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27 September 2021updated 28 Sep 2021 10:41am

After a narrow election win by the Social Democrats, Germany heads for coalition talks

Sunday’s result makes Olaf Scholz the frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

By Jeremy Cliffe

With the results now in, it is clear that the centre-left SPD have come first in Germany’s federal election. The federal returning officer this morning put the party on 25.7 per cent of the vote, up 5.2 points from its result in 2017 and just ahead of the centre-right CDU/CSU alliance on 24.1 per cent. That result represents a triumph for Olaf Scholz, the SPD chancellor candidate, who led his party to a remarkable comeback in the final month of the campaign and a final vote-share almost twice as high as its polling when he was selected just over a year ago. 

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It is a particular blow to the CDU/CSU, its worst since the foundation of the federal republic in 1949, and to its gaffe-prone chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. But despite the jubilation from the SPD last night, it is still close to its historic lows and far below the 34.2 per cent result with which its last chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, lost power in 2005. That it nonetheless came first is a product of the fragmentation of the German political landscape as the two big Volksparteien (people’s parties, the CDU and SPD) shrink and smaller parties rise.

Last night was a good one for the Greens, which rose 5.9 points to 14.8 per cent, and the conservative-liberal FDP, up 0.8 points to 11.5 per cent. The two hardline parties both lost support: the post-communist Left party dropping to 4.9 per cent and the far-right AfD to 10.3 per cent. Plus a new party enters the parliamentary landscape: the tiny SSW, which represents the Danish-speaking community in the far north of Germany and, as the voice of a “national minority”, is exempt from the usual threshold needed to enter the Bundestag.

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If one ideological tendency won yesterday it was the centre-left, with the largest transfer of voters being the estimated 1.4m that defected from the CDU/CSU to the SPD (demonstrating a point that I have been making for months: that the real risk to the centre-right came not from the AfD on its right flank but from the SPD and Greens on its left flank, as centrist “Merkel voters” detached from the party with the outgoing chancellor’s departure). Another striking point regarding the result was the stark age gradient: the Greens and FDP came first and second among younger voters, the SPD and CDU/CSU still dominated among older ones. 

The results give three possible coalitions a majority. A traffic-light coalition, so called as the party’s colours are red-green-yellow, of the SPD, Greens and FDP, would hold 416 of the 735 seats in the new Bundestag. A Jamaica coalition, so called as black-green-yellow are the colours of that country’s flag, of the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP would hold 406 seats. A grand coalition of the SPD and CDU/CSU, a reversal of the CDU/CSU-SPD formation with which Merkel governed for 12 of her 16 years, would hold 402 seats. Scholz would be chancellor under the first and third possibilities, Laschet under the second. 

In the next few days, the new parliamentary groups of the Bundestag parties will meet in Berlin. Back-room discussions will begin. They will give way to Sondierungen or exploratory talks, which could cover more than one coalition option at once. Those would give way to negotiations on a given form of coalition. And even those could fail, as Merkel’s attempt to build a Jamaica coalition did in 2017. It could be a long process and run into early 2022. That, incidentally, would see Merkel overtake her onetime political patron Helmut Kohl to become the longest serving chancellor of the federal republic. 

Intriguingly, in the TV discussion round-table on the first results between the lead candidates of the major parties last night, both Christian Lindner of the FDP and Annalena Baerbock of the Greens indicated that their two parties would negotiate together before speaking to either of the two larger parties. That appears to confirm rumours of private informal talks between representatives of the two parties in the weeks before the election. 

It makes a lot of sense: the Greens are closer to the SPD, the FDP are closer to the CDU/CSU, both are determined to enter the government and the largest gaps on topics such as fiscal and climate policies would be the biggest stumbling blocks for either a traffic-light or Jamaica coalition. If (and it is a big “if”) the two can find compromises on those differences it puts them in a strong position to drive up the political price for their support from the SPD or CDU/CSU. That common ground between the two would likely involve a mix of state and market-led mechanisms to decarbonise the economy, greater public investments within the constraints of Germany’s politically hallowed debt brake and major ministries for both (the FDP wants finance, the Greens the foreign ministry and some form of environment-economy mega-ministry). 

If the Green-FDP talks go as planned, Scholz and Laschet would enter a bidding war for their support. It is perfectly possible that the two smaller parties will part ways in that process, or that the whole thing will collapse and three-party government look unworkable – which would then put the unloved option of another grand coalition on the table. 

Any number of outcomes, then, are possible. Scholz certainly cannot start measuring the curtains for the chancellery. But if one outcome has a certain momentum at this early stage, it is probably a traffic-light government. In the German system, coming first in an election does not guarantee a party the leadership of the subsequent government (the federal republic was led by its second-largest party, then the SPD, from 1969 to 1972 and from 1976 to 1982)  But it helps. The SPD gains, the CDU/CSU losses and Scholz’s vast lead over Laschet in personal polling give him the strongest claim to the chancellorship. And if the Greens and FDP can resolve their differences, that also makes it easier to resolve those between the FDP and the SPD. 

This is, to be clear, not a prediction. But as things stand the single most likely product of this election result is a traffic-light coalition led by Olaf Scholz. 

Catch up on election night on our live blog, for more on the results listen to our new reaction episode of the Germany Elects podcast and for all our Germany coverage click here

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