The German Bundestag elections are less than two weeks away. However, even the Germans themselves can hardly predict who will eventually replace Merkel as Chancellor. According to a recent opinion poll by the ZDF TV channel, only a tenth of voters know the upcoming vote's winner, as compared to nearly 50% before the latest election.
The current German campaign resembles a roller coaster, and all the three parties contending for the chancellor's chair have already been its frontrunners. At first it was the Greens with their candidate Annalena Baerbock to be replaced by CDU/CSU with Armin Laschet, and the last few weeks saw the Social Democrats, though considered outsiders until recently, and their Olaf Scholz gain the upper hand. The SPD leads the pack by a significant margin of several percentage points. If we assess the popularity of each separate chancellor hopeful, Scholz is virtually beyond competition, being Merkel's possible successor and almost twice as popular as Laschet and Baerbock.
The reason for such a sudden rise of Social Democrats and their candidate is primarily brought about by failures of the CDU/CSU and the Greens. Neither Laschet nor Baerbock managed to earn confidence with voters over the past few months. This was partly due to a series of scandals that affected their image in no small way; and partly over lacking political experience. Of all the three candidates, only Scholz held federal-level positions and now combines jobs of Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister of Finance. The Germans, accustomed to stability and confidence in their own government throughout Merkel's long rule, do want changes in the leadership but are clearly in no mood for high-profile political experiments.
All this, however, issues no guarantees of SPD victory. The latter are mainly tasked with not fouling things up and making it all the way to the elections riding the wave of their popularity. But there is another political scandal unfolding in Germany, this time involving Olaf Scholz. The prosecutor's office of Osnabrück searched his department, suspecting the customs financial intelligence subordinate to the Ministry of Finance of concealing information on money laundering. Some German media have already ventured a guess that the move was politically-motivated, since issues of this kind are traditionally resolved without a whimper through customary bureaucratic correspondence. Moreover, there were simultaneous searches at the Ministry of Justice, which is also subordinate to the Social Democrats.
Whether the SPD will prove able to promptly extinguish the brewing scandal is not yet completely clear, but many Germans tend to believe this will affect voting results in one way or another. Besides, Scholz has another "sore point", which the CDU/ CSU conservatives diligently target, emphasizing the Germans' craving for stability. This sore point is SPD's possible alliance with the Left Party following the election. In fact, such a coalition, including the Greens as its third participant, is highly unlikely, primarily because of the Left Party's radical stance on foreign and defense policy issues. But the Social Democrats cannot flatly declare their refusal of such an option for a number of reasons, particularly the risk of losing voters, most of whom don't mind such a coalition. And the post-election atmosphere only remains to be seen as well as the set of opportunities to choose from.
A new "grand coalition" comprising the SPD and the CDU/CSU is not the most desirable option to its potential participants. Much less to the conservatives with their declared unwillingness to be a junior partner in the new government. In addition, current ratings show that this format barely gains a majority of seats. Which means that there will be three, not two, partners to agree on a coalition in follow-up of elections.
The situation provides for may configurations, but coalition negotiations are expected to be extremely hard anyway. After the 2017 elections, the CDU/CSU tried to negotiate a similar "triple" alliance with the FDP and the Greens, but to no avail. As a result, the country had no government for six months and virtually lived in a state of political crisis. This time the situation may well reiterate, especially since there will be way more various coalition options, and the parties will get a chance to repeatedly look through them in an attempt to align positions.