Ortiz: Letters From Berlin, Part 1: Who Replaces Merkel?

Sterling Ortiz, Columnist

Throughout my time in high school and at Northwestern, I’ve gained a penchant for electoral politics, both in the United States and abroad. With the rise of fast, consistent internet in the 2010s, I know for other students who enjoy following international politics the endeavor is easier than ever before. Since I landed in Berlin, Germany, for my study abroad quarters, I felt a call to write about the country’s upcoming elections because of its global financial and cultural importance.

Germany has a  population of 83 million people and the fourth largest Gross Domestic Product in the world. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany is often considered by international observers to be the leader of the European Union. In the U.S., German immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries have drastically changed the culture of the Chicago area and American Midwest, among other locations. Germans make up the third largest ancestry in Cook County, and the largest in Evanston’s ninth congressional district.  

Given these deep ties, I believe we should ask what the major storyline is in Germany’s upcoming elections. And the answer, supposedly coined by Aristotle, is that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The vacuum, in this case, was caused by Merkel’s decision not to run for reelection. The prominent chancellor candidates aiming to rise in her stead are Armin Laschet of the Union conglomerate, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Laschet leads the Union combination of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union parties, which make up the traditional German party. Both parties are center-right, Christian Democratic parties with a penchant for socially conservative policies. He got the position in a manner similar to the U.S. 2016 Democratic Party primary, with Merkel playing the part of then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Laschet mirroring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a third man, Markus Söder, in a role similar to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In short, with a bright spotlight on who to succeed the incredibly popular Merkel, Laschet got the nomination, despite voters nationally liking Söder, the minister-president of Bavaria, much more.

Baerbock, a 40-year-old from Potsdam in the state of Brandenburg, leads the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (in English, the Alliance 90/The Greens) party as their chancellor candidate. She passionately argues to rapidly divest from fossil fuels in Germany by 2030 and render domestic flights within the country unnecessary because of a strengthened high-speed rail network. Her and the Greens enjoyed time in the spotlight because of her personal popularity and the party’s popular manifesto, which lays out their plan for the future in German and English. However, this year the Greens were victims of a political hit, where fact checkers tenuously accused Baerbock of plagiarizing parts of her most recent book, “Now: How We Can Renew Our Country.” This story, similar to American political hits against women who seek political power and many others, created a perception that Baerbock was too incompetent to lead Germany. 

The primary beneficiary of the Greens’ recent drop is the SPD. The party has existed since 1863 and was banned from power twice for its socialist policy and hard stance against conservatism. They have often been the Union’s coalition partner federally because of their modern stance as a conventional center-left party.

Like most European center-left parties in the 2010s and some Democratic Party moderates and conservatives in the United States, the SPD took a massive electoral hit as parties to the left and the right garnered former SPD support. Before COVID-19, many pollsters had found the Social Democrats falling into fourth place, behind the Union, Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany, because voters saw the SPD as a mirror image of the Union and felt disillusioned.

The SPD has risen dramatically from the late 2010s doldrums and now appears to be on the precipice of power in Berlin. Like the Greens, and in contrast to the Union, one reason for this rise is their trendy leader, Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg’s city-state and currently serves as the minister of finance and the vice-chancellor of Germany. Voters started to see him as the favored successor to Merkel because of his vibes and moderate policy between the Greens and the Union. Scholz leads every recent chancellor poll. In Berlin, where I currently reside, recent polls also show that the SPD and their mayoral candidate, Franziska Giffey, look poised to keep the mayor’s office. We will see the results on Sunday, and I look forward to returning to The Daily next week to discuss German election results.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fourth-year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.