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Germany's Sunday Election Will Determine Who Will Replace Angela Merkel


Germans head to the polls on Sunday in an election that will determine who will replace Angela Merkel as chancellor. Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in Germany's top spot, leaving a power vacuum at a critical time for Germany. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to talk more.

Welcome back, Rob.


CORNISH: Just so people understand what's going on, Germany is a parliamentary democracy. People are supposed to vote for parties. Am I right in thinking this election in particular has really been about party leaders - right? - the best replacement for Angela Merkel?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, many Germans are having such a hard time envisioning their country without Merkel at the helm, that the three leading chancellor candidates to replace her are actually going out of their way to be like her. One example is that the leading candidate for chancellor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, has recently taken to resting his four fingers and thumbs together in a sort of diamond shape when he's giving speeches. And this is body language that is trademark Merkel. She does this all the time. So whether through body language or their campaign messages, the candidates are going to great lengths to show voters that they can be just like her.

CORNISH: And is it working?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, some voters are really sad to see Merkel go, but many people I've spoken to think her time has come to step down. I was in Hamburg a couple of weeks ago and spoke to voters there. I met Christoph Homes. He's a security guard who typically votes for Merkel's center-right CDU party. He told me Merkel's been great, but he's looking forward to new leadership. He's just not sure who he'd prefer that leader to be, since he doesn't like the chancellor candidate for Merkel's party. When I asked him what his biggest issues are in this election, here's what he told me

CHRISTOPH HOMES: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Audie, he's saying here that the economy is important, but also Germany's standing in the world. He said he'd like to see Germany take a bigger role on the global stage. He'd like to see Germany build a stronger military, so it doesn't have to rely on the U.S. or worry about Russia and China so much. And for many Germans who typically vote for Merkel's party, I get the sense that they've felt that Merkel lacked a coherent vision for Germany in this realm and many others. She's been criticized for letting an education system languish, as well as doing little to bring Germany into the digital future. When it comes to internet speeds or using your phone to pay for things, it sometimes feels like Germany's a decade behind the rest of the world. So not everyone is that sad to see her go.

CORNISH: So are any of the candidates trying to fill that gap, so to speak, trying to promote skills that they think she didn't have?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. So the one candidate who's been the most successful at this is Olaf Scholz. He's served at nearly every level of government for decades- Parliament, minister of labor, and he's now the finance minister. He's sometimes compared to Joe Biden because of all this experience that he brings to the table. He's to the right pro-business side of a left-wing party, and Merkel's always been on the left side of a right-wing party. So he's a lot like Merkel in that sense. He is a known quantity in German politics, and that's why his party is leading in the polls going into this election.

CORNISH: Still, I understand that the race is tight. Can you tell us what the state of play is?

SCHMITZ: Right. This is one of the widest open and unpredictable election races Germany has seen. And since the year started, we've seen dramatic swings in the polls among the parties. There are three parties in the lead - the Social Democrats, Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and the Green Party. None of these parties, though, have anything close to the support they'll need to form a government alone. It's clear that whomever comes out on top, that party will need to convince at least two other parties to join it in a three-party coalition, and we haven't seen that type of government in Germany for decades.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz speaking to us from Berlin.

Rob, thanks for the update.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.