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Here’s What to Watch for in Germany’s Election This Weekend

Ten things to keep your eyes on as the Merkel era comes to an end.
September 24, 2021
Here’s What to Watch for in Germany’s Election This Weekend
A German flag (r) and a European flag fly in front of the Reichstag building, the seat of the German Bundestag. Photo: Carsten Koall/dpa (Photo by Carsten Koall/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As Germany goes to the polls this weekend, I am reminded of a slogan used by Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, in his 1957 re-election campaign: Keine Experimente! (“No Experiments!”). It was his way of cautioning the electorate to avoid taking risks on untested parties and politicians and to stick with the steady postwar stability Adenauer and his party were offering.

Adenaeur’s admonition seems to be animating almost all of the major parties involved in this year’s German election—not only those that are usually lumped into the “conservative” camp, but also the two largest parties of the left.

This election represents a major turning point in German politics: Chancellor Angela Merkel is retiring after almost 16 years at the helm. She has remained unflappable and inscrutable over that time, and earned a reputation for competence, calmness, and pragmatism. While her handling of the refugee crisis in 2015 was probably the most controversial policymaking in Germany since 1989, she sold it in the same composed, understated manner you would expect of a regulation on the Leber content of Leberwurst. This levelheaded attitude toward policymaking, irrespective of its import or topic, has been one of Merkel’s great strengths, and Germans have become accustomed to it. Even when there have been experiments—such as the emphasis on renewable energy and the decommissioning of coal-fired and nuclear power stations, or the way the Merkel government has dealt with 2.5 million asylum claims in the past decade, officially accepting 1.15 million of them—those experiments have generally been presented not as proactive changes but common-sense reactions or moderate progress.

For most of her tenure, Merkel’s favorability ratings have been high, which is why—unlike every previous postwar chancellor—she is leaving office by retiring at a time of her choosing. But her favorability does not guarantee success for her party, the Christian Democrats. Her attempt to handpick a successor failed, and going into Sunday’s election the CDU is in second place in the polls.

The Bundestag is the biggest national legislative body in the free world. (The number of seats changes frequently, and will change after this election—more about that in a moment.) Only once in the postwar period has a single party won an outright majority of seats—the 1957 Adenauer re-election mentioned earlier. Which means that forming a government almost always depends not just on the election results but on the construction of a coalition of parties into a majority. Current national polls indicate an advantage for the leftish, working-classish Social Democrats (SPD, 25 percent) over Merkel’s rightish Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU, 21 percent), followed by the bourgeois-guilt Greens (15 percent), the flirting-with-Nazis-but-no-kissing-unless-I’m-drunk Alternative for Germany (AfD, 12 percent), the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP, 11 percent), and the we-promise-this-time-socialism-will-work/Che-Guevara-leftovers Left (7 percent). Due to Germany’s peculiar two-vote voting system, current estimates suggest there will be a whopping 872 seats in the Bundestag after the election, with the SPD predicted to win 238; the CDU/CSU 204; the Greens 153; the FDP and the AfD each 105; and the Left 67.

Of the four governments Merkel has headed, three have been so-called “Grand Coalitions” of the biggest parties, her CDU/CSU and the SPD—sort of like a marriage of the moderates in the old, pre-Trump GOP caucus plus enough Blue Dog Democrats to get to 50 percent. The other Merkel government was a coalition of the CDU/CSU and the FDP. If the estimated party breakdowns prove correct on Sunday, the likeliest outcome will be another Grand Coalition government, but with the SPD in the senior position. Alternatives are possible, however.

Here are ten things to watch for in Sunday’s election and the aftermath:

1. Voting by mail.

Germany is following in the footsteps of the United States and permitting voting by mail on a major scale for the first time. There is considerably less worry among German voters about election integrity than in the United States. In Germany, all registered voters receive letters inviting them to vote, which they then have to mail back with their ballot or bring to the polling station along with a valid ID. Some studies estimate that 40 percent of the electorate will have voted by mail, many well in advance of the deadline; it is unclear how this will affect the results.

