Three candidates are in the running to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor on September 26, in Germany’s most unpredictable elections in decades.
The outcome will determine the country’s next steps on the path to climate neutrality and shape the relationship between Europe’s largest economy and China. A recent shift in public opinion has made Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) the frontrunner, overtaking rivals Armin Laschet of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party. Climate and energy policies are key issues for the campaign, especially after the pandemic and the major floods and droughts this year. All three candidates have pledged to make the country climate neutral by 2045, but differ in their plans to achieve it.
The outcome of the elections could prove to be crucial for the speed of the energy transition in this decade. Germany has traditionally been ruled by a coalition of parties – currently a CDU-SPD alliance – as no party usually wins an absolute majority of votes. At present, none of the three biggest parties has managed to forge a convincing lead, meaning that for the first time since the 1950s, Germany could end up with a tripartite coalition government. Voters face a bewildering array of possible alliances.
The prospect of a three-party coalition also indicates arduous and protracted negotiations with many months to go before a new government is formed. The Germans vote for their MPs, who then choose the chancellor once the coalition is agreed. Until then, the current government, led by Merkel, will continue to exercise its official functions.
Despite the possible variations, it is highly unlikely that the result will translate into a radical departure from Merkel’s stance on climate change or relations with China, as all the major parties advocate quite similar policies.
All three candidates say they are firmly committed to making the country climate neutral by 2045, the government’s official target, but closer examination reveals significant differences in their approaches.
Social Democrat Olaf Scholz
In the home stretch of the election campaign, German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz has become the big favorite to succeed Merkel. Polling away from third just a few months ago, he now enjoys the highest approval ratings of the three candidates. If the Germans could directly elect the country’s next chancellor, more than 40% would vote for Scholz, against less than 20% for the Conservatives ‘Laschet and the Greens’ Baerbock.
Many voters believe that Scholz, 63, who served as employment minister in a previous Merkel cabinet, best embodies his cherished virtues of prudence and stability. Most credit him with a strong record as finance minister, where he calmly oversaw Germany’s massive funding program to help businesses and workers during the pandemic.
Scholz has yet to make a name for himself in energy and climate policy, but he has promised an “immediate new start” after the elections. He called for a focus on expanding renewable energy, including a new law to ensure the industry has enough renewable electricity to decarbonize over the coming decades. “As chancellor, I will make sure we speed up the first year,” Scholz said in an interview last month, adding that he plans to speed up approval procedures for wind turbines and other energy investments. renewable.
For the SPD, climate protection is an industrial project, not a rehabilitation course.
Scholz’s party, the SPD, is open to accelerating the phase-out of coal in Germany, currently set for 2038, and plans to adopt some controversial climate decisions such as a general speed limit on German autobahns . The party stresses that climate protection measures must be socially compatible and must also promote the economy. âFor the SPD, climate protection is an industrial project, not a re-education course,â Scholz said, suggesting voters will not have to deal with significant behavioral changes.
However, environmentalists question Scholz’s climate beliefs. He sometimes ranked industry concerns ahead of environmental concerns and suggested that Germany should stick to its current coal phase-out schedule. âWe have made clear agreements which are important for companies, for workers and also for the region. And these agreements apply and must be respected, âsaid Scholz during a campaign stop in the mining region of East Germany.
Climate scientists say Germany will need to phase out coal by 2030 at the latest to meet its climate goals.
Scholz also rejected a Green Party proposal to raise the price of CO2 emissions in transport faster than currently expected. “Those who now keep turning the screw on fuel prices show how little they care about the needs of citizens,” said Scholz.
As for China, Scholz is expected to continue Merkel’s accommodative policy. Her party headed the Foreign Ministry under Merkel’s Chancellery, and Scholz championed the 2020 China-EU investment deal she helped negotiate. However, he remained vague on future Chinese policies, and criticism of Beijing escalated within his party.
Christian Democrat Armin Laschet
Armin Laschet started out as the apparent heir to his conservative colleague Merkel, but his CDU party has fallen in the polls amid a lobbying scandal, accusations of mismanagement of the pandemic and its clumsy response to the floods murderous.
The 60-year-old prime minister of Germany’s largest federal state, traditional industry and the heart of North Rhine-Westphalia’s coal mines, is a Merkel loyalist who favors the continuation of her centrist journey.
But the less charismatic Laschet is struggling to motivate his party base, which faces the challenge of keeping former Merkel voters on board while quelling an internal power struggle over the identity of the CDU.
Although he has been a strong supporter of Germany’s planned transition to a hydrogen-based economy, Laschet’s reputation in climate policy is dominated by his pro-industrial positioning in the coal-exit negotiations. of the country and the brutal ousting by its regional government of a demonstration. camp against coal mines.
Environmental activists protesting against coal mining in the Hambach Forest in 2018. Their brutal expulsion, by CDU government Armin Laschet from North Rhine-Westphalia, was later declared illegal. (Photo: Bernd Lauter / Greenpeace)
Laschet – who cited his father’s work as a coal miner to underline his working-class past – has been criticized for his generous stance on granting comfortable compensation to coal companies and his defense of a newly opened coal-fired power plant . He warned against reducing Germany’s economic opportunities through “excessive” climate action that frightens industrial companies with high electricity prices and strict regulations.
Regarding China, Germany’s most important trading partner, Laschet should stay the course of Merkel. Laschet criticized China but stressed the importance of the two countries’ âtrade, scientific, technological relationsâ.
Annalena Baerbock of the Greens
Annalena Baerbock is her party’s first-ever chancellor candidate, but after a brief lead in the polls earlier this year, the Greens fell behind Scholz’s Social Democrats and Laschet’s CDU. Baerbock apologized for mistakes which were at least in part responsible for his party’s declining popularity: having had to clarify his public resume several times and not directly reporting certain payments from his party in his role as leader of the left. But even if the Greens don’t win, polls indicate they will likely be part of the future German government.
Baerbock is a 40-year-old politician known for his prudence and diligence, but without any government experience. As a climate expert and Member of Parliament for the Coal Land of Brandenburg, East Germany, she was recognized during the negotiations on the exit of coal from Germany. Unlike her competitors, she has a reputation for being “media savvy and charismatic”.
The Greens have proposed a climate ministry with the power to veto other ministries.
In her inaugural address, Baerbock said she wanted to make climate action “the benchmark for all sectors” to meet the Paris Agreement. âClimate action is the task of our time, the task of my generation. “
The Greens’ electoral manifesto is the most ambitious on the climate of the major parties. He calls for an exit from coal and a ban on sales of new cars emitting CO2 by 2030, as well as 100% renewable energy in electricity consumption by 2035. The Greens also proposed a climate ministry with the power to veto other ministries.
However, the German climate movement, which includes the student protest movement Fridays for Future, accused the Greens of not doing enough to limit global warming to 1.5 Â° C.
When it comes to future relations with China, Baerbock should put more emphasis on human rights issues than Scholz or Laschet. She said earlier this year that the EU had not addressed these issues as part of the EU-China investment deal and warned against Chinese companies like Huawei collecting data in Europe.