Analysis

Germany Has Three Chancellor Candidates but No Answers

A nationally televised debate mostly highlighted the weaknesses of the leading contenders to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

By , a writer, translator, and editor living in Berlin.
German chancellor candidates wait for start of an election debate.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz bumps fists with Christian Democratic Union party leader Armin Laschet as Greens leader Annalena Baerbock reacts prior to the start of an election debate in Berlin on Sept. 12. MICHAEL KAPPELER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Germans aren’t known for their humor, but they sometimes manage to be funny despite themselves. Take the Sept. 12 so-called Kanzlertriell, the second debate pitting Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet, and Olaf Scholz against one another. The performance of the three chancellor candidates was so inept that Saturday Night Live would be hard-pressed to satirize it; most of the evening consisted of Baerbock watching helplessly while Scholz and Laschet took turns accusing one another of dishonesty. Although critical voices differed in their evaluation of the candidates’ performance, the moderators were roundly criticized for arranging a largely substance-less performance marred by technical gaffes.

To be fair, the format isn’t as natural to German politics as it is to the United States. The first televised debate took place between Gerhard Schröder and Edmund Stoiber in advance of the 2002 elections. The debates quickly established themselves as a tradition in German politics, despite the reservations of commentators who pointed out that they actually make little sense in the German political system, where voters do not elect candidates directly but instead vote for a party, which appoints the chancellor. Voting for parties rather than candidates was one of many provisions in the German constitution intended to insulate the nation from the potentially cataclysmic effects of a charismatic leader.

There’s no need to fear charisma in this year’s German elections. Laschet possesses a certain avuncular charm, which has served him well on the North Rhine-Westphalia regional stage, but he’s increasingly turned mean and desperate as the chancellorship has slipped from his grasp. He snapped, most famously, at a journalist who asked him repeatedly whether the recent flooding in his home state had made him reevaluate his positions on climate change, dismissing the 52-year-old as a “young woman” and saying, “You don’t change your politics just because of a day like this.” Laschet, who began the race as the favorite, was behind in the polls and slipping precipitously when the candidates met Sunday evening. At the debate, he was on the attack.

Germans aren’t known for their humor, but they sometimes manage to be funny despite themselves. Take the Sept. 12 so-called Kanzlertriell, the second debate pitting Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet, and Olaf Scholz against one another. The performance of the three chancellor candidates was so inept that Saturday Night Live would be hard-pressed to satirize it; most of the evening consisted of Baerbock watching helplessly while Scholz and Laschet took turns accusing one another of dishonesty. Although critical voices differed in their evaluation of the candidates’ performance, the moderators were roundly criticized for arranging a largely substance-less performance marred by technical gaffes.

To be fair, the format isn’t as natural to German politics as it is to the United States. The first televised debate took place between Gerhard Schröder and Edmund Stoiber in advance of the 2002 elections. The debates quickly established themselves as a tradition in German politics, despite the reservations of commentators who pointed out that they actually make little sense in the German political system, where voters do not elect candidates directly but instead vote for a party, which appoints the chancellor. Voting for parties rather than candidates was one of many provisions in the German constitution intended to insulate the nation from the potentially cataclysmic effects of a charismatic leader.

There’s no need to fear charisma in this year’s German elections. Laschet possesses a certain avuncular charm, which has served him well on the North Rhine-Westphalia regional stage, but he’s increasingly turned mean and desperate as the chancellorship has slipped from his grasp. He snapped, most famously, at a journalist who asked him repeatedly whether the recent flooding in his home state had made him reevaluate his positions on climate change, dismissing the 52-year-old as a “young woman” and saying, “You don’t change your politics just because of a day like this.” Laschet, who began the race as the favorite, was behind in the polls and slipping precipitously when the candidates met Sunday evening. At the debate, he was on the attack.

He went after leading contender Scholz of the center-left Social-Democratic Party (SPD) with all the confidence of a Pomeranian yapping at a pit bull. Unfortunately, his attempts to direct attention to Scholz’s involvement in a series of corruption scandals were repeatedly rebuffed. Laschet fared little better when advancing his own positions. When the candidates were asked about their willingness to raise taxes in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, for example, Laschet claimed his opponents had failed to understand that raising taxes would weaken the economy, leading to less income for the state. It was a warmed-over version of trickle-down economics, and the gleeful self-satisfaction with which Laschet presented the theory as reality came across as deeply out of touch in a nation that has benefited enormously from its generous social services during the pandemic.