2. Buckle up for a long ride.

The vote-counting is likely to be done by Sunday evening—so don’t expect the sort of post-election shenanigans you saw in the United States last year—but negotiations over forming a coalition can take a while. Four years ago, it took six months and three-party coalition talks collapsing before the CDU/CSU and the SPD tied the knot in a joyless ceremony with only family and a few embarrassed friends on hand. According to a (tragically false) report first published in Germany’s largest (but least accurate) newspaper, an online gambling site in the U.K. (betting on politics is illegal in Germany) found the person considered most likely to be chancellor on New Year’s Eve to be . . . Angela Merkel, waiting for her replacement. (As it turns out, she’s in second place.)

3. SPD will likely be in front . . . with a jumbled mess of other parties behind them.

Germany’s political class across the political spectrum has internalized the Merkelian attitude to a politics of calm. The SPD’s chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, has risen in the polls in no small part because of his reputation for competence and calmness, almost to the point of being boring—precisely what one would expect from a minister of finance, which Scholz has been since 2018. Voters have slowly been coalescing around the SPD not because of their revolutionary spirit, but because they are selling competence and experience. The party is also calling for a higher minimum wage and the usual slate of center-left redistributive policies; however, these also must be seen not as a policy of a future-oriented Germany, but of a “good-old-days-for-the-working-class” nostalgia. As in the United States, the pandemic has been hardest on those who can’t work from home, and the Gini coefficient in Germany has also been rising since COVID hit. Many Germans see more redistribution as a correction to the old “normal” rather than new “progress.”

4. The mainstreaming of the Greens.

In the SPD’s perfect world, they would have a single coalition partner, the Green party. But unless the Greens far outperform expectations on Sunday (which may happen if Left voters vote tactically for the Greens), they will likely remain in the minority.

Long considered hippies and clowns, the Greens have taken as their election slogan “Ready, because you are”—in other words, We’re as mainstream as you have become. They have been appealing to middle-class voters with campaign posters that read “Trains, schools, internet: A country that just works.” Going from saving the whales to making the trains run on time; clearly, the Green Party is fully integrated into German society. Longtime Green voters are hardly the picture of conservatism, but they have become parents and grandparents, with mortgages and public-school concerns and retirement plans. Climate change is still the major item on the Green agenda (“An economy and a climate, without the crisis”)—but after thirty years of Green politics, the Greens have moved the Overton window far enough that the topic of the environment itself is one that all parties have to pay at least lip service to. To the extent that the Greens are champing at the bit for pricey—experimental—environmental plans (analogous to the Green New Deal in the United States), they haven’t been framing them as departures from German habits, but as ways to strengthen the “Made in Germany” economy. The Greens also are deeply involved in feminist, transgender, race, and other identity issues, but as much as these issues concern the party’s base, they are (understandably) not major elements of the party’s outreach for new voters.

5. Incumbents adjusting to a new reality.

The incumbent Christian Democratic Union, currently polling in second place, is likely either to go into opposition for the first time in 16 years or to become the junior partner in a coalition with the SPD—an outcome that no one really wants but that might be the most feasible solution to post-election coalition haggling. Internally riven, the CDU/CSU is still the party of the status quo; the party’s message has been one of Don’t trust the parties of the left if you care about prosperity. As Germany’s big-tent conservative party, its platform has been largely based on maintaining prosperity at home and leadership in Europe.

6. The effect of the chancellor candidates on votes for the parties.

When pollsters ask “Who should become chancellor?” the SPD’s Olaf Scholz polls ahead of his party: 30 percent of Germans say Scholz should be chancellor, while only 25 percent of the population plans to vote for the SPD.

Meanwhile, the candidate representing the CDU/CSU, Armin Laschet, has never missed an opportunity to make a gaffe. His party’s voters will tolerate him if it means keeping the left side of the spectrum out. The governor of Germany’s largest state by population, Laschet himself was a compromise candidate for a party that after 16 years of Merkel found itself in an identity crisis.

The FDP and Green leaders are a generation younger than Scholz and Laschet. FDP’s Christian Lindner, age 42, is expected to demand control of the finance ministry if his party is brought into a coalition government. However, his hardball negotiations in 2017 led the other parties to eventually reject him and his party altogether. Annalena Baerbock, 40, the Green leader, is relatively inexperienced and unpolished, and still occasionally gets a deer-in-the-headlights look when she receives a difficult question. Sometimes she even answers it truthfully, which reveals her inexperience even more.

