Floods, books & kids: Highlights of German election campaign

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FILE - In This Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 file photo, three elections posters show top candidate for chancellor of the Greens Annalena Baerbock, left, Social Democratic top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, center, and Christian Democratic top candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet, right, in Berlin, Germany. Germany's election campaign has largely focused on the three candidates hoping to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor after four terms in office. German federal elections will be on Sept. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, file)

BERLIN – Germans go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament and produce a new German leader after 16 years of having Angela Merkel at the helm. Merkel decided not to run for a fifth term and the election campaign has largely focused on the three candidates hoping to succeed her.

Here is a look at the highs, the lows and the unexpected that happened during Germany's latest campaign:

WHAT'S HOT, WHAT'S NOT

Climate change rose to the top of Germany's political agenda over the summer, following the deadly floods that hit western Germany in July and which experts say will become more likely if global warming continues.

The issue was hotly discussed during the televised election debates, with the three main candidates staking out different plans to tackle climate change.

While Merkel's center-right Union bloc and its main candidate, Armin Laschet, want to focus on technological solutions, the center-left Social Democrats under current Finance Minister Olaf Scholz emphasized the need to protect jobs from being lost as Europe's biggest economy tilts toward a carbon-neutral future.

The Greens, who have made the issue their core campaign topic, pledged to do everything to put Germany on course to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. They want to achieve that by ramping up carbon prices, requiring solar panels on all new public buildings and ending the use of coal eight years earlier than planned.

Foreign policy, including the future of the European Union, received comparatively little attention during the campaign. Although Berlin's allies have long called for Germany to show more leadership on the international stage, the three candidates shied away from presenting any radical foreign policy visions.

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NOT LAUGHING ANYMORE

One image that will remain in many voters' minds is that of Laschet laughing in the background during a somber visit by Germany's president to the flood region. Laschet, who is governor of the hard-hit state of North Rhine-Westphalia, later expressed regret for the incident.

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BOOK BLOOPERS

Both the Green party's candidate, Annalena Baerbock, and the Union bloc's Laschet were left red faced by revelations that they had been economical with crediting the sources they drew on for their books. The mistakes provided a further boost for Scholz, whose curt, no-nonsense image helped push his party to the front of the polls a month before the election.

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KID QUESTIONS

The three candidates arguably faced the toughest questions from two 10-year-olds who interviewed them in a play tent filled with toys.

While Baerbock struggled to explain her green tax policies to the children, Laschet raised eyebrows by defending his cigarillo habit with the words: “I don't inhale.”

Scholz was forced to explain to his under-age interviewers why the German government hasn't done more to stop migrants, including children, from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe.

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THE KIDS VOTE

Nine days before the official vote, 250,000 students under 18 were allowed to cast ballots for their preferred parties in a mock election in schools across Germany.

The result showed a narrow victory for the Greens, ahead of the Social Democrats and Merkel's Union bloc. In practice, however, German elections are heavily skewed toward older generations. First-time voters will make up less than 5% of the electorate of 60.4 million people on Sunday.

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GOVERNING COALITION COLORS

What have Jamaica and Kenya got to do with the German election? Because each party in Germany is associated with a particular color, the two countries’ flags are widely used as short-hand for specific alliances that might form a coalition government after the election.

A ‘Germany coalition’ would see Merkel’s center-right Union bloc (black) join forces with the center-left Social Democrats (red) and the free-market Free Democrats (yellow). Under ‘Jamaica,’ the Social Democrats would be replaced with the Greens.

Should the Greens join the current ‘grand coalition’ of the Union bloc and the Social Democrats, they will form a ‘Kenya’ coalition of black, red and green.

To add to the dizzying array of color-coded government options, a ‘traffic light’ of Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens is also possible, as is a ‘red-red-green’ alliance of the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party. That's because the Left traditionally also claims a slightly different shade of red.

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A SMALL PROBLEM ...

Opinion polls show smaller parties are getting more support than during many previous German elections, sapping votes from larger rivals and making forming a governing coalition harder. One tiny party that could enter the German parliament again for the first time since 1949 is the South Schleswig Voters’ Association, or SSW. Election authorities say as a party representing the Danish minority in Germany it doesn't need to meet the usual 5% vote threshold.

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... AND A BIG ONE

Whoever wins Sunday's election, experts say Germany's next parliament will likely be bigger than ever. Election rules mean the current 709-seat Bundestag could grow to 800 seats or more, making it even more unwieldy than it already is.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Germany’s election at https://apnews.com/hub/germany-election