With just a month to go until Germans head to the ballot box to vote in federal elections, the race to succeed Angela Merkel and form the next government is headed for a photo finish.
Merkel’s decision to retire after 16 years at the summit of German politics has left her Christian Democrats struggling to coat-tail off her immense popularity and, under new leader Armin Laschet, they could be headed for their worst result in post-war history.
The main beneficiaries are their junior ruling partners, the centre-left Social Democrats (SDP).
Multiple polls have shown a remarkable turnaround for the SDP, who, after years spent wilting in the shadow of their larger governing partner, have found new life during the campaign under the leadership of finance minister Olaf Scholz.
A Forsa poll published on Tuesday saw the SDP nudge ahead of the Christian Democrats for the first time in 15 years, by a margin of 23 to 22, closing a gap of more than 10 points from just a month before.
Meanwhile, the Greens, who showed a burst of early momentum earlier this year, have slumped to third place at 18 percent.
“It is the first time ever in Germany that the outgoing chancellor is not running again,” said Arndt Leininger, a political scientist at Chemnitz University of Technology.
“We haven’t seen a race that seems that open since 2005, when Merkel’s CDU narrowly beat Schroeder’s SDP.”
The prospect of Merkel’s absence has further fractured the German political landscape and eroded the sense of stability that defined her years as chancellor.
Should reality reflect the polls, it will be the first time in post-war history any party fails to secure 30 percent of the vote – a scenario which will likely require a rare three-way coalition to form a governing majority.
“The time of the big catch-all parties is over,” said political scientist Gero Neugebauer, likening the situation to the decline of many other traditionally dominant European parties.
“The splits in German society and between different interest groups, taken together, come to the result that we have to expect coalitions formed by three parties will be more reliable,” he told Al Jazeera.
Scholz’s ascendant SDP could join forces with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) – a so-called “traffic-light coalition”, after their colours – or possibly turn to a left-wing union with the Greens and Left Party.
The SDP has pledged modest taxes on the wealthy and increased support for those on lower incomes if it leads the next government, and is more amenable to joint EU fiscal policy and debt sharing, long-time red lines of Merkel’s conservatives and the FDP.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, may seek to renew attempts at a black, green, and yellow “Jamaica coalition”, with the Greens and FDP.
The three spent weeks discussing a potential alliance after the 2017 election before FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled support, leading to Merkel renewing her “grand coalition” with historical arch-rivals, the SDP.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has maintained a steady 10 percent in polls over recent months yet remains a pariah to other parties.
Significant conflicts around budgeting and policy exist between the parties, which may complicate negotiations.
The CDU and FDP have rejected tax increases and are loyal adherents to Germany’s constitutional debt limit, while the SDP and Greens want to make use of low interest rates to borrow and spend on social welfare and climate protection.
Neugebauer expects negotiations will drag on for some weeks after the votes are counted, a process that may be prolonged further if parties hold confirmation ballots with their members.
Who could replace Merkel?
That voters base their decisions on party over personality is taken as an article of faith by many in Germany.
However, the anticipated leadership vacuum Merkel will leave has seen most party campaigns focus on candidates, rather than their policy platforms and ideologies.
The SDP’s Scholz, former mayor of Hamburg and a centrist within his own party, is by far the most popular candidate.
His reputation as a predictable and reliable steward of the German economy, even among supporters of other parties, has given a surprising jolt to what appeared until recently a moribund SDP.
In polls of individual candidates, Scholz leads by a long margin, yet his popularity pales in comparison to Merkel’s.
When Laschet emerged as victor in April after a bruising contest with Bavarian leader Markus Soeder for the Christian Democrats’ nomination, party notables hoped the worrying state of his popularity among the public would climb as his face became more familiar.
The jovial Rheinlander has instead failed to project the characteristic seriousness of Merkel and has suffered from numerous gaffes and slip-ups.
He faced serious criticism when cameras caught him joking in the background during a sombre address by the German president to remember those killed in this summer’s devastating floods in western Germany.
“Maybe because Laschet does not project the sense of stability and reliability that Merkel did and, hence, voters looking for that are most likely to find it in finance minister Scholz,” Leininger told Al Jazeera.
After a lengthy winter lockdown, Green leader Annalena Baerbock’s message of change and renewal struck the right chord in spring, with many commentators touting her as the first Green chancellor in waiting.
But since then, her campaign has come adrift, and her reputation has been tarnished by allegations of padding her CV and plagiarising sections of her book.
A series of televised leaders debates in the coming weeks will offer a few more chances for leaders to convince the public.
Conservative grandees may rue the choice of Laschet over the vastly more popular Soeder.
However, with such little time to change course, their party will have to hope its straying voters return to the fold by the time they cast their ballots.
The Greens will want to return to serious discussion of their ambitious climate policies, which has been derailed by media attacks and ridicule for their plans to increase fuel taxes and subsidise bicycles.
The rise of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the Delta variant and a stagnant 60 percent rate of full vaccination, could also play a determining factor.
Previous waves have knocked the popularity of the CDU, which controls the health ministry and leads Germany’s pandemic response, and created openings for other parties.