Close Race, Long Negotiations ahead and Greens and Liberals as “kingmakers”

This Sunday, Europe and the world look to Germany, where 60 million citizens were eligible to vote in the German federal elections. 

Preliminary results showed that the country is in for a close race and some nerve-wrecking hours. The conservative CDU/CSU and the social democratic SPD, currently in government as grand coalition, performed nearly on par with 24.3 and 25.9 percent respectively, with final results only to be expected in the early morning hours on Monday. For the CDU and its Bavarian sister-party CSU this means the worst election result in the party’s history. The SPD, however, caught up significantly after only polling at 16 percent three month ago. The Greens could secure substantive gains compared to 2017 with around 14.5 percent, now as the third biggest party in the Bundestag despite not living up to some of their highest polling results. The Left has to fear for their seats in the parliament, since it is yet unclear whether they managed to clear the five percent hurdle. The Liberals have slightly gained votes, which are estimated at 11.5 percent, while the radical-right AfD faced minor losses with 10.5 percent in the initial results. 

This election is exceptional in several regards. It marks the end of an era as Angela Merkel leaves office after an unparalleled 16 years of chancellorship. She was the first woman and East German to ever take this position and the first chancellor to clear the field voluntarily. Through her calm and pragmatic leadership style, she enjoyed high approval ratings from voters and support across most political camps alike. 

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After nearly two decades, which included the Euro crisis and refugee crisis, she cedes a void that her potential successor – Olaf Scholz or Armin Laschet – will have to fill. Furthermore, since Merkel has decided not to run again, no candidate could rely on an incumbent bonus this time around – a fact making CDU-candidate Armin Laschet’s life certainly more difficult in the last months. 

Predicting electoral outcomes posed a challenging task in the months and weeks before the election. The polls were largely volatile, mirroring the long shadow of the pandemic, several political scandals hitting the country, and the ever-looming climate crisis. Each of the candidates, Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet, and Olaf Scholz led the polls at some point in the last months, leaving much leeway for speculation on who could become the next chancellor. During the critical phase of the campaign, opinion polling companies reported the CDU/CSU at as low as 20 percent, a new negative record for the party since the establishment of professionalized polling in Germany. The SPD, which faced major electoral decline in the last decades, took political commentary by surprise with a comeback, polling at 25% from the beginning of September onwards. While the Greens even surpassed the CDU around the nomination of Annalena Baerbock as candidate in spring, the party could not sustain the high and polled around 16 percent on the election weekend. 

Most importantly, however, is that many voters were still undecided until very shortly before the election. Pollsters reported that a mere week before the election, 38 percent of the voters were still undecided. Additionally, a record-breaking number of mail ballots was requested, with very likely more than 40 percent of the voters casting their vote via mail. This reflects a more general trend in recent years and was further fueled by the pandemic. A higher number of mail ballots increases imprecisions in the first exit polls and will likely delay the publication of the official interim election results, which are expected to be published early Monday morning. 

While the volatility in the polls ensured more suspense and less predictability than in the last elections, those hoping for a fruitful and issue-related debate were left disappointed. The lot of political pundits predicted a so-called “climate election” for 2021. And the timing seemed to be right: since the last election in 2017 Fridays for Future politicized a whole generation and mobilized large masses on the German streets, the Greens polled well and the disastrous floods in July created additional momentum to make the climate to the top issue of the campaign. Even though, the climate issues was featured in various debates and took up significant shares of most parties’ manifestos, most statements were only skin-deep and lacked a vision in order to keep the 1.5-percent goal agreed to in the Paris agreement. All in all, substantive issues – such as social inequality, foreign politics, or digitalization – played only a minor role during the campaign. Early on, political and media debate focused on a series of several smaller and more grave scandals, thereby ousting more substantive matters. 

Especially in the last weeks, the campaign increasingly centered around discussions on which parties could govern together. Much campaigning effort was spent on motivating voters to act strategically and to vote in ways that could prevent certain coalitions. Now, with the first results in, media reporting centered around possible options for coalitions. The multiplicity of potential outcomes is also a novelty in the German party system. These possibilities, which are often named after country flags or color schemes, included a Jamaica coalition (CDU/CSU-Greens-FDP), a Kenia coalition (CDU/CSU-SPD-Greens), a Germany coalition (CDU/CSU-SPD-FDP), a traffic light coalition (SPD-Green-FDP), or a Red-Red-Green alliance. In the last elections a possible Jamaica coalition had failed due to a drop-out of the liberal FDP after several rounds of negotiation. Subsequently yet another Grand Coalition government was formed.

After the election night, the nearly tie between SPD and CDU leaves basically two options: whichever of the two parties wins by a small margin, is most likely to form a government together with the Green Party and the Liberals. This process is thought to, much like in 2017, be no easy endeavor and might result in long and heated negotiations. The role of the kingmaker is thus devolved to the Greens and the Liberals since the chancellor does not have to come from the party with the highest number of votes. Laschet stressed that the German Basic Law allows for a government led by the runner-up. 

All potentially involved parties ensured a swift process in today’s debate, signaling the desire to form a government before Christmas. The Greens and the Liberals, that find themselves in privileged positions, emphasized that they will attempt to defend their central demands in the negotiations and showed readiness to start sorting out their differences bilaterally. The next weeks will hopefully show which parties are to be included in Germany’s first three party coalition on the federal level. Results also show that this might bring back more political clarity, but nevertheless the transformation of the country’s party system with declining power of CDU and SPD and the emergence of more equally sized parties continues. 

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