BOCHUM, Germany — The woman who wants to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel took the stage in sneakers and a leather jacket, behind her the steel skeleton of a disused coal mine tower, before her a sea of expectant faces. The warm-up, a man with an Elvis crest draped in a rainbow flag, sang “Imagine.”
Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party’s candidate for chancellor, asks the Germans to do just that. To imagine a country powered entirely by renewable energy. To envision a relatively unknown and untested 40-year-old as their next chancellor. Imagine her party, which has never led Germany before, leading the government after next month’s elections.
“This election isn’t just about what happens in the next four years, it’s about our future,” Ms Baerbock told the crowd as she took her case to a traditional coalfield that closed its last mine three years ago.
“We need change to preserve what we love and cherish,” she said of this not necessarily hostile, but skeptical area. “Change takes courage, and change is on the agenda on September 26.”
How much change Germans really want after 16 years of Ms Merkel remains to be seen. The chancellor made himself indispensable by coping with numerous crises – financial, migrant, populist and pandemic – and strengthening Germany’s leadership on the continent. Other candidates compete to see who can be the most like her.
Mrs. Baerbock, on the other hand, wants to shake up the status quo. She challenges Germans to confront the crises that Mrs Merkel has left largely unattended: decarbonising the powerful auto sector; clearing the country of coal; rethink trade relations with strategic competitors such as China and Russia.
It’s not always an easy sell. In an unusually tense race, there is still a chance from the outside that the Greens will overtake Germany’s two established sides. But even if they don’t, there’s almost no combination of parties imaginable in the next coalition government that doesn’t include them. That makes Mrs Baerbock, her ideas and her party crucial for the future of Germany.
But Germans are still getting to know her.
Ms Baerbock, a competitive trampoline jumper in her youth who became a legislator at age 32 and has two young daughters, made her entrance onto Germany’s national political scene only three years ago when she was elected one of the two leaders of the Greens. . “Annalena Who?” asked a newspaper at the time.
After being nominated as the Greens’ first-ever chancellor candidate in April, Ms. Baerbock briefly passed her rivals in the long-dominant German parties: Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democrats, and Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats, who now leads the race.
But she fell behind after repeatedly tripping. Rivals accused Ms. Baerbock of plagiarism after revelations that she failed to attribute certain passages in a recently published book. Inaccurate labeling of some of her memberships led to headlines about her stuffing her resume.
More recently, she and her party failed to seize the deadly floods that have killed more than 180 people in West Germany to power her campaign, even as the climate change disaster — the Greens’ flagship — rises to the top. off the political agenda.
Hoping to reset her campaign, Ms Baerbock, traveling in a bright green double-decker bus covered in solar panels, is making her pitch to German voters in 45 cities and towns across the country.
It was no coincidence that her first stop was Germany’s industrial heartland, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which was hit hard by flooding this summer and run by Mr Laschet, who has been criticized for mishandling the disaster.
“Climate change is not something that happens far away in other countries, climate change is here and now with us,” Ms Baerbock told a crowd of several hundred students, workers and young parents with their children in Bochum.
“Rich people will always be able to buy themselves out, but most people won’t,” she said. “That’s why for me climate change and social justice are two sides of the same coin.”
Ms. Baerbock left the stage with her microphone, mingling with the audience, answering questions on a variety of topics – managing schools during the pandemic, cybersecurity – and apologizing for her early missteps.
“Yes, we’ve made mistakes and I’m annoyed with myself,” she said. “But I know where I want to go.”
If there’s one thing that sets Ms. Baerbock apart from her rivals, it’s this relative openness and youthful confidence coupled with a bold vision. It is the next generation of a Green Party that has come a long way since its inception as a radical ‘anti-party’ party four decades ago.
In those early days, opposition, not government, was the goal.
For Ms. Baerbock, “government is radical”.
Her party’s evolution from a fringe protest movement to a serious contender for power mirrors in many ways her own biography.
Born in 1980, she is as old as her party. When she was a toddler, her parents took her to anti-NATO protests. By the time she joined the Greens as a student in 2005, the party had completed its first stint in government as a junior partner of the Social Democrats.
In the meantime, many voters have come to see the Greens as a party that has come of age and yet has remained true to its principles. It is pro-environment, pro-Europe and unashamedly pro-immigration.
Ms Baerbock proposes spending 50 billion euros, about $59 billion, on green investments every year for a decade to finance Germany’s transformation to a carbon-neutral economy – and pay for it by scrapping the country’s strict balanced budget rule .
It would raise taxes for top earners and impose import tariffs that are not carbon neutral. She sees solar panels on every roof, a world-class electric car industry, a higher minimum wage and climate subsidies for people on low incomes. She wants to work with the United States to crack down on China and Russia.
She is also committed to Germany’s growing diversity — the only candidate who has spoken out about the country’s moral responsibility to take in some Afghan refugees alongside those who have aided Western troops.
Ms. Baerbock’s ambitions to break taboos at home and abroad – and her emergence as a serious challenger to the status quo – is drawing voters’ attention as the election approaches.
It has also made her a target of online disinformation campaigns by the far right and others. A fake nude photo of her is circulating with the caption, “I needed the money.” False quotes say she wants to ban all pets to minimize carbon emissions.
Ms Baerbock’s enemies in the mainstream conservative media have also not held back, exploiting every stumble she has made.
Many of those who heard her speak recently in Bochum said they were impressed by her confident performance (she spoke without notes) and her willingness to engage with voters in front of rolling cameras.
“She focused on problems and not on emotions,” says Katharina Münch, a retired teacher. “She seems really solid.”
Others were concerned about her young age and lack of experience.
“What did she do to become chancellor?” said Frank Neuer, 29, a sales associate who had stopped by on his way to work. “I mean, it’s like running for chancellor.”
Political observers say the attacks on Ms. Baerbock were disproportionate and revealed a deeper phenomenon. Despite having a female chancellor for nearly two decades, women in German politics are still more tightly controlled and sometimes even outright sexism.
“My candidacy is polarizing in a way that was unimaginable for many women my age,” said Ms Baerbock, between stops in a light, wood-paneled cab on the top level of her campaign bus.
“In some ways, what I experienced is similar to what happened in the US when Hillary Clinton fled,” she added. “I stand for renewal, the others stand for the status quo, and of course those with an interest in the status quo see my candidacy as a declaration of war.”
When Ms Merkel first took office in 2005, at the age of 51, she was routinely described as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “girl” and received endless comments on her hairstyle as well as relentless questions about her ability. and readiness for office. Even allies in her own party fired her as interim leader at the time.
Ms. Baerbock’s response to such challenges is not to hide her childhood or motherhood, but rather to lean on it.
“It’s up to me as a mother, to us as a society, to us adults to be prepared for our children’s questions: have you acted?” she said. “Have we done everything we can to safeguard the climate and thus the freedom of our children?”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.