• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

Would-be German chancellors go head-to-head in local battle

ByAmeerah O'Connor

Sep 13, 2021
Would-be German chancellors go head-to-head in local battle

Famous for its palaces that once housed Prussian kings, the German city of Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin has also become the arena for a battle for Angela Merkel’s crown in the run-up to September’s election.

Two of the leading candidates in the race to replace Merkel — Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) — are running in constituency 61, which includes Potsdam.

The battle marks the first time in German history that two chancellor candidates have gone head-to-head in the same constituency — a far cry from the “safe seat” route often favoured by past political heavyweights.

As seats in the German parliament are filled through a combination of direct mandates and party lists, Scholz and Baerbock could still become MPs even if they lose in Potsdam — but winning a direct mandate would be the icing on the cake.

“Constituency kings and queens have a special legitimacy in the Bundestag,” Karl-Rudolf Korte, a professor of politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told AFP.

“Both candidates have their place secured via the list. Nevertheless, the competition is more than just symbolic.”

While Potsdam is the capital of former East German state Brandenburg, it is more affluent than many other ex-communist cities, with lush gardens and lakes making it a popular bolthole for wealthy Berlin commuters.

The city also has a celebrity quality as it is home to the Babelsberg film studios, as well as many prominent politicians, from the far-right AfD’s co-leader Alexander Gauland to the liberal FDP’s former secretary general Linda Teuteberg.

– ‘New beginning’ –

Scholz only moved to Potsdam from Hamburg in 2018, when he joined Merkel’s cabinet as finance minister.

But surveys show him currently leading the race in the constituency, which also fell to his SPD party in Germany’s last election in 2017 — the only constituency in the former East Germany to do so outside Berlin.

“Being a member of the Bundestag is the highest office one can be elected to in German democracy, and for me it means a very direct route to the public,” Scholz told AFP during a visit to a vocational training centre on the outskirts of the city.

“After many years in the state government of Hamburg, this is a new beginning — and I live here. I am looking forward to being the representative of the citizens of this constituency,” he said.

Baerbock, meanwhile, has lived in Potsdam with her family for the last ten years, also running unsuccessfully for a direct mandate there in 2013 and 2017.

“In some ways, Potsdam is a mirror of Germany in miniature,” she told a few hundred punters at a rally.

“With all the opportunities we have here, where you can see that this is a city worth living in… And on the other hand, it is clear where we can really do things better in the future,” she said.

– Price of potatoes –

In the picturesque Dutch quarter, placards showing the two would-be chancellors were pinned high on lampposts near the daily market selling clothes, groceries and traditional Bratwurst sausages.

“Scholz is a customer of ours. He comes here to shop at the market himself,” said Annelie Cierzynski, 69, a pensioner helping out at a friend’s fruit and vegetable stall.

“I find it funny when people talk about him not knowing what a litre of petrol costs. He knows what carrots and potatoes cost, so that’s fine by me.”

Scholz was caught out on the campaign trail in June for not knowing the price of petrol — an oversight that left him open to accusations of being out of touch with the electorate.

Baerbock has also suffered some bumps on the campaign trail, being accused of plagiarism and embellishing her CV.

But that doesn’t bother Dorothea Gunkel, a 50-year-old nurse who lives in a village outside Potsdam. “I think climate protection is very important and that’s why I’m leaning more towards Baerbock,” she said.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the competition has raised the profile of Potsdam.

“This is definitely the most exciting constituency in Germany,” said Anna Emmendoerffer, a 25-year-old candidate for the Greens.

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