Germany election

Germany returns a fractured mandate

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for the post of Chancellor. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Armin Laschet, Scholz’s main rival vying for the Chancellor’s job from the Christian Democratic Union. Photo: Martin Meissner/AP

Angela Merkel, who served as Chancellor for four terms, from 2005 to 2021. Photo: Fabian Sommer VIA REUTERS

Annalena Baerbock, leader of the Green Party (Die Gruenen). Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at a rally outside the German parliament in Berlin on September 24, two days before the election. Photo: John MACDOUGALL/AFP

The German political landscape witnesses a dramatic change as the results of the general election force the two mainstream parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, to go in for a multiparty coalition.

As pollsters have been predicting for some time, Germany returned a fractured mandate in the general election held on September 26. For the first time, a majority of German voters have given the thumbs down to the two mainstream parties that have been ruling the country since the Second World War.

The German political landscape is now witnessing a dramatic change. Two smaller parties are now in a position to decide which party rules Germany for the next four years. The era of coalition governments will continue, but this year’s results will leave the establishment parties with no choice but to go in for a multiparty coalition for the first time.

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has been at the helm of affairs for most of the last two decades in Germany, has recorded its worst ever performance. The CDU has ruled post-war Germany for 52 years, either in partnership with smaller parties or in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Three of Angela Merkel’s four terms in office were as head of a “grand coalition”. Many in the SPD were actually reluctant to ally with the CDU after the last election in 2017, fearing that it would further erode their credibility as a centre-left party. Governing as junior partner of the conservative CDU had dented the SPD’s popular base, and the party leadership had to put the issue to vote among the rank and file before joining the CDU-led coalition.

In this year’s election, despite dire predictions about the party’s future, the SPD pipped the CDU to the winning post. The SPD got 25.7 per cent of the vote, compared with the CDU’s 24.1 per cent. Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for the post of Chancellor, served as the Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister under Angela Merkel in the outgoing coalition government. On the campaign trail, Scholz portrayed himself as the right person to inherit the legacy of Angela Merkel, highlighting the role he had played as Finance Minister. Many of Angela Merkel’s signature economic and social policies were, in fact, formulated by the SPD Ministers in her Cabinet.

It was a remarkable comeback for Scholz, a centrist politician, who is now ideologically indistinguishable from Angela Merkel. In the 1970s, he was a fiery young socialist. In the last two decades, he has distanced himself from the SPD’s radical wing. At the start of the campaign, he was lagging behind the CDU and the Green Party candidates running for the post of Chancellor by more than ten points. Scholz’s campaign focussed on three mainstream issues—raising of the minimum wage, fighting climate change and strengthening of the German economy.
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Scholz’s main rival from the CDU was Armin Laschet, Angela Merkel’s handpicked candidate. In the last weeks of the campaign, Laschet was trailing behind Scholz, and as the gap widened, Angela Merkel was compelled to hit the campaign trail. This resulted in a late surge for the CDU and helped it come very close to the final tally of the victorious SPD.

The Green Party (Die Gruenen), which was initially leading in opinion polls, came third, getting more than 14 per cent of the vote. It has been their best performance so far. The Green Party’s leader, Annalena Baerbock, was even projected as a potential Chancellor before the election. The Greens were running neck and neck with the CDU for many weeks after the campaign kicked off.

Climate change issues

The devastating floods which ravaged Germany in August brought climate issues to the forefront during the campaign. A picture of Laschet laughing at a joke during a memorial service for flood victims did irreparable damage to his candidacy. Plagiarism charges against Annalena Baerbock that surfaced midway during the campaign hurt her standing in the election.

On the last day of the campaign, environmental activists, led by Greta Thunberg, staged a huge rally outside the German parliament building demanding that politicians take stronger action to curb climate change. German climate activists described this election as “the vote of the century”. In all probability, the Greens will be part of the next government. At least three parties will have to be part of the government for it to have a majority in parliament.

The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) came a close fourth, with more than 11 per cent of the vote. Last time, the party preferred to stay in the opposition rather than be part of a coalition set-up under the leadership of Angela Merkel and the CDU. The party had been a junior partner in many CDU governments during the post-war period. Both the CDU and the FDP are business-friendly conservative parties.

