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GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — When Annalena Baerbock entered the race for German chancellor as the Greens’ first-ever candidate for the job, she had a bold plan to change the country and a seemingly decent chance of winning.
Today, with her party lagging in the polls, those hopes have all but evaporated — and a big part of that comes down to Baerbock and the campaign she’s run.
At the outset, the 40-year-old politician had a lot going for her. The party’s co-leader since 2018, she had helped shape the Greens into a pragmatic, centrist force that performed well in state and European elections.
Due to climate-driven disasters like the deadly flooding in western Germany this summer, the impact of global warming — the Greens’ signature issue — has never been more prevalent in voters’ minds. And Baerbock’s campaign rollout in April was nearly flawless, standing in stark contrast to the public infighting within Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc over who would become chancellor candidate.
For a short period, the Greens were first in the polls, and some felt Germany was on the cusp of a Green revolution.
But soon, Baerbock and her team came under the intense scrutiny that comes with being a real contender for the chancellery. She made a series of avoidable missteps, and she and her team seemed unprepared to handle the fallout. That, combined with her lack of government experience, damaged Baerbock’s credibility at a time when many voters’ impressions of her were not fully formed, a dynamic from which she’s struggled to recover.
According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the Greens currently stand at 16 percent, down from a high of 25 percent in the spring. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), meanwhile, have surged to 26 percent, and the conservative CDU/CSU bloc is at 21 percent.
Although she has acknowledged shortcomings in her campaign, Baerbock attributes much of her troubles to attacks by political enemies resistant to change.
“Of course there are forces in society that greatly profit from the status quo,” she told POLITICO after a recent campaign rally in the industrial city of Gelsenkirchen. “We knew that they would try and oppose our agenda of change with everything they have,” she added. “We were prepared for that — perhaps not for every difficult moment, for every campaign and personal attack — but still.”
Despite her party’s decline, Baerbock almost certainly has a key role to play in any future German government. If the polls are right, the Greens could still nearly double the 8.9 percent they received in the last general election in 2017. It’s hard to see how Germany’s next coalition government doesn’t include the Greens.
Under other circumstances, that would be considered a major success. But by setting their sights on the chancellery, the Greens’ high expectations gave Baerbock further to fall.
Baerbock was born in 1980, the same year the Greens formed in West Germany. She joined while she was still a student in 2005, the year the party finished their first stint in a federal governing coalition, with the Social Democrats.
After studying political science and law in Hamburg and London, Baerbock worked as a staffer for a member of the European Parliament and as an adviser on foreign affairs and security policy for the Greens’ faction in Germany’s Bundestag. In 2013, she won a Bundestag seat representing Potsdam, outside the capital, and became the party’s spokesperson on climate issues.
Baerbock was elected co-leader of the party in 2018 along with Robert Habeck, a minister in a regional state government. Both hail from the party’s pragmatic realo wing, so-called because they are seen as more realistic. The new leaders set out to shed the Greens’ reputation as a Verbotspartei, a party that wants to ban everything. Instead, they sought to present an optimistic vision for Germany’s future and to blend the party’s ambitious policy goals with the pragmatism needed to govern with other parties.
Baerbock has been “a core factor in leading the party to success,” said Bastian Hermisson, the head of the North America office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated to the Greens. Her goal, he said, was to broaden the party’s appeal and make it “the defining force of the political center in Germany.”
That new direction helped bring the Greens to significant gains in elections in states such as Hesse and Bavaria in recent years. Those results, taken together with a strong performance in the 2019 European Parliament election helped set the stage for Baerbock’s candidacy and the party’s historic chance at the chancellery.
Good start gone bad
The euphoria of the early days of the campaign wore off relatively quickly, however, once Baerbock came under attack.
First came reports that she failed to report supplementary income from the party. Then it surfaced that her official CV included inconsistencies, seemingly intended to pad her resumé. And in late June, a plagiarism expert presented evidence that she had plagiarized parts of her latest book.
Although none of the allegations on their own were enough to tank her candidacy, they were the sort of things that experienced campaigns vet beforehand. Taken together, they gave the impression that the Greens didn’t have the sort of capable operation their opponents did.
Baerbock’s opponents then pounced.
“She deliberately deceived, worked sloppily, and has again overstated her own work,” Markus Blume, secretary-general of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, told Focus magazine after the plagiarism allegations surfaced. “This appears to be systematic for Annalena Baerbock, and once again raises doubts about her credibility.”
Bas Eickhout, a prominent Dutch Green MEP who worked with Baerbock during the European Parliament campaign in 2019, said the team at the top of Baerbock’s campaign wasn’t ready for the vitriol that followed her initial surge in the polls.
“You have the backlash [and] there they were just not prepared,” said Eickhout. “When you make mistakes at a sensitive moment, it is difficult to recover.”
Baerbock’s allies came to her defense, dismissing the drumbeat of small scandals as an orchestrated attempt to destroy her character. Others have said that, as a woman — and especially a young woman — she’s sometimes held to different standards than her male counterparts.
At the same time, Baerbock appears to be in the crosshairs of suspected Kremlin-backed disinformation. She has been the top target of false attacks on candidates during the campaign: One recent study suggested she’s been on the receiving end of around 70 percent of those attacks, compared with 30 percent for the conservatives’ Armin Laschet and almost none for the SPD’s Olaf Scholz.
“It was a mistake not to vet her properly, and these are sloppy mistakes that could have been avoided,” said Arne Jungjohann, a Stuttgart-based political scientist. Still, he said, Baerbock has faced “especially tough scrutiny.”
Baerbock has acknowledged and apologized for past missteps and she has tried to refocus her campaign on policy issues. But little time remains for her to turn things around.
With an ambitious travel schedule in the final weeks of the campaign — more than 40 cities in seven weeks— Baerbock is criss-crossing the country in an attempt to recover some momentum.
At a series of campaign stops observed by POLITICO — one in her home city of Potsdam and three across Germany’s industrial west — an energetic Baerbock was received by large, enthusiastic crowds.
At times during her speeches, she went on the attack, depicting Laschet and Scholz as too bogged down in politics-as-usual to combat the climate crisis.
“The gentlemen from the grand coalition stand for more of the same,” she said in Potsdam. “The Greens and I stand for renewal, because we can feel what is possible in this country.”
Baerbock’s message clearly resonated with her audience. But whether it’s enough to boost the Greens’ support by election day remains an open question.
In the final days of what’s been the most volatile campaign in recent German history, Baerbock remained bullish on her chances.
“Now it’s clear that this race is coming down to the wire,” she told POLITICO.
Joshua Posaner contributed reporting.