The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor tightened dramatically on Tuesday as the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD) took a shock lead in opinion polls.
With five weeks to go until Germany votes in general elections, the SPD overtook Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) to take the lead with 23 per cent support.
That could put Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate, on course to pull off a stunning victory and seize control of the chancellery at next month’s elections.
The CDU was a close second on 22 per cent, while the Green Party came third with 18 per cent in the poll by the Forsa institute.
The poll findings are alarming news for the CDU and its candidate to succeed Mrs Merkel, Armin Laschet, who appeared on course for an easy victory until last month.
Mr Laschet has seen his party’s support collapse, falling by eight points in just five weeks since he was filmed laughing during a sombre tribute to victims of last month’s devastating floods in western Germany.
The findings are also devastating for the German Green Party and its candidate for chancellor, Annalea Baerbock. The Greens briefly led the polls in the spring and the election looked set to be a two-way race between them and the CDU.
However, a series of gaffes and scandals surrounding Ms Baerbock has seen the party’s support evaporate since those heady days, falling by ten points.
Mr Scholz looks set to be the big winner if the latest polls are right. Traditionally the SPD was one of Germany’s two main parties together with the CDU, and it is the only other party to have provided a postwar chancellor.
But until a couple of months ago the SPD was written off by most political pundits in Germany as a shadow of its former self.
As recently as June 30, it was struggling in third place on just 14 per cent in the polls, behind the CDU on 30 per cent and the Greens on 20 per cent.
Since then the party has pulled off one of the more remarkable political comebacks of recent years even as the CDU and the Greens have faltered.
While the SPD briefly took the lead in rival surveys in 2017, this is the first time the party has led the prestigious Forsa poll since 2006.
Senior figures within the party and political analysts agree the SPD comeback is almost entirely down to Mr Scholz, currently vice-chancellor and finance minister in Mrs Merkel’s coalition government.
Relying on Scholz
Mr Scholz consistently outpolls his rivals when Germans are asked who they would vote for if Germany had a US-style presidential system, and is more popular than his party.
“We are clearly relying on Olaf Scholz,” Lars Klingbeil, the party campaign manager said recently. “He is the right man for Germany.”
It is a personal comeback for Mr Scholz every bit as remarkable as his party’s. In 2019 he ran for the SPD leadership only to be defeated by two hard-Left candidates in a Momentum-style takeover of the party.
The shift left was unpopular with voters and seemed to have doomed the SPD to political oblivion. However, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, the joint leaders who defeated Mr Scholz, concluded they could not win an election and recalled him to run as the party’s candidate for chancellor.
His success since then has been largely down to not making any mistakes. He used to be considered so boring he was nicknamed “the Scholzomat”.
But as Mr Laschet and Ms Baerbock’s campaigns have imploded his air of quiet reliability has come to be seen as an asset.
Also, he has not been filmed laughing in the background as Germany’s president paid his respects to flood victims, as Mr Laschet was.
Instead, he is seen by many Germans as a steady pair of hands with a track record as finance minister, and someone who will not embarrass the country.
It remains to be seen if he can translate that support into victory at the ballot box next month.