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With just five months to go until the German election, the race has begun to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, who's stepping down after 16 years in office. And as Esme Nicholson reports, the two main candidates are laying claim to Merkel's centrist legacy.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: The post-Merkel era is imminent, something an anxious German electorate has been trying to ignore. But that changed last week when the Green Party announced its first-ever chancellor candidate. Annalena Baerbock immediately declared her intention to shake things up.
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ANNALENA BAERBOCK: (Through interpreter) Democracy thrives on change. Sure, I've never been a chancellor, nor have I been a minister. But I'm running for renewal. Others are running for the status quo. This country needs a fresh start.
NICHOLSON: Baerbock, a 40-year-old career politician who's said to be diligent and disciplined, is already being likened to Merkel. Sixty-year-old Armin Laschet, who also announced his candidacy for the Conservative Party last week, had been rather hoping he would be the one to ride Merkel's coattails into the chancellorship. Instead, as the candidate for a party that's been in power for 16 years, he's been forced to promise change as well.
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ARMIN LASCHET: (Through interpreter) We cannot continue with business as usual. This country needs modernizing. It needs speeding up and improving.
NICHOLSON: But Jana Puglierin, head of Berlin's European Council on Foreign Relations, says Laschet - who's a centrist within the center-right CDU party - is very much business as usual.
JANA PUGLIERIN: Armin Laschet, basically, is the reincarnation of continuity. He is, in many ways, Merkel in a suit.
NICHOLSON: Despite lackluster polling, Puglierin says that Laschet, an experienced politician who governs Germany's most populous state, is often underestimated. Still, she adds, he has his work cut out with Baerbock in the race.
PUGLIERIN: Germany is a very status quo-oriented country. But after 16 years, I think there is some change in the air. And Annalena Baerbock is the newcomer. She is fresh air. She has new ideas, a new spirit.
NICHOLSON: At an outdoor market in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, Clara Himmel, a 66-year-old retired nurse, has just snapped up the last of the rhubarb from an organic produce store. She's never voted Green before, thinking them too radical. But she says Baerbock's candidacy shows the Greens have moved beyond all that.
CLARA HIMMEL: (Through interpreter) I like Baerbock. She knows what she wants, and she's no-nonsense about getting it. I think she's in with a real chance of becoming chancellor. She's a breath of fresh air that would do our country good.
NICHOLSON: Baerbock has moved to the once-single-issue environmentalist party into the political center, promising to invest in schools and infrastructure neglected by Merkel's administration. The Green Party diverges from Laschet's Conservatives on foreign policy, taking a tough line on China and Russia. For his part, Armin Laschet espouses the same pro-refugee and pro-European stance as both the Green Party and Angela Merkel, but he's seen by many Germans as a personification of the status quo in a country starting to think about change.
NICHOLSON: Back at the market, 44-year-old Martin Borcott (ph) says he doesn't want to vote Green but can't see a good alternative.
MARTIN BORCOTT: (Through interpreter) I wouldn't be against having an older man as chancellor again after all these years, but Laschet doesn't represent my politics, and the Social Democrats' candidate isn't really in the running.
NICHOLSON: While Baerbock and Laschet fight over the political center, Germany's reliance on coalition governments means they could end up governing together.
For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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