When Angela Merkel announced she would be stepping away from politics at the next federal elections in Germany, it was clear that space for political change was opening up.
Federal elections have taken a relatively predictable course since she became chancellor in 2005, but this year things are different.
The Green Party raced to a shock lead in the polls in April, with the expected nomination of Annalena Baerbock as chancellor candidate appearing to boost enthusiasm in the voter base for a real shift to environmentally-focused politics.
But since that polling high - a Forsa poll on April 20 had the Greens on 28 per cent, and CDU/CSU on 21 per cent - the lead has disappeared amid a targeted attack ad campaign against the 40-year-old Baerbock, as well as accusations of plagiarism and CV embellishment.
Questions are being asked about what happened to that polling lead, and whether or not the blame can be attributed to Baerbock.
There were even some suggestions within parts of German media that she should be replaced as the Green candidate. But at the party’s conference earlier this month delegates overwhelmingly confirmed her nomination.
It is the party’s first attempt at gaining the highest political office in the country, and Baerbock is only the second woman to run for chancellor - after Angela Merkel.
She highlighted once again the green agenda she would be taking into office if she wins.
“Above all, there is the great task of our time: averting the climate crisis," she told the conference.
"We as a society must also have the confidence to do this. I stand up for this confidence. We stand for this confidence in solving problems, protecting people and doing better in the future.”
What happened to the Green wave?
The polling numbers in April were “totally unrealistic” says Olaf Boehnke, Berlin Director at Rasmussen Global, a political consultancy.
“The Greens said from the beginning they are aware of the fact these would not be the numbers on the election date.”
He tells Euronews a combination of factors led to the surprise lead in the polls, but they were unlikely to be sustainable. Firstly the loss of Merkel as a candidate for the conservatives to rally around led to infighting and a lack of organisation in the CDU/CSU camp.
In fact, he argues the Greens were the only party that had a civilised process of nominating their candidate. This led to some Green-sympathisers within the usual conservative base to show support for the Greens.
“On the one hand, the Greens performed so well because the CDU performed so badly, but at the moment the CDU reset their process and re-established themselves as a credible political force in the conservative camp, those sympathising with the more moderate conservative part of the Greens went back to the CDU camp,” he says.
Now the CDU’s Armin Laschet is polling at 25 per cent for who Germans want as Chancellor, with Baerbock at 21 per cent.
Opponents of the Green candidate have also levelled accusations that she embellished her CV, and plagiarised sections from her book.
‘Honeymoon period over’
Boehnke says the accusations have been blown out of proportion.
“The issue with her CV was super ridiculous if you look at the facts,” he says. “It said she was a member of the German Marshall Fund, but this is not a membership organisation. She had been in contact with them, and it slipped through whoever was leading the campaign in her office, it was incorrect.”
On June 5, the Green party’s campaign spokesman Andreas Kappler tweeted: “Since there were inquiries about specified "memberships" in Ms Baerbock's curriculum vitae, the information was refined and corrected. Thanks for the hints.”
As for the plagiarism accusations, they came from an Austrian media researcher and plagiarism expert Stefan Weber, who claimed to have found around six suspect passages in her book ‘How to Renew Our Country’.
The book’s publisher for its part defended the work as “carefully proofread”, and said a copyright infringement was not recognisable in the “non-scientific book” which was composed of generally accessible facts.
“The Greens expected that once the honeymoon period was over then the reporting and coverage of the Green Party and Annalena Baerbock would be more aggressive and more critical,” says Boehnke of the media response to what he calls “minor stories.”
“A broad range of different actors are trying to use these minor stories to really blow them up, in an unproportional way to what has happened to the other candidates.”
This is due to a fear within the conservatives and their media allies in the country that something like what happened with the polling in April could happen again.
“There is a lot of vague information, not to say disinformation, but at least it’s not very correct professional journalistic standards in parts of the coverage of the story right now,” says Boehnke.
The Greens and Baerbock have also been the target of attack ad campaigns.
These include a campaign by the lobby group Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft, which financed controversial ads on major media sites such as ZEIT ONLINE, FAZ.NET and SZ.DE, as well as in newspapers.
Boehnke is working on a project on the integrity of the German elections, and hosted a radio show focused on disinformation on Wednesday. He says there has been “a huge disinformation campaign aimed at her and the Green party”.
He adds that he is involved with Facebook and Twitter officials in his work, who he says have seen a peak recently in disinformation targeted at Annalena Baerbock and the Green Party.
One shows Baerbock in Biblical-style attire with tablets in her arms, with the words “Why green bans don't lead us to the promised land.”
Lorenz Meyer, a media critic at BILDblog, says this ad is “doubly infamous”.
“It defames Baerbock and the Greens and it serves anti-Jewish resentment and stirs up prejudices through imagery (Moses/robe with an oriental effect),” he wrote on Twitter.
As for what happens next, Boehnke says “it’s a very fragile situation, these traditional voter camps, they are history.”
If the conservatives’ campaign goes smoothly from now on, he predicts “they will get their 30 per cent” at the ballot box, but any slip-ups could “tip the balance in the other direction once again”.
“The political landscape across Europe has been in a transition for maybe 20 years, and now we see Germany is part of that based on its national circumstances.”
The 2021 German federal election is scheduled to be held on 26 September 2021.