27 September 2021

Germany's Divided Electorate

As expected, Germany’s 2021 federal elections produced a close result, with no single party winning more than 26% of the vote, the first time this has ever happened in a German election. Of course, this election was notable for the fact that it represented the end of the Angela Merkel era in German politics (although she will have to remain in office until a new government can be formed, which might prove to be awhile). Even as she was not running for office, her presence and legacy dominated the election campaign. Now, as Chancellor Merkel prepares to depart the stage, Germany faces an era of political division and uncertainty, unparalleled in its post-war history.

These elections marked the return of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) to the fore of German politics, even as their share of the vote was one of the smallest in the party’s history. In these elections, the SPD managed to win 25.7% of the vote, and 206 of the 735 seats in the parliament, according to preliminary results. Coming on the heels of 2017’s disastrous election results, this was viewed as a major bounce-back for one of Germany’s two leading political parties. The party’s leader, Olaf Scholz, proved to be the most popular of the party leaders in these elections and that proved to be the difference for the SPD, putting the party in a strong position to lead the next government in Germany.

As for Chancellor Merkel’s center-right CDU-CSU alliance, it slumped to a historic defeat, winning just 24.1% of the vote and 196 seats in the parliament. While the CDU-CSU nearly overcame its poll deficit in the final days of the campaign, there was no masking the scale of the party’s losses. This was due to a combination of the poor campaign run by the party’s candidate to become chancellor, Armin Laschet, and a sense of weariness after 15 years of CDU-CSU leadership in German politics. Now, the alliance faces being left out of the next government, unless it can convince the Greens to enter into an alliance with it and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

As for the other parties in Germany, these elections produced mixed results. For the Greens, their 14.8% of the vote and 118 seats in the parliament were their best result ever, but there was a sense of disappointment as the party had briefly held the lead in the polls during the summer of 2021. For the Free Democrats, their 11.5% of the vote and 92 seats in the parliament represented one of the party’s best-ever showings and put it in a position to join a new coalition government. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) also remained a sizeable force in German politics, winning 10.3% of the vote and 83 seats in the parliament, while remaining very strong in areas of eastern Germany. Finally, the left-wing Left party suffered a major setback by winning just 4.9% of the vote and just 39 seats in the parliament.

The challenge for Germany’s leading political parties will be to now form a new coalition government, something that could prove to be a very lengthy process. As only the Social Democrats and the CDU-CSU can form a two-party coalition government (and neither seems interested in this prospect), it appears that a three-party coalition government will be formed in Germany for the first time. The most-likely coalition is one consisting of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP, as Olaf Scholz has already expressed his interest in working with the Greens. However, Armin Laschet has vowed to work to form a CDU/CSU, Green and FDP coalition, and there is a chance the Greens will be open to such a coalition. Whichever coalition government is formed, it is possible that the process of forming it could take a long time, leaving Chancellor Merkel in office for a little while longer. The Merkel era of German politics may have yet to run its course.