After 16 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is about to step down as leader of Europe’s largest economy. Just a few months ago, the race to succeed her was all but over, with her center-right party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, commanding a commanding lead in the polls.

But, just days before Germans voted to form a new government on September 26, Merkel’s appointed successor found his campaign wallowing in the aftermath of gaffes and struggling to persuade a flood-ravaged nation that now is not the time for a sharp shift to the left in both domestic and foreign policy.

“He is not living up to the promise that he entered the election campaign with, that he is a continuation of Angela Merkel’s pragmatic but warm style,” said Professor Christoph Nguyen, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, to CBS News. “There have been some key gaffes, such as him laughing during a very sombre speech during the floods.”

Almost 200 people were killed in this summer’s floods. It was the worst natural disaster in recent German history, and it catapulted climate change — and Germany’s progressive Greens party — to the forefront of the election campaign. However, the Greens have recently lost ground, ceding ground to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The center-left party has been Merkel’s junior coalition partner for the last eight years, and the SPD’s Olaf Scholz has served as her vice chancellor for the last three.

The plain-spoken politician now appears to be on track to become Germany’s next chancellor, apparently appealing to voters who want something more akin to the status quo.

“He was a great finance minister, he’s globally connected, he’s a champion of Europe — whether that makes him a great Chancellor, I’m not sure, but I think he has a good chance,” Berlin resident Andreas Schleicher said just a couple days before the election.

The electoral system in Germany almost always results in the formation of a coalition government, in which no single figure or party has the power to sway the country’s fortunes alone.

Merkel is widely regarded as one of Europe’s most effective leaders in recent years, and whoever succeeds her, and with whom they decide to collaborate, will have their work cut out for them. This work will include reestablishing transatlantic ties after Europe reacted angrily to the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

According to Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador to the United States, the United States will undoubtedly lose a well-known and reliable partner with Merkel’s departure.

“The good news is that, regardless of the outcome of our elections, the next government will not become hostile to the United States,” he added.

But that is not the message Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been sending to German voters in the run-up to the election. The prospect of a potential left-wing coalition formed by the SPD and the Greens, possibly including the former communist Die Linke (The Left), is one that Laschet hopes will frighten centrist voters back into the arms of his own party’s familiar, center-right wing.

“Does anyone truly believe in a party that wants to override constitutional norms, that wants to leave NATO, that has voted against every European unification measure?” he asked at a recent campaign rally in Berlin, attempting to instill fear about Die Linke’s genuine anti-NATO stance and refusal to support military deployments with European partners.

Scholz’s Social Democrats insist that, regardless of potential coalition partners, they will not compromise on their more centrist values. Their rivals in Merkel’s CDU, on the other hand, say it’s clear the party wants to form an alliance with the left — and, in the process, pull Germany’s national and international politics in that direction.

The real question, as an increasingly assertive Russia looms to the east and ties with Washington are being repaired, is how far to the left Merkel’s departure will push the country.