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Germans Can't Agree On Who Should Lead After Angela Merkel


Tomorrow is election day in Germany, and it's a big one. Chancellor Angela Merkel is getting ready to step down after 16 years in office, and this election will help decide who succeeds her to lead Germany and Europe. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is with us now to tell us more. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So the latest polls suggest that this will be a very close election. Why is that?

SCHMITZ: Well, this is one of the most fascinating, unpredictable and wide-open election seasons Germany has ever seen. There isn't a single party that's polling at more than 30%, and the difference between the top two parties is in the single percentage points. And I think what we're seeing here is a country that is so used to having Angela Merkel lead it that it cannot agree on what or who it wants after she's gone. I spoke to politics reporter Ansgar Siemens of Germany's top newspaper Der Spiegel about this, and here's what he said.

ANSGAR SIEMENS: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Michel, he's saying here that Merkel is casting a big shadow over this election campaign. He says that the success of the front-running chancellor candidate, social democrat Olaf Scholz, is actually due to the fact that he is seen as the most similar to Merkel among the candidates, even down to his imitation of Merkel's body language, as if Scholz realizes that copying Merkel will benefit him.

MARTIN: So let me just clarify this. German voters will be voting for political parties tomorrow - right? - not for chancellor candidates directly.

SCHMITZ: That's right. So tomorrow, each voter in Germany will cast two votes in the federal election. The first vote is for their representative in Parliament. There are 299 constituencies in Germany, so that means 299 members of Parliament, representing a range of parties, will be elected into office through that first vote. The second vote Germans will cast is for a political party. And the result of that second vote determines the makeup of Parliament - how many seats each party will ultimately have and also which party emerges with the greatest number of seats and thus is likely in the best position to choose the country's next chancellor.

MARTIN: So that means that we might know soon after the vote who the next chancellor will be, but we might not know the makeup of Germany's next government.

SCHMITZ: Exactly. And in this particular election, with how close each party is polling amongst each other, we are looking at a scenario where probably three parties will have to join each other to form a coalition government because it's clear this time around that no single party will receive more than 50% of the votes. And because this is a pretty rare situation in German politics, it could take months of negotiations to finish this, so Germany will likely have many months more of Merkel at the helm.

MARTIN: What about issues? I mean, are there some specific issues that people really care about in this election?

SCHMITZ: Absolutely. The economy is the big one. The country's emerging from a pandemic. It's had a big impact on everyone but more so in this election than past ones. And then also climate change has emerged as an important issue for many Germans. You might remember this summer, when parts of Western Germany were suddenly flooded, and 180 people died because of a natural disaster that was blamed on a changing climate. And that's had a big impact on people here, and each of the top three parties are emphasizing climate change measures in their platforms, especially the Greens.

MARTIN: And before I let you go, just a question of Europe - Angela Merkel is sort of the de facto leader for Europe. I mean...


MARTIN: Is that a factor in this campaign?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I think one of Merkel's many legacies is that she has set expectations for her country that Germany, as Europe's largest economy, must be a leader in Europe and that it must show that leadership to keep the EU together. And each of the front-running parties agrees with that notion, so yes, it's been a very big factor in this election.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thank you so much.

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.