The radical climate prescriptions advocated by the Greens are especially anathema to the FDP. The FDP leader, Christian Lindner, had indicated before the election that his preference would be to join hands with the CDU. He had said at the time that the only issue the FDP and the Greens agreed on was the “legalisation of cannabis”. But he changed his tune after the election results, and said that he was open to a three-way coalition deal. Lindner said that he would first talk with the Greens before entering into a dialogue with the two bigger parties.

The FDP and the Greens want to leverage the new political realities in Germany in order to get the maximum concessions in the run-up to the formation of a coalition government.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has seen a decline in its vote share, and has got less than 11 per cent of the vote. In the last election, the AfD had almost 13 per cent of the vote, which gave it the status of the main opposition party in the Bundestag. The Greens and the FDP had polled fewer votes that the AfD last time. No political party in Germany is willing to talk to the anti-immigrant and racist AfD. The xenophobic party, which gets most of its votes from the eastern part of the country (the former German Democratic Republic), is however here to stay in German politics for the foreseeable future.

The biggest loser in the election is the left-wing Die Linke party, which went just below the 5 per cent threshold needed for entry into parliament. But owing to a loophole in the legislative rules, a party that wins three direct mandates gets represented in parliament, and Die Linke fortuitously fulfilled that condition by winning three districts. It will be the smallest party in parliament. In the election to the Bundestag (the German parliament) voters cast two ballots, one for a candidate to represent their constituency in a first-past-the-post system and the other for the party list.

Both the SPD and the CDU have staked their claim to form the government. Observers of the German political scene say that it may take months for the political stalemate to be resolved. Negotiations to form a coalition government had lasted more than six months in 2017. Scholz said the “voters have spoken” and expressed the confidence that he would be able to form a government before Christmas.

Influential sections of the CDU, especially those belonging to its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would prefer a stint in the opposition in order to regain popular support. Like the CDU, the CSU posted its worst results in the last 70 years. In the 2013 election, the CSU had secured 47 per cent votes and had enough legislators to govern Bavaria at the time. Its fortunes have gone downhill since then. But compared with the CDU’s performance nationwide, the CSU has done much better in conservative Bavaria.

Armin Laschet refuses to give up despite increasing calls by many leaders of the CDU to concede defeat. Speaking after the results were announced, Laschet said: “We will do everything to form a government.” There have been precedents in German politics when the party coming second in the election has formed the government. But that happened before German reunification in 1990, and the party which came second had got more than 40 per cent of the vote. At the time, there were only three major political parties in Germany. In the September election, the winning party, the SPD, has only got slightly more than a quarter of the votes cast.

An opinion poll conducted after the results were announced revealed that a majority of Germans want Scholz to take over the Chancellorship. Only 16 per cent preferred Laschet. For the SPD, Scholz has been a miracle maker, reviving a party which many thought was in terminal decline. The party leadership is now hoping to revive the glory days witnessed under the leadership of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and the 1980s.
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Germans expect their politics to continue on the same old beaten path that Angela Merkel had tread. None of the mainstream opposition candidates challenged the policies of the last 17 years. Despite the lofty campaign promises on a new climate deal by the major parties, no radical policy changes are expected. A “green economy”, Germany’s political leaders know, will adversely impact the country’s international competitiveness. The German economy depends on foreign trade.

As Europe’s biggest economy, the German government prioritises monetary stability. A law passed by the German parliament in 2019 forbids budgetary deficits. Without borrowing, there will be little money left for improving infrastructure. Even as Germany’s prosperity increased under Angela Merkel, income disparities worsened. The richest 1 per cent controls 25 per cent of the wealth. Germany has the largest numbers of low-paid workers among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The incoming government will face an uphill task as it tries to solve the myriad problems facing the country. Germany’s schools and hospitals are in urgent need of upkeep. School buildings are dilapidated and hospitals are understaffed.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the next government in Berlin would ensure continuity in foreign policy, stressing that Germany and Europe should “become stronger”.

Germany, under Angela Merkel, was the undisputed leader of the European Union (E.U). Berlin and Paris have the final say in E.U. affairs. With Angela Merkel on her way out, French President Emmanuel Macron could aim to be recognised as the first among the equals. Both Germany and France remain committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance, at least for the time being. There are loud calls for the E.U. to exercise “strategic autonomy” in foreign and defence policies in the wake of Washington’s unilateral actions over the last two decades. Scholz, the presumptive Chancellor-in-waiting, has pledged a massive increase in military spending, calling for “a strong sovereign Europe”.

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