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One thing is clear about the 2021 German election: it is going to be consequential. Long-time chancellor and ostensible champion of democratic values, Angela Merkel, is leaving after 16 years in office. The consequences of this action are still uncertain.
Germany’s electoral system is unique. Voters elect representatives to the German parliament, or Bundestag, and they cast two votes. The first is for who will represent the local district in parliament (the person with the most votes wins the seat) and the second vote is for a party. If a party receives 27 percent of these votes, they will get 27 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, making this second vote even more important than the first. If a party fails to receive 5 percent of the vote, it does not qualify for any seats in Parliament, unless they carry at least 3 districts with the first vote.
This system is called mixed-member proportional representation and it tries to combine the best of both worlds of voting systems: the local representation element of Majority systems and the accurate depiction of political forces of the Proportional system. This also leads to the need for coalition governments, as one party is unlikely to receive over 50 percent of votes. (In fact, it has happened only once in West Germany since the war, in the election of 1957.)
The results of the Sunday, September 26 national election left the Social Democrats with a narrow lead over Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The new government will probably require a coalition of at least three parties, and its shape is likely to be unclear for weeks, if not months. This new constellation will have implications not only for Germany, but also for the European Union and global affairs in general, as Germany continues to play an important role in international negotiations like in the Iran Nuclear Deal.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is the party of Chancellor Merkel. Her designated successor is Armin Laschet, a Merkel-like pragmatic moderate and the prime minister of the most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian counterpart, Christian Social Union (CSU), have held power for 52 out of the 72 years of the German federal republic’s existence. Their political profile is rather broad: the party includes progressive moderates, staunch conservatives, and everything in between. They take pride in being a Volkspartei—a party that enjoys broad popular support, from blue-collar workers to the CEO of blue-chip companies. However, in recent years they have struggled in opinion polls and their support has dipped as low as 22 percent.
The Christian Democrat’s biggest rival is the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Their winning candidate for chancellor is Olaf Scholz, finance minister and former Mayor of Hamburg. Although he’s sometimes seen as being bland and robotic, voters value his political experience and knowledge. In the early 2000s, the Social Democrats had around 40 percent support in public opinion polls, which plummeted to as low as 12 percent just last year. Their apparent victory, though narrow, comes as a political surprise.
The other big player in Sunday’s national election was the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Green Party). In the last couple of years, they have experienced a surge in popularity due to the importance of climate change in public opinion. The party also changed its political profile from a small, leftist party to a more inclusive, middle-of-the-road political force. Their candidate for chancellor embodies these changes: Annalena Baerbock is young, energetic and has a “neither left nor right, but forward” approach to politics.
Besides the Big Three political parties, there are a number of smaller parties that will play an important role in the aftermath of the election. One of them is the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a pro-business, small government party. They, too, have changed quite a bit in recent years. After the 2013 election, when they obtained less than 5 percent of votes, they were no longer represented in parliament. This led to an upheaval in party personnel, and some significant policy changes. For example, the FDP now advocate for the legalization of cannabis, a minority stance in Germany.
Die Linke (Left Party) is a similarly small party on the radical left. They originated from the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which had long been the ruling party of East Germany. After reunification, they adapted to the new political system and have since become an integral part of the political system. They see themselves as a hard left, sometimes even communist, movement and their ideas include vastly expanding social welfare, increasing taxes on the rich, and leaving NATO. Although they exercise some power in coalition governments in a few German states, they have never exercised power at the federal level.
The most disruptive party in Germany at the moment is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). A couple of economics professors formed the party in 2013 in direct opposition to the bailout of various European countries during the Euro crisis. Soon after that, they transformed into a far right-wing party with increasingly radical views about curbing migration. One of the co-founders infamously said that Germans have the right to be proud of the accomplishments of German soldiers during the two World Wars. They entered parliament after the 2017 election, and most likely will remain a political factor in Germany for years to come.
The 2021 vote was a disaster for Die Linke, who failed to reach the 5 percent threshold but won three seats with the first vote and therefore will stay in parliament. The AfD got around 10 percent of the vote, the FDP over 11 percent and the Greens only 14.8 percent, less than anticipated. The winner was the SPD with 25.7 percent of the vote, and the CDU/CSU with 24.1 percent, their worst result yet.
It’s possible that the current coalition government, uniting the CDU and SPD, may continue, although in an altered combination Olaf Scholz would become chancellor and the CDU would be the junior partner. But the CDU has never been a junior partner in a coalition government and this partnership wasn’t exactly popular, either with the public or the leaders of the two parties. There has also been considerable talk about a left-wing government comprised of SPD, Greens, and the Left Party. Nevertheless, these three parties don’t represent a majority.
It comes down to this: Who can form a government with both the Greens and the FDP? Scholz or Laschet?
A coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens, and FDP would be a novelty on the federal level, but there is some precedent for it: the Social Democrats and FDP governed together in the 1960s and 1970s and so did the SPD and Green Party in the early 2000s. Furthermore, Olaf Scholz is the clear winner of this election. It feels natural that he’s the one to form a new government and bring some fresh air in.
It’s nevertheless unclear how such a coalition could possibly work. In its campaign, the FDP already ruled out higher government spending and new taxes, which both SPD and Greens want to enact. In addition, the SPD ran on the most progressive platform in its recent history, which could lead to tensions if the FDP is adamant about preventing a left turn in German politics.
Further complicating the situation is the stated preference, before the election, of FDP chairman Christian Lindner for a coalition with the CDU and Greens. Though the Greens have more policy convergence with the SPD than the CDU, they are unlikely to blindly follow the SPD, and in fact have governed in coalition with the CDU in recent years in a number of German states.
If I had to put money down, I would bet the next government will consist of CDU, Green Party, and the FDP. In the German system, the personal component of coalition negotiations matters a great deal. Christian Lindner and Armin Laschet previously formed a government in North Rhine-Westphalia and the co-leader of the Green Party, Robert Habeck, previously brokered a coalition with CDU and FDP in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, as Habeck was quick to point out on election night.
There are, of course, major problems with this scenario. It would make an apparent loser, Armin Laschet, the champion. And how could the Greens and the FDP possibly sell this coalition as a fresh start if Laschet became chancellor?
In conclusion, the SPD is in the driver’s seat to govern but Scholz will have an exceptionally difficult time trying to merge the diverting political programs. The FDP will maintain a firm position in the talks, as they know they can get a better deal with the CDU. Hence, Laschet could transform a defeat into a victory and, eventually, become chancellor, if Scholz fails to form a coalition.
Nicolas Allié is a visiting student from TU Dresden, Germany. His scholarly interests are comparative politics, International Relations, and empirical research methods.