7. How will the Alternative for Germany perform?

Four years ago, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) made headlines around the world when the party outperformed expectations—suggesting that the Bradley effect had kept some Germans from admitting to pollsters that they intended to vote for the “bad guys” in German politics.

Every election has a ratchet effect on the AfD, whereby the party kicks out its least-crazy elements and moves closer to outright nationalism. Nevertheless, they continue to attract a variety of disenchanted voters for a variety of reasons. In previous years, they were the “anti-refugee” party; this time, they are the “anti-vaxxer” party. Currently, the AfD is polling at 12 percent, and would thus be the fourth-largest party in the Bundestag—assuming the polling is accurate this time and assuming their voters actually turn out. There is no chance of AfD entering the government—they are politically toxic and no other party would want to join in a coalition with them—but they can still be spoilers: If AfD siphons off enough votes from the CDU or the SPD, they could make coalition-building among the remaining parties difficult.

8. Possible “kingmaker” parties.

Four years ago, none of the parties wanted a Grand Coalition; none of the voters wanted it; it nevertheless happened. This time, none of the parties want it; none of the voters want it; but it is still a likely scenario anyway.

But there are three other feasible scenarios: (1) The SPD and the Greens could form a coalition with the Left, creating a “Red-Green-Red” coalition, though that may be a challenge to negotiate. While such a coalition would exclude the CDU, it would likely give the CDU a lot to run against in four years. (2) There could be a “strange bedfellows” coalition comprising the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democrats. While each of those parties has a few things in common with the others, there is very little that all three share. (3) One statistical model envisions the most probable outcome as the CDU/CSU leading a “Jamaica” coalition with the Greens and the FDP. In this scenario, the top party, the SPD, would be shut out of government altogether, which would be unprecedented in German politics—but then, so would any other three-party coalition or a Grand Coalition headed by the SPD.

9. What about COVID?

In Germany, the pandemic is more of a state and local issue than a national issue, and responses to the pandemic have not fallen neatly along partisan lines. For example, one of the deepest splits in the CDU/CSU prior to selecting their candidate for chancellor was the proper policy on COVID. In Bavaria, lockdowns and outdoor mask requirements were the order of the day, but in North-Rhine Westphalia—where Armin Laschet is the governor—the emphasis was on keeping as much open as possible. The bigger parties have all found that specifics on this topic are far more likely to lose voters than gain them, and so the pandemic has played a smaller role in this election season than you might expect.

10. What this election could mean for the United States.

Foreign policy has taken a back seat in this election. Germany takes its role as Europe’s leader as a major responsibility and a self-evident fact. All parties see Germany’s future in Europe, and Europe’s future in Germany. This means that Brussels and the European Union will still be the chief focus of attention for the next foreign minister, regardless of who ends up in the government.

Traditionally, however, the foreign ministry goes to the second-biggest partner in the coalition, so there’s a possibility that the Greens will end up running it. For the United States, that could have interesting implications. The Greens are less guided by the realpolitik of the SPD and CDU/CSU; their position on Russia is that Putin is too oily, gassy, and anti-gay. U.S. policymakers should be able to work with that. On the other hand, the Greens have long opposed various agricultural exports from the United States, including GMO corn and beef treated with hormones. They are the heirs of the anti-Pershing-missile demonstrations in the 1980s, though nowadays they support Germany’s continued participation in NATO.

In the case of a Grand Coalition, however, the CDU/CSU would be moving into the foreign ministry. The party has never been a junior partner in a coalition before, but it would represent an element of continuity vis-à-vis the United States. Traditionally, the Christian Democrats have been avid supporters of the transatlantic alliance. Europeans across the geographical and political spectrum have been reassessing their U.S. policy—after all, American presidents have recently seemed somewhat unreliable as partners. Having a CDU/CSU figure running the foreign ministry would represent stability for the United States.

Matthew C. Rees

Matthew C. Rees is a writer, translator, and educator living in Osnabrück, Germany.