Germany’s electoral oracle struggles to divine the post-Merkel future

To divine outcomes in German elections, the place to go is Pinneberg — or, as some locals like to call it, “the oracle”.

For almost 70 years Pinnebergers have voted for the party that went on to occupy the chancellery: from Konrad Adenauer through Gerhard Schröder and, for the past four general elections, for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Even in 1969, when the CDU won the popular vote but Pinneberg voted Social Democrat, the small northern district was prescient: it was SPD leader Willy Brandt who became chancellor.

But days before Germany’s next election — after which Merkel will bow out of politics — Pinneberg’s electoral crystal ball is cloudy. Her absence will leave a void in German politics and has produced an unusually unpredictable campaign. Pinnebergers are not sure which way they, or the country, are going.

“The larger parties are very, very close together [in the polls]. It could be that even the oracle gets it wrong,” said Michael von Abercron, 68, the local CDU Bundestag member. “You feel a certain sense of insecurity. It’s evident in many voters.”

Three different parties have topped the national polls in recent weeks. Most recently, Olaf Scholz has led the SPD to the top, but recent numbers show the CDU nibbling at its lead. A fragmented electoral landscape — six parties could enter the Bundestag — means Germany may be headed for its first three-way coalition.

Michael von Abercron, the local CDU Bundestag member, said: ‘You feel a certain sense of insecurity. It’s evident in many voters’ © Erika Solomon/FT

Most Pinnebergers interviewed anticipate the race between the SPD and CDU will go down to the wire. But quite a few were wavering over their vote in an election that will decide Germany’s course in the post-Merkel era.

One 34-year-old voter, who asked not to be named, tried the “Wahl-O-Mat”, a website to help voters match to a party, which suggested he voted Green. Still, he feels reluctant.

“Frankly, I don’t find any of the candidates particularly competent,” he said. “I can’t decide — yet somehow, I’ll go vote on Sunday, no matter what.”

Germans remained undecided for longer than usual this election, with an Allensbach poll last week suggesting 40 per cent were unsure. Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at pollsters Forsa, said numbers dropped this week to a more typical range of 25 per cent.

Matuschek believes many of those are CDU supporters unenthusiastic about their candidate, Armin Laschet. “This CDU vote is where we have the most potential for change,” he said.

In Pinneberg’s central square, Irmtraud Jurrat, 82, said older voters like her “are doing our part” to get the CDU a fifth term. She defended Laschet, who has been derided for his hapless campaign style.

“Laschet was a university lecturer and the prime minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia — I mean, he can’t be that dumb,” she added.

Annalena Baerbock, of the Greens
Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, has put off some voters following accusations that she plagiarised parts of a book © Mirko Hannemann/picture alliance / PublicAd

But like most older Pinnebergers interviewed, she believed the SPD would eke out a lead — if not as substantial as polls suggest.

“Maybe if I were young and fighting over rising rents in Berlin or whatever, I’d have even voted Green,” she mused. “But we’re older, we have our home and our garden. This is a good life.”

Reflecting overall German patterns, younger Pinnebergers seeking change planned to vote Green or for the pro-business Free Democrats.

“I need something future-oriented . . . My most important issues are climate change and digitalisation,” said 23-year-old Anna, who declined to give her last name and was wavering between the Greens and far-left Die Linke.

But younger Germans are only about 14 per cent of the electorate, making Pinneberg’s elderly a more reliable barometer.

Ursula Götze, 76, was tempted to split her two votes in Germany’s two-list system to go both for the Greens and SPD. “It’s true I’m old, but it’s for the sake of the young,” she said.

Götze changed her mind when Annalena Baerbock became the candidate over the Greens’ more experienced co-leader, Robert Habeck. Accusations that Baerbock plagiarised parts of her book and embellished her CV also irked her.

Asked about claims the SPD’s Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, bears responsibility for several German financial scandals, she shrugged. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Pinnebergers attribute their district’s bellwether status to demographics and its representative mix of small towns and rural landscapes. Analysts, however, say the winning streak is nothing more than a statistical fluke.

“It’s funny, but I think it’s just a joke,” said Christian Martin, a political scientist at the University of Kiel. “For some point in time, some electoral district will get it right — until the series breaks.”

Yet locals defend their oracle status and Ralf Stegner, this year’s local SPD candidate, is confident Pinneberg’s record will stand — and that he and his party will be back in power. “This oracle has gone on for 60 years,” he said. “That can’t just be coincidence.”

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