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2 August 2021updated 28 Aug 2021 1:13pm

Why Germany’s 2021 election could be the most significant in decades

The race to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor may look like a predictable affair, but there are five reasons why this election could be more volatile than it seems

By Jeremy Cliffe

Glance at the main facts of Germany’s upcoming federal election and it looks to be a rather staid, predictable affair. The surge enjoyed by the centre-left Greens has dropped off; the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is comfortably ahead again; some sort of coalition between the two parties seems overwhelmingly the most likely outcome. Armin Laschet, the CDU leader and chancellor candidate, is a plodding moderate close to the outgoing Angela Merkel on most issues. So far there has been relatively little substantive debate between the parties.

Yet the vote on 26 September is in fact more open and unpredictable than it looks, for five fundamental reasons.

Hear more on the Germany Elects podcast

First, there is no incumbent. Merkel is the first federal German chancellor to stand down entirely of her own accord. All seven of her predecessors either resigned under some degree of political pressure (Adenauer, Erhard, Brandt) or because they were unable to form or sustain a majority coalition (Kiesinger, Schmidt, Kohl, Schröder). So this is the first election in the history of the federal republic, barring the inaugural one in 1949, at which no sitting chancellor is running. That in itself grants the campaign a new degree of openness.

Merkel’s soothing, relatively apolitical style has dominated recent elections. How will its absence change the campaign? She has commanded the support of so-called “Merkel voters” (especially women voters, economic centrists and ethnic minority voters), who, though not particularly attached to the CDU, voted for the party in support of her. Where will they go?

Consider the main three chancellor candidates. Laschet is Merkel’s party colleague but different from her in style and unlikely to enjoy more than perfunctory support from her in the campaign. Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) is from a different party but serves as Merkel’s vice-chancellor and has a similar temperament to her. Annalena Baerbock of the Greens is the nearest to a “change candidate” but like Merkel is a woman politician in a male-heavy system and is also known to have a friendly relationship with the outgoing chancellor. Which of them might inherit something of the “incumbency bonus” now up for grabs?

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[See also: With Germany’s political future in the balance, centrist “Merkel voters” will be crucial]

The second cause of unpredictability is that all three of these candidates have clear weaknesses. Laschet is gaffe-prone – he was recently filmed laughing in the background while Germany’s president gave a sombre statement on lethal floods in his own home state – and can come across as more of a small-town mayor than a prospective world leader. Scholz can seem like a dry bean-counter and his party has struggled for years in Merkel’s shadow. Baerbock has no executive experience and, relatively untested in national politics, has been knocked back by media attacks in the early campaign.

Those flaws in all three create further room either for major fumbles – or for surprises on the upside. A poll by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for the broadcaster ZDF, published at the end of July, showed an increase in the proportion of Germans who would like to see Scholz as chancellor (up three points to 54 per cent) and a big drop for Laschet (down 12 points to 35 per cent). This was likely a response to the flood gaffe but also speaks to the possibility that voters unimpressed by the CDU candidate but uncertain about his Green rival might alight on un-flashy but stolid Scholz.

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Those recent horrific floods in parts of western Germany point to the third source of unpredictability: events. Much could happen in the eight weeks until the election. Further visceral illustrations of the climate crisis might push that issue further up the agenda. German politics-watchers with long memories cite the example of the flooding during the 2002 election campaign that boosted the standing of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder. How the Covid-19 pandemic will play out – case numbers in Germany are relatively low but rising again – and whom that might harm and benefit politically is hard to foresee. The three-way TV debates, the second of which takes place on 29 August, also have the potential to challenge or overturn perceptions.

The fourth factor concerns the things commentators may miss by focusing too much on the three possible chancellor candidates. Beyond the leaderships of the three top tickets (the CDU with its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the SPD, and the Greens) things are bubbling away elsewhere that might well change the dynamics of the election campaign or the arithmetic of its result.

[See also: Germany floods: How the West’s disasters are outpacing its climate action]

The liberal-conservative Free Democrats (FDP) have been rising in the polls as a voice challenging some Covid-19 restrictions. It is determined to prevent a CDU/CSU-Green coalition and to forge instead a “Jamaica” alliance (so called as the parties’ three colours reflect the country’s flag), in which it too participates. Having walked out on negotiations for such a coalition in 2017, the party now has to show it is serious about getting into government.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has stabilised its position within the German party system but is still young and fractious, and thus volatile. The electorate of the socialist Left Party is undergoing a long-term tilt from mostly older voters in the east to a younger base concentrated in cities across the country. And there is a small but non-negligible chance of the regional, conservative Free Voters party getting into the Bundestag, potentially transforming the coalition possibilities.

Also of note are provocative and unpredictable figures within the main parties, none of whose chancellor candidates commands total authority within his or her own ranks. Hans-Georg Maassen, for example, is a prominent former spy chief running for the CDU, to Laschet’s obvious discomfort, and stands accused of doing too little to distance himself from the hard right.

And then there are forces entirely outside the mainstream that might still influence the debates. The Querdenker (“lateral thinker”) movement opposed to Covid-19 measures has helped bring conspiracy theories and far-right voices to new audiences in recent months. And concerns abound about attempted foreign interference in the election, particularly given the substantial – if under-reported – differences in foreign policy visions between the established mainstream parties.

That points to the fifth and final factor. As much as the German election may look staid and sleepy on the surface, the fact remains that the choices and issues before the country are vast. As I have written before, it is not unreasonable to see the period from 1998-99 – the German capital’s move from Bonn to Berlin, the introduction of the Euro, the dawn of Schröder’s SPD-Green government –to the end of the Merkel era (2021) as one distinct period, a first chapter of the Berlin Republic in which many of the most urgent shifts were begun and bedded in.

Now questions loom, some of them put off too long under Merkel, about the second chapter. What is the future of the German industrial, fiscal and social model in an age of artificial intelligence, decarbonisation and big data? How can an ageing but more diverse German society find a common identity for the next decades? What role for Germany in a conspicuously half-finished European project and in a world where its security guarantor (the US) and its main trading partner (China) are increasingly in tension? Those are questions whose implications resonate far beyond Germany’s borders. The geopolitics guru Ian Bremmer calls the vote on 26 September “the most consequential global election this year”. He is right. And with big issues comes the potential, at least, for big political upheaval.

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The German election, in other words, is both much less predictable and much more significant than it may look. And that is why the New Statesman will be covering it in detail from here in Berlin.

We have just launched a new Germany 2021 section on our website, a Germany poll tracker and a new podcast series, Germany Elects, in which I will be joined by guests to discuss the campaign, the issues and its outcome. The podcast will be available on the World Review feed – on all the usual podcast providers – and on the Germany 2021 section of the website.

[See also: The German Election 2021]