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Six months out from an extraordinary election, is German politics about to get interesting?

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By Emma Beswick
German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves after a news conference at the CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, Germany. Oct. 29, 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves after a news conference at the CDU at the headquarters in Berlin, Germany. Oct. 29, 2018.   -   Copyright  Kay Nietfeld/AP

At the end of March, we are six months away from the general election on September 26, and such is the importance of the ballot, Germans have dubbed 2021 a "Superwahljahr" or "super election year".

German politics may be thought of as a somewhat sober affair compared to the merry-go-round of Italian prime ministers or hysteria of British elections, but this year promises to buck that trend and deviate from the yawnfest.

Two key things make this election remarkable: Chancellor Angela Merkel is bowing out after 16 years in office and, perhaps even more significantly, the fact that no one can really predict what is going to happen now after years of certainty.

Ahead of the big vote, when Germans will elect a new federal parliament and, as a result, a new chancellor, several local and state elections will serve as warm-up acts.

With polls showing the Greens have overtaken the Social Democrats as Germany's second-most-popular party, logic based on previous results would foresee them joining Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) to form a new "grand coalition".

But with "Mutti" set to step down and a string of pandemic-related missteps seeing the CDU take a hit, the next six months could prove pivotal to Germany's political future.

What do recent local elections tell us?

The first major political test in Superwahljahr were crunch state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in mid-March.

While Merkel's CDU historically enjoyed firm support in both areas, it lost ground, with the Greens hanging on to power in Baden-Württemberg and the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) retaining Rhineland-Palatinate.

Could this be a sign of things to come in the national vote? The result would certainly have been a cause for concern for CDU leaders but Manès Weisskircher, a political scientist at the Dresden University of Technology, cautioned against seeing it as a prediction of the result in September.

"It's impossible to make predictions at this stage," he told Euronews.

He added that several actors had vested interests in interpreting the regional results as a forecast of national ones, but while the CDU didn't expect such bad results, it "didn’t have particularly high hopes for the regional elections, to begin with, especially in Baden-Württemberg".

Opposition parties, including the Greens and the Social Democrats, have an interest in treating this round of state elections as predictors of the general vote and Weisskircher thinks "some inside the CDU will also have an interest in arguing for the existence of a crisis for the party."

This includes the leader of the CSU, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, Markus Söder, who is "widely regarded as having an interest in becoming the CDU/CSU's top candidate for the September elections."

What are the key issues?

The choice of the CDU's candidate for chancellor and the government's pandemic management are the factors most likely to swing September's result, according to Weisskircher.

Merkel's government has come under fire recently for how it has dealt with Germany's vaccine rollout and a scandal over bribery allegations in mask procurement that involved two conservative MPs has seen her party take a beating.

"The important thing I think here is that there's still time left," the political scientist said. "If pandemic management improves in the eyes of voters, this might have been forgotten by September."

The spot for the CDU/CSU's chancellor candidate remains empty and the person who fills it and what they do in the months that follow will be critical, Weisskircher said.

According to pollsters, Söder is more popular both inside CDU and within Germany than Armin Laschet, who was elected the party's leader in January.

The recent state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate where the CDU performed poorly were by many seen as Laschet's first major test.

"It's possible that if Söder became the top candidate, the CDU could see a boost in poll numbers: optimistically speaking from their point of view, the question would be settled and there wouldn't be any internal turmoil within the party," Weisskircher explained.

Söder could "rally the troops behind him" which could possibly give them new strength.

The question of who will take the helm will be answered in the next couple of weeks but as long as it's not settled, the CDU's poll standing is unlikely to improve, according to Weisskircher.

"Of course, there are thinkable coalition scenarios that do not include the Union," he added. "But I don't think they are likelier at the moment than scenarios with the CDU."

How corruption scandals, the pandemic and the CDU's choice of top candidate pan out all stand to influence voters, but half a year away from the election, nothing is certain and there is a lot of room for speculation.

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