Merkel steps down after 16 years, leaving race to a field of little-known candidates

 The contenders to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor sought to mobilize voters Friday as the election campaign neared its close, touting their credentials to lead Europe’s biggest economy into a new era as it grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, the Associated Press reports.

Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in power, and the race is wide open ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election. Polls show the outgoing leader’s center-right Union bloc, with Armin Laschet as its candidate for chancellor, a little behind or nearly level with the center-left Social Democrats, who have Finance Minister Olaf Scholz seeking the chancellorship.

The Greens, with Annalena Baerbock making the party’s first run for chancellor, are trailing in third place but could end up playing the kingmaker in forming a government.

Experts say one reason why this year’s German election is tighter and less predictable than usual is that the candidates are relative unknowns to most voters.

“It’s certainly not the most boring election,” University of Leipzig political scientist Hendrik Traeger said. “There were those in which Angela Merkel stood as the incumbent and it was simply a question of who she would govern with.”

This time, Merkel’s party has struggled to energize its traditional base, which has so far failed to warm to Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state.

“The key question is whether these voters will overcome the Laschet hurdle and vote for the Union despite Laschet” said Peter Matuschek of polling company Forsa. “Or will they abstain from the vote or even choose another party?”

Scholz, whose party has made steady gains in opinion polls during the campaign on the strength of his relative popularity, touted the outgoing government’s success in preserving jobs during the pandemic.

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