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Social Democrat takes lead in race to replace Merkel

With four weeks left before Germans pick a new parliament, the Social Democrats have pulled ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, signaling Germany's next leader could come from the center-left.

(CN) — The era of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is nearing its end and it's looking increasingly possible that the next leader of Europe's most powerful economy will come from the revived center-left Social Democrats.

Recent polls show the Social Democratic Party is pulling ahead of Merkel's conservatives for the first time in 15 years ahead of Sept. 26 federal elections. The Social Democrats are the junior coalition partners in a government run by Merkel's conservatives.

Following the elections, Merkel is set to step down as chancellor after 16 years at the helm of Germany. She is seen as Europe's most powerful politician and a reliably steady hand during crises. Her departure is expected to jolt European politics.

It wasn't long ago that Germany's Social Democrats were written off as political dinosaurs and another example of the collapse of Europe's old traditional parties.

But the SPD – Germany's oldest political party with roots that go back to the 19th century – has engineered a surprising comeback and now leads in polls. A recent survey by INSA for the Bild am Sonntag newspaper found about 24% of German voters say they will back SPD and its chancellor candidate, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.

Merkel's conservative coalition – made up of her Christian Democratic Union and a sister party in Bavaria called the Christian Social Union – has seen its support fall to about 21%, the INSA poll showed.

The success of Scholz isn't a repudiation of Merkel's conservatives but rather an indication that Germans aren't eager for change. Scholz is a fiscally conservative moderate and a well-known figure in German politics. In other words, many Germans may see him as the best person to carry on Merkel's steady oversight of both their country's success as an industrial powerhouse and social democracy.

Merkel's conservatives have been dragged down by their decision to pick Armin Laschet as their chancellor candidate.

Laschet is the president of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and a pro-business politician who is well-liked within political circles but his dull, even boring, style has left many Germans unimpressed.

Polls show Laschet much less popular than Scholz, a longtime SPD insider and a former Hamburg mayor with no major scandals in his background.

Scholz is respected as a competent and moderate politician. Within the SPD ranks, he is on the conservative side of the party and has supported tough fiscal policies on public debt and public spending in line with Merkel's conservatives. As the finance minister, his popularity has risen since he crafted aid packages to help those hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and this summer's catastrophic flooding.

Scholz is benefiting from mistakes by his main rivals too.

In July, Laschet committed a major gaffe when he was seen laughing on television with other politicians on a visit to flood-damaged parts of North Westphalia-Rhineland.

And then there's the disappointment of the person chosen by the Greens to be the next Merkel.

The elections started with a lot of excitement and media hype around the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old international lawyer picked to be the face of the party. But her campaign has faltered in the wake of revelations about alleged plagiarism, resume padding and unreported earnings. Polls show her popularity on par with Laschet's and surveys find the Greens picking up about 17% of the vote, the third most. In the spring, the Greens were polling well ahead of the Social Democrats and rivaling the CDU/CSU coalition.

On Sunday, Scholz's rise to the front of the pack was confirmed during the first of three television debates. A quick poll after the debate showed him winning, German media said.

What is certain then is the next German government will be made from a coalition of parties with a majority in the Bundestag capable of passing legislation. Since the end of World War II, all but one of Germany's governments – Konrad Adenauer governed with an absolute majority after the 1957 elections – have relied on coalitions. Since 2013, Merkel's conservatives have ruled in a coalition with the SPD, the junior party.

The big question is what shape the new coalition will take following the upcoming elections. There are several possibilities, including a scenario where the Social Democrats are left out if the conservatives team up with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, a pro-business liberal party. The FDP is polling with about 12% of votes.

But there are other options, of course. For example, the SPD could find agreement with the Greens and the Left, a far-left party with communist roots. Scholz hasn't ruled out a coalition with the Left, though he has demanded it drop its opposition to the NATO alliance.

One party that will remain on the outside is the far-right Alternative for Germany. The party has been accused of fostering neo-Nazi ideologues and it is under surveillance by German intelligence agencies.

Polls show the party picking up about 11% of the vote, but it has been shunned by Germany's political establishment and will not be included in coalition talks. The party rails against Islamic immigrants and advocates that Germany leave the European Union.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter

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