The Greens are trying to regain momentum for their campaign with the promise of a climate protection ministry. It would be equipped with the same cabinet veto power as the finance ministry. As discussed in the aftermath of the flood catastrophe, however, the most important question is political, not organizational: how willing would the Greens be to disrupt the traditional model of sound public accounts defended by the Greens’ favorite coalition partners, Armin Laschet’s fiscally conservative Christian alliance (CDU/CSU)? It is all but clear that the Greens would be aiming for a fundamental shift in this area.
Meanwhile, the pandemic situation still seems to dominate voters’ minds. This split between voter concerns and party offerings might explain the feeling among many commentators that, even after 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “asymmetric demobilization” (putting the political debate to sleep to weaken competitors), the current campaign appears especially dull.
All major parties were prepared to campaign on variants of the climate issue which, according to public opinion research, dominates the political minds of the educated and the upper middle classes (hence including commentators and politicians). On average, however, the majority of voters appears to be more interested in plans to battle the pandemic. This includes short-term challenges such as ensuring regular schooling (five out of 16 regional states will have restarted school by the beginning of next week) and childcare, as well as longer-term demands for strengthening the healthcare system. The desire for a change of course on climate issues is very substantial, but it is not stronger than the wish for a fresh start on pensions, education, affordable housing, and migration.
Politicians are struggling to respond. Pandemic management remains complicated given the need to coordinate the 16 regional states. Meanwhile, parties’ longer-term proposals have been focused almost exclusively on the climate issue. The pandemic often merely serves as a hook for plans to “build back greener.” The result is a political debate that does not connect well with the mood of the average public, therefore failing to ignite a more active campaign. Pandemic constraints on personal contact with voters are adding to this.
Still, for the Greens, doubling down on climate issues is a good idea after their recent travails. In a best-case scenario, average public opinion finally catches up with the party’s world view. Short of that, the Greens can still bet on shoring up support from their younger, better educated, and higher income core voters. In this sense, however, the return to climate might also be seen as an early indication that the Greens have given up on previous hopes of appealing to voters beyond their core electorate, rivaling CDU/CSU for the position as strongest party.
Meanwhile, Laschet is keeping a low programmatic profile, likely in an attempt not to endanger the steady lead of his CDU/CSU in the polls. In the country’s parliamentary system, post-electoral Bundestag majorities are more important than personal approval ratings (on which German voters, accordingly, tend to put less of an emphasis).
The situation is almost the opposite for Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. He must hope that his lead in the popularity race finally translates into support for his Social Democrats (SPD) – the party that, in terms of its manifesto, might come closest to at least discussing some of the average electorate’s main concerns.