In a certain sense, Baerbock should have had the easiest time of it in the debate—and in this election. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is suffering from the loss of its popular leader, attacks from the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and perceived culpability for the shortcomings of Germany’s pandemic response. The SPD, meanwhile, has been bleeding for years because of its perceived complicity in Merkel’s neoliberal reforms. Baerbock’s party, the Greens, with its relatively strong track record on climate and commitment to social justice issues, had its first real shot at the chancellorship this year. But Baerbock has faced a series of setbacks.

Most of them, to be clear, are no fault of her own. She’s been subjected to continuous misogyny from a variety of sources. Some incidents were disappointingly mundane. “Who will take care of the children?” an interviewer from Bild am Sonntag newspaper asked her, leading to a nationwide debate about the leadership capabilities of mothers, and the caregiving capacity of fathers. Other attacks against Baerbock were more disturbing—faked nude photographs of her circulated immediately following the announcement of her candidacy, accompanied by claims she had once worked as an erotic model. That lie was just one part of a misinformation campaign stemming both from Germany’s far-right and Russia. According to Der Tagesspiegel, Baerbock was three times more likely than Laschet to be the subject of hate speech by far-right pages and groups. Perhaps more damaging than the trolls, however, have been the subtly misogynistic series of complaints about her qualifications and competence––her law degree from the London School of Economics was dismissed as unserious because it doesn’t meet German standards to work as a lawyer, and she has been criticized for lacking experience.

While it’s hard to escape the feeling that these attacks wouldn’t have stuck if she were a conservative man, Baerbock also committed a number of unforced errors that made her an easy target for her opponents. She failed to report 25,220 euros in income between 2018 and 2020, leading to allegations of corruption. Perhaps more damagingly, her book outlining her vision for the country’s future faced allegations of plagiarism. During the debate last weekend, she was clear, and often compelling. Faced with questions regarding the country’s inaction on climate change and the country’s continued failure to provide reasonable internet service to rural areas, Laschet and Scholz quibbled about assigning blame, while Baerbock presented a plausible path forward. But she was also so restrained and non-confrontational that Helene Bubrowski, writing for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, quipped that Baerbock “seemed more like a third moderator” than a contender for leadership of the country.

Many critics and polls agreed that center-left candidate Scholz won the day. It’s easy to see why. Scholz, who most clearly resembles Merkel with his stolid demeanor of calm reliability, deftly handled Laschet’s many attacks. He especially diverted attempts to interrogate him regarding his role in the Cum-Ex and Wirecard scandals, with an even tone and a rush of jargon that immediately made his 90-second answers feel like the second hour of an extended lecture on the history of financial law. Particularly in the context of Baerbock’s pleasant deferral and Laschet’s desperate, cocksure yapping, Scholz’s measured deployment of technical terms made him seem exactly the steady hand that Germans most want in Merkel’s replacement.

Yet Germans have good reason to fear a Scholz chancellorship. Despite his clever deferrals, his role in Hamburg’s decision to forego any attempt to recover more than 47 million euros stolen by the powerful bank M.M. Warburg & Co. while he was mayor of the city leaves a great number of questions open. Especially given the substantive criticism of his role in the Wirecard scandal, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Scholz is either corrupt or incompetent. Perhaps worse yet, while he excels at giving the air of a person of substance, it’s hard to remember Scholz having much of anything to say during the debate.

When asked about exploding rental prices in German cities, for example, Scholz said that if Germany could build 800,000 apartments in 1973, it could surely build 400,000 a year now. But the idea that simply building more housing would solve the crisis ignores a great number of complicating factors—including the ecological consequences of a construction boom in the age of global warming and the very substantial role tax evasion, money laundering, and mega-investors play in increasing rental prices. Similarly, when asked about global warming, Scholz was unable to do much more than complain that the CDU had denied the need for more electricity production. His vision for positive action on climate change seemed not to extend beyond vague promises to increase the amount of solar and wind power in Germany to fulfill the ostensible desire of German industry to transition to green energy.

Baerbock, Laschet, and Scholz have all, at some point, led the polls over the course of this electoral season. But none of them demonstrated any real leadership in this weekend’s Kanzlertriell, and it seems certain that Merkel’s absence will be sorely missed as the country tries to navigate the climate catastrophe, continuing pandemic, and rising inequality.

Peter Kuras is a writer, translator, and editor living in Berlin.

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