The veteran front-runner: Olaf Scholz
At 63, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz is the oldest and most experienced candidate, having served as vice-Chancellor and finance minister in Angela Merkel’s last cabinet. While the Social Democrats campaign slogan, “Scholz will sort it” has played to his image as a dull but competent technocrat, political observers suggest he has benefitted greatly from the lacklustre performance of his rivals.
Should he become Chancellor, it will mark a dramatic turnaround for the SPD, which was lagging in the polls just a few months ago following its years as Merkel’s junior coalition partner.
Scholz has been a member of the SPD for 45 years, joining its Jusos - or Young Socialists - group as a student in the seventies. The Lower Saxony-born politician has held several senior SPD positions, including a term as secretary general. However, he has never held the role of party chair, which is unusual for a potential Chancellor. He served as Mayor of Hamburg from 2011-2018.
Within the SPD, Scholz is regarded as a centrist. Taciturn and unflappable, he is the embodiment of the northern German stereotype, although his somewhat robotic demeanour earned him the nickname the ‘Scholz-O-Mat’. Critics have also accused him of trying too hard to present himself as the “next Merkel”, right down to emulating her calm manner, promises of stability and signature hand positioning.
However, Scholz’s management of the economy through the Covid crisis, disbursing what he called a “bazooka” of billions of euros in emergency support, has helped build his reputation for competence and encouraged voters to look beyond his role in recent financial scandals.
The novice with promise: Annalena Baerbock
For 40-year-old Green Party contender Annalena Baerbock, youth and freshness has proved both an asset and a hindrance. This is the first time that Germany’s left-leaning Greens have made a serious run for the Chancellorship since the party’s foundation 40 years ago.
Baerbock energised voters early in the race with the promise of a ‘new start’ following the Merkel era, but her campaign stuttered following a series of mishaps. These included a scandal over an undeclared Christmas bonus payment, and a suggestion that Germany should arm Ukraine, viewed as exposing her relative lack of experience.
Born in a small town in Lower Saxony, Baerbock was a talented young athlete and came third in Germany’s national trampolining championship. Following a brief spell in the US, she studied law in Hanover, followed by international law at the London School of Economics, garnering a firm interest in foreign policy issues. She was Parliamentary Advisor to MEP Elisabeth Schroedter in Brussels from 2005-08.
Baerbock’s political career started in earnest in 2009, when she was elected party leader of the Greens in Brandenburg. In 2013, she won her first mandate in the Bundestag and became co-chair of the Green Party five years later. Her lack of government experience has drawn accusations from rival parties and from her co-chair Robert Habeck - who also ran for the party’s nomination - that she is unfit to be Chancellor. In what was seen as an effort to resolve these tensions, Baerbock appointed Habeck as leader of the Green’s coalition negotiations team.
Baerbock hails from the centrist “realo” wing of the Greens. In an effort to make the Greens more attractive to mainstream voters and potential future coalition partners, she has looked to demonstrate that being politically moderate and taking a radical stance on climate policy are not mutually exclusive. Her impassive reaction to a barrage of personal attacks against her during the campaign was considered hesitant and defensive by some analysts and pragmatic by others.
Merkel heir without flair: Armin Laschet
CDU/CSU candidate for Chancellor Armin Laschet can draw on over 20 years of political experience at state, federal and European levels. He won his first Bundestag seat in 1994 and, when he failed to hold it in the following elections, he switched to European politics and became an MEP in 1999. During his time in Brussels, he worked on the budget and foreign affairs committees.
Critics argue he lacks the necessary grit to lead Germany. Nevertheless, his understated but steadfast adherence to political ideals - strongly influenced by his pro-European, liberal and catholic values - has proven effective in the past. “To polarise is easy; everyone can do it. Instead, we must send clear messages,” he said during his campaign speech for the CDU leadership earlier this year.
However, his standing took a knock after he was caught on camera laughing with others in the background as Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a solemn speech at a flood-hit town in July. He apologised, but that incident, coupled with his occasional vague utterances on policy, has left an impression of a politician who lacks the requisite gravitas for the post and pales by comparison with Merkel.
Laschet, however, has a proven vote-winning pedigree, and surprised many by wrestling back control of North-Rhine Westphalia in 2017, just five years after the CDU suffered a historic defeat in Germany’s most populous state. Just as he did then, Laschet refused to change tack, despite slipping in the polls. His “stability and renewal” platform has promised modernisation, fiscal discipline, European integration and a balanced climate policy. “So far, every step of European integration has benefited Germany… we need more Europe!” he told Deutschland-