BERLIN — The most popular politician who would like to be chancellor isn’t on the ballot. The leading candidate is so boring people compare him to a machine. Instead of “Yes, We Can!” voters are being fired up with promises of “Stability.”
Germany is having its most important election in a generation but you would never know it. The newspaper Die Welt recently asked in a headline: “Is this the most boring election ever?”
Yes and no.
The campaign to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years of her dominating German and European politics is the tightest in Germany since 2005, and it just got tighter. The Social Democrats, written off as recently as a month ago, have overtaken Ms. Merkel’s conservatives for the first time in years.
But the campaign has also revealed a charisma vacuum that is at once typical of postwar German politics and exceptional for just how bland Ms. Merkel’s two most likely successors are. No party is polling more than 25 percent, and for much of the race the candidate the public has preferred was none of the above.
Whoever wins, however, will have the job of shepherding the continent’s largest economy, making that person one of Europe’s most important leaders, which has left some observers wondering if the charisma deficit will extend to a leadership deficit as well.
While the election outcome may be exciting, the two leading candidates are anything but.
Less than a month before the vote, the field is being led by two male suit-wearing career politicians — one balding, one bespectacled, both over 60 — who represent the parties that have governed the country jointly for the better part of two decades.
There is Armin Laschet, the governor of the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, who is running for Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats. And then there is Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who is Ms. Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor.
The candidate of change, Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old co-leader of the Greens, has a bold reform agenda and plenty of verve — and has been lagging in the polls after a brief surge in the polls before the summer.
It’s a nail-biter, German-style: Who can most effectively channel stability and continuity? Or put another way: Who can channel Ms. Merkel?
For now it seems to be Mr. Scholz — a man Germans have long known as the “Scholz-o-mat” or the “Scholz machine” — a technocrat and veteran politician who can seem almost robotically on message. Where others have slipped up in the campaign, he has avoided mistakes, mostly by saying very little.
“Most citizens know who I am,” was Mr. Scholz’s pitch to his party before being anointed chancellor candidate, conspicuously echoing Ms. Merkel’s iconic 2013 line to voters: “You know me.”
More recently one of his campaign ads showed his reassuring smile with a caption using the female form of the word chancellor, telling voters that he has what it takes to lead the country even though he is a man. “Angela the second,” was the title of a Scholz profile in the magazine Der Spiegel this week.
Mr. Scholz has tried so hard to perfect the art of embodying the chancellor’s aura of stability and calm that he has even been photographed holding his hands before him in the chancellor’s signature diamond shape — making what is known as the Merkel rhombus.
“Scholz is trying to be Merkel’s clone all the way down to the rhombus,” said John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany who has been living in Berlin on and off since the 1960s. “The guy everyone likes best is the most boring guy in the election — maybe in the country. He makes watching water boil seem exciting.”
But Germans, political observers point out, love boring.
“There are few countries where such a premium is put on being dull,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at the University of Oxford who has written about the country.
It’s not that Germans are resistant to charisma. When Barack Obama was running for president and delivered a rousing speech at the victory column in Berlin in 2008, 100,000 Germans cheered him on.
But they don’t want it in their own politicians. That’s because the last time Germany had a rousing leader it didn’t end well, noted Jan Böhmermann, a popular TV-host and comedian.
The haunting memory of Hitler’s Nazi party winning office in free elections has shaped Germany’s postwar democracy in various ways, Mr. Böhmermann said, “and one of them is that charisma is banned from politics.”
Andrea Römmele, dean of the Berlin-based Hertie School, put it this way: “A Trump character could never become chancellor here.”
Paradoxically, that’s at least in part thanks to an electoral system bequeathed to Germany by America and its Allies after World War II. Unlike in the American presidential system, German voters don’t get to elect their chancellor directly. They vote for parties; the parties’ share of the vote determines their share of the seats in Parliament; and then Parliament elects the chancellor.
And because it just about always takes more than one party to form a government — and this time probably three — you can’t be too rude about the people you might rely on to be your coalition partners.
“Your rival today might be your finance minister tomorrow,” Ms. Römmele said.
As for the chancellor candidates, they are not chosen in primaries but by party officials who tend to pick people like themselves: career politicians who have given years of service to the party machine.
Being good on television and connecting with voters doesn’t cut it, said Jürgen Falter, an electoral expert at the University of Mainz. “It’s a strict oligarchic system,” he said. “If we had primaries, Markus Söder would have been the candidate.”
Mr. Söder, Bavaria’s ambitious governor, has heaps of beer-tent charisma and is the most popular politician in the country after Ms. Merkel herself. He was eager to run for chancellor, but the conservatives picked Mr. Laschet, a longstanding Merkel ally, not least, Ms. Römmele said, because at the time he looked most like “the continuity candidate.”
But Mr. Scholz has beaten him at his game. During a televised debate between the chancellor candidates last Sunday, an exasperated Mr. Laschet accused Mr. Scholz of trying to “sound like Ms. Merkel.”
“I find I sound like Olaf Scholz,” Mr. Scholz replied deadpan.
“These days you’re doing the rhombus,” Mr. Laschet hit back — before himself invoking the chancellor in his closing statement.
“Stability and reliability in difficult times,” he said. “That’s what marked us from Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel. The team C.D.U. wants to secure stability.”
Recent polls give Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats the edge with between 23 and 25 percent, followed by 20 to 22 percent for Mr. Laschet’s Christian Democrats, or C.D.U., and around 17 percent for the Greens.
To his fans, Mr. Scholz is a voice of calm and confidence, a pragmatist from Germany’s taciturn north who represents the elusive silent majority. “Liberal, but not stupid,” is how he once described himself.
But critics note that while crises have come crashing down on the election campaign — epic floods, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the pandemic — a sense of urgency is missing from the campaigns of the two leading candidates.
Much like Mr. Laschet, Mr. Scholz talks about tackling climate change but above all promises stable pensions, safe jobs, a balanced budget and not getting out of coal too soon.
“The big story is that we have a world in crisis and there isn’t any sense of real crisis in Germany,” said Mr. Garton Ash of Oxford University.
A bold vision for change has never been a vote winner in Germany. Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor, won an absolute majority for the Christian Democrats by promising “No Experiments.” Helmut Schmidt, a Social Democrat, once famously said, “If you have visions you should go to the doctor.”
As for Ms. Merkel, she has come to embody Germany’s distinctive political tradition of change through consensus perhaps more than any of her predecessors by co-governing with her traditional opponents for three out of her four terms.
Mr. Böhmermann, the comedian, calls this a “democratic state of emergency” for Germany. “You could say we were well-managed over the last 16 years — or you could say we were anesthetized for 16 years.”
“We need vision,” he lamented. “No one dares to articulate a clear political vision, especially the main candidates.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.