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Germans Will Choose A New Government As Angela Merkel Steps Down As Chancellor

BERLIN — Millions of Germans will head to the polls in a federal election on Sunday that will determine who will succeed Angela Merkel after 16 years as Germany's chancellor.

According to the latest polls, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party is narrowly ahead of Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union. They're closely followed by the Greens, the far-right Alternative for Germany and the libertarian Free Democratic Party, all holding onto double-digit poll numbers going into Sunday's election.

Josef Janning, a senior associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations, says the two traditional big-tent parties have failed to attract support outside their traditional bases in a more diversified Germany with many voters who are no longer bound by class or religion.

"They are less willing to make a compromise within their own segment of society," Janning says. "They would rather pursue their own specific interests and preferences with like-minded groups."

And, he says, that results "in a much more fragmented party system, where a major party probably has to be considered a party that can achieve more than 20% of the vote."

Another factor impacting this wide spectrum of electoral politics is the vacuum left by the departure of Angela Merkel.

"I wish she were running again and were staying on as chancellor," says 27-year-old voter Jessica Laufer, a scientist who lives in the Baltic Sea city of Stralsund. "I don't like the CDU chancellor candidate, and it's not likely we'll see a Green chancellor, so it's a real shame she's stepping down."

Laufer was 11 years old when Merkel became chancellor. Now that Laufer has children of her own, she says she would prefer Green party chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock to prevail, but she doesn't see Baerbock's party receiving a lion's share of the vote. Like many young parents in Germany, Laufer is voting for the Greens because she says she wants a better climate for her children and she believes Germany's traditional parties aren't doing enough to tackle climate change.

Another voter, Christoph Homes, lives near Hamburg and has traditionally voted for Merkel's center-right party, but he isn't thrilled with the CDU's candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet.

"He's like a puppet," Homes says, acknowledging that he believes front-running candidate Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats will likely prevail. "Yes, Olaf Scholz will be a good chancellor, but he'll probably end up governing with the Greens and then things will get expensive for us voters."

Both the CDU and the Social Democrats have expressed interest in forming a coalition with the Greens. What's clear from polling data is that whoever comes out on top, Germany's next government will likely be a coalition of three political parties — a rarity in German politics.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this story from Berlin.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.