, followed by the liberal FDP (12%), the Alternative to Germany, AfD, from the nationalist right (11%) and The Left (6%).

How does voting work in Germany?

Every four years, the Germans choose the members of the Bundestag, the Federal Parliament of Germany, and consequently a new chancellor. All citizens of the country are eligible to vote from the age of 18, and voting is not mandatory. In this year’s elections, 60.4 million German voters will be able to go to the polls.

Germans can send their vote by email or vote in person on election day. For this, they must fill out a paper ballot, making two choices:

On the first vote, they choose one of the local candidates from their constituency. The most voted candidate in each of the 299 constituencies is guaranteed a seat in Parliament. Therefore, half of the 598 Bundestag seats are defined by this vote.

The other half is defined by the second vote, in which voters choose a political party from the lists of the 16 German states. This vote determines the percentage of seats each party will have in the Bundestag. But to have representation in Parliament, parties need to reach a minimum of 5% of the votes in the election – a rule that, in addition to barring the entry of small parties, helps to avoid political deadlocks.

Mainz constituency paper ballot for postal voting in Germany's federal elections September 26 |  Photo: BigStock
Mainz constituency paper ballot for postal voting in Germany’s federal elections September 26 | Photo: BigStock| bigstock

With these two votes, at least 598 members of the Bundestag are elected. The number of seats may increase under certain circumstances. The current parliament, elected in 2017, has a total of 709 members, the largest number in German history.

After counting the votes, the seats are distributed among the parties in proportion to the votes obtained in the voters’ second choice. The distribution also takes into account the allocation of seats for each state depending on the size of their populations.

As it is very difficult for one party to win the majority of Parliament alone, the parties then need to negotiate to form a government coalition, which must contain the majority of parliamentarians.

Chancellor candidates are defined by party conventions months before elections. Parliament is expected to meet within a month after the results are released, and the group of parties that has the majority will lead the government.

The post of chancellor has the most power in Germany. The president, as head of state, has a higher hierarchical function, but his role is largely ceremonial.