German Elections 2021: the end of the Merkel era

Germany went to the polls on Sunday to vote in one of the more consequential federal elections in recent memory. Chancellor Angela Merkel chose not to seek re-election after nearly sixteen years of leading Europe’s most powerful state, a decision which has challenged the balance of power both domestically and globally. ‘Mutti’ undoubtedly casts a long shadow.

Chancellor Merkel will leave her post when a new government can be formed | Wikimedia Commons

While other leaders have come and gone, Merkel provided stability in the heart of Europe through cautious but often resolute manoeuvring in times of calm and crisis. While not always the willing de facto leader of the European Union, she pushed for greater integration and solidarity, exemplified by the Greek Debt Crisis of 2009. During the 2015 European Migrant Crisis, Merkel gambled on a policy of mass immigration while other states imposed restrictions. Over a million migrants were granted asylum in 2015 alone, magnitudes higher than France and the UK. ‘Wir schaffen das’, ‘We can do this’ became a rallying cry for some, but evoked derision from others.

While not one to push a strong ideological vision for Germany, she ultimately succeeded through her ability to methodically manage her government, learn from mistakes, and take bold action when necessity demanded.

What happened at the ballot box?

Federal elections use a proportional voting system which results in voters placing support for a wider range of parties. Sunday’s election was historically split with six parties achieving over 5% of the vote to secure representation in the Bundestag. Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union) came into the campaign with a commanding lead, achieving 41.5% of the vote in 2017. Now under the leadership of Armin Laschet, it quickly became clear that this result wouldn’t be replicated with both the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and surging Greens leading polls during the campaign. The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AFD) expected to replicate their strong showing four years ago, Die Linke (The Left) hoped to hold ground under new leadership, and FDP (Free Democratic Party) expected to gain influence in a new coalition if results were successful.

As polls indicated, it was a good night for the SPD and Greens as the CDU lost its stranglehold on the Chancellorship. The SPD won the plurality of the vote with 25.7%, followed by 24.1% for the CDU, a historic 14.8% for the Greens, and an improved 11.5% for the FDP. The radical fringe parties AFD and Die Linke lost votes and saw parliamentary seats drop by around half in the case of Die Linke. Symbolically, the 15th constituency of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania flipped from the CDU to the SPD for the first time since its formation in 1990 – Angela Merkel’s seat.

Percentage breakdown of allocated seats. Voters make two choices: one vote for a local representative and one vote for a party. Therefore vote share doesn’t always correspond exactly to the number of seats | Falmouth Anchor

Who’s next?

Olaf Scholz looks set to become the next German Chancellor. He currently serves as the Vice Chancellor, leading the SPD as the junior partner in coalition with Merkel’s CDU. In his youth, Scholz was the vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth and first served in the Bundestag in 1998. Now a veteran of German politics, the 63-year-old has served in various roles regionally and nationally, as Mayor of Hamburg, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, and Minister of Finance. Despite leading the opposition party, Scholz is considered a similarly pragmatic and moderate leader, much like the outgoing Chancellor whose large boots he is tasked with filling.

Olaf Scholz is expected to lead a three-way coalition as Chancellor | Wikimedia Commons

The coalition game:

This will be the first time since 2005 that the SPD will control the Chancellorship, although the party will not govern alone due to the coalitional nature of the German political system. A ‘Traffic Light Coalition’ is most likely going to be formed in the coming months: SPD (Red), FDP (Yellow) and Greens (Green) pooling votes to form a majority in the most fragmented Bundestag since the implementation of the Basic Law in 1945. In his victory speech, Scholz said ‘therefore the clear mandate the citizens of this country have given is that these three should form a government’, seemingly disregarding the idea of another ‘Grand Coalition’ between the SPD and CDU as has been the case since 2013.

This will be the first time three entirely separate parties will enter government together, although the party leaders have made clear that they have much in common. Environmentalism will be at the top of the agenda with the SPD and FDP pledging carbon neutrality by 2045, while the Greens will push for more ambitious targets, including a phase-out of coal by 2030 instead of 2038 and a carbon target of 2041. All three parties are socially liberal, but a sticking point may be the FDP’s more libertarian stance on economic policy. Leader Christian Lindner has been rumored to head the Ministry of Finance in order to control state debts, prevent tax rises, and generally prevent any major extensions of government power. This could place him at odds with the ambitious goals of Annalena Baerbock’s Greens, although he has suggested a summit between the two, ensuring that any differences are hashed out before the formation of a government.

Coalitions often take months to form, meaning that Merkel will continue as Chancellor for now. If she stays in power until December 17th, Helmut Kohl’s record as the longest serving Chancellor will be broken. Despite Laschet delivering the CDU’s worst ever election result, he is keeping options open to play a role in a coalition if ‘Traffic Light’ talks fall through as they did in 2017 when the FDP rejected a coalition with the CDU and Greens. A ‘Kenya’ coalition, as proposed in 2017, could mathematically be formed; as could another ‘Grand Coalition’. Regardless, an era of German history is ending. Merkel will leave on her own terms, while a new generation of leaders must agree to their own.