This week, Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowly won the country’s federal election, in a result that could potentially signal an end to the 16-year political dominance of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The poor result for the CDU/CSU indicates that its long period of electoral success was inextricably tied to the personal popularity of the outgoing Angela Merkel, who vied for the chancellorship in every federal election since 2005. Her successor, Armin Laschet, who was selected as the new leader of the CDU in January 2021, failed to replicate Ms Merkel’s appeal to voters, appeared to many as dull and struggled during the election campaign. As a result, the party experienced its worst national result in its electoral history, dating back to the first West German election in 1949.
In contrast, the SPD and its candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, have been credited with sweeping up voters who had previously lent their support to the CDU/CSU due to their personal admiration for Ms Merkel. Mr Scholz has been serving as finance minister under Ms Merkel as part of the “grand coalition” that has existed between the SPD and the CDU/CSU since 2013, and was viewed by many during the election campaign as displaying the same statesmanlike qualities possessed by the present chancellor.
This year’s election also marked the continuation of a trend from 2017, which saw increasing political fragmentation and the growth of smaller parties at the expense of the major parties. With climate change high on the agenda and the memory of July’s severe flooding still fresh, Germany’s Green Party achieved the best result in their history. Meanwhile, the pro-business, neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) also increased their share of the vote to 11.5%.
With another coalition between the two major parties looking unlikely, one possible agreement that could be reached is a so-called traffic light coalition (due to respective red, yellow and green colours represented by the SPD, FDP and Greens). Alternatively, should talks between the three parties break down, there is the possibility of a “Jamaica” coalition, represented by the black (CDU/CSU) green (Greens) and yellow (FDP) of the Jamaican flag. In either scenario, the Greens and the FDP will be kingmakers to the party of their choosing.
In preparation for coalition talks with the two main parties, the Greens and the FDP have been holding preliminary talks in order to find a common ground. Whilst there are significant differences between the two to overcome, particularly on the issues of public debt and taxes (and the levels of both which are required to tackle climate change) they are united in a desire to join the government and prevent another coalition between the SDP and CDU/CSU.
A poor result for the far-left Die Linke, who had been touted as a possible partner for the SPD in a “red-green-red” coalition, means that the Greens and FDP are the only possible partners that can provide the SDP or the CDU/CSU with a parliamentary majority. Die Linke saw their share of the vote decline from over 9% to just under 5%, meaning that the party does not have a sufficient number of seats in the Bundestag to help form a new government.
The election also saw a declining vote share for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), who went into the election as the third-largest party in the Bundestag and the main party of opposition. However, despite a national decline, the AfD experienced regional success in the southeastern states of Saxony and Thuringia.
With talks between the SPD and the two kingmakers set to begin next week and likely to continue until at least Christmas, the coming months will be mired with uncertainty. However, at present, given the SPD’s narrow win, the personal popularity of Mr Scholz and the contrasting pessimism surrounding Mr Laschet’s CDU/CSU, a progressive traffic light coalition looks to be the most likely outcome. Whilst there are many differences to overcome, an alliance that mixes the centre-left’s socially reforming zeal, the Green Party’s drive towards meaningful climate action and a liberal commitment to fiscal responsibility will be an exciting prospect for many.