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24 September 2021

How tight is Germany’s 2021 election?

As the race to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor draws to a close, our round-up of New Statesman coverage lays out the options ahead.

By Jeremy Cliffe

This Sunday, 26 September, Germans go to the polls at a federal election that will decide who will succeed Angela Merkel after her 16 years as chancellor. It has been a roller-coaster ride to election day. After a long period of polling stability the spring saw the centre-left Greens briefly surge into the lead, then her centre-right CDU/CSU alliance regained its supremacy, then in the past month the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) surged past both of them after a long period of stagnation in third place. For full polling trends see our tracker here.

The New Statesman has been following the campaign closely from here in Berlin, including in our special podcast series Germany Elects:

  • In Episode 1 I was joined by our own Ben Walker to discuss the polling trends, as well as Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution and Khue Pham of Die Zeit to discuss the election’s historical context.  
  • In Episode 2, Liana Fix and Julia Ganter of the Koerber Foundation talked me through their polling of German public opinion on foreign policy, then Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) joined me to review Germany’s evolving role in the wider world.
  • In Episode 3, the political scientist Tarik Abou-Chadi dialled in to discuss the SPD’s surge, then I was joined by Philippa Sigl-Glöckner of the think-tank Dezernat Zukunft and Christian Odendahl of the Centre for European Reform to discuss social democratic politics and how Germany’s old economic orthodoxies are slowly shifting. 
  • In Episode 4, Ben updated me on the latest polling and I was joined by Michaela Küfner of Deutsche Welle and Alexander Clarkson of Kings College London to discuss the “Merkel factor”: the outgoing chancellor’s legacy, how it has affected the campaign and how her CDU/CSU is struggling.
  • In Episode 5, published yesterday, I explained how the German election actually works (!) and answered a series of quickfire You Ask Us listener questions with our very own Emily Tamkin. Then I was joined by Philippa Nuttall, our Environment and Sustainability Editor, and Sven Egenter to discuss whether this was Germany’s first “climate election”. 

You can find Germany Elects on the pages linked to here or on the World Review podcast feed.

Now, as the campaign draws to the end, the SPD under their chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz (read my profile of him here) are still in the lead on 25.5 per cent. But there has been a slight narrowing in the final days of the campaign: at the time of writing the CDU/CSU under the struggling Armin Laschet has risen from a low of 20.8 per cent two weeks ago to 21.5 per cent today. One explanation could be that Merkel herself – who remains very popular, as I explain in this long read on her chancellorship and historical legacy – has become more involved in his campaign. The two are appearing together in Aachen, his home city, in an end-of-campaign rally tomorrow. Another explanation is that Germans’ natural caution is pushing some back towards Merkel’s CDU/CSU as the election nears. 

That makes Sunday’s election result a genuine nail biter. It is uncharted territory: the first election since the foundation of the federal republic at which the sitting chancellor has not been running and the first since the 1950s at which the two main party groups have been so weak. It is perfectly possible that the CDU/CSU will defy the polling and come first.

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And in any case: the first-placed party in a German election does not necessarily lead the next government (from 1976 to 1982 Helmut Schmidt led the federal republic though his SPD had fewer MPs than the CDU/CSU). What matters is which party can forge a majority coalition in the Bundestag. And that’s where coalitions come in.

Germans get two votes, one for a constituency MP and one for a party. The second of these decides the overall balance in the Bundestag. Parties without either three or more constituencies or without 5 per cent or more of total votes do not get representation – a measure designed to encourage political stability. That usually corresponds to about 8 per cent of the total. Which means that a prospective coalition needs about 46-47 per cent of votes to secure 50 per cent or more of the seats and thus govern. 

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Polling suggests that there are five or six possible coalitions, led either by the SPD or the CDU/CSU and including some combination of three other parties: the centre-left Greens, the conservative-liberal Free Democrats or FDP and the post-communist Left (the far-right AfD will be in the next Bundestag but a cordon sanitaire surrounds it). Here are those coalitions, in roughly descending order of probability:

  • Traffic light (SPD-Green-FDP, so-called as the colours are red-green-yellow). The preferred coalition of moderates (including Scholz) in the SPD and Greens and the more progressive “social liberal” wing of the FDP. Stumbling blocks would include the large gap between the SPD and Green fiscal plans, which envisage more public investment and progressive taxation, and those of the FDP, which cleave to fiscal conservatism and benefit the richest most.
  • Jamaica (CDU/CSU-Green-FDP, so called as black-green-yellow are the colours of that country’s flag). The only coalition available to the CDU/CSU that wouldn’t involve the SPD. Some Green centrists see potential in this formation, as a means to bind in the centre-right to decarbonisation projects. But the FDP-Green divide would be an issue here too.
  • Grand coalition (SPD-CDU/CSU, so-called as those two parties used to dominate German politics). This is the model that has governed Germany for 12 of Merkel’s 16 years and has become a byword for centrist but largely bloodless big-tent government. Neither party is keen. And current polling puts it only just on the cusp of a Bundestag majority. 
  • Germany coalition (SPD-CDU/CSU-FDP, so called as the red-black-yellow are the colours of its flag). This would have a comfortable majority but suffers from the same problems as a grand coalition.
  • Kenya coalition (SPD-CDU/CSU-Green, red-black-green). Largely as above but anchored left of the centre rather than to its right as in the case of a Germany coalition. 
  • R2G (SPD-Green-Left, or red-green-red). This is the dream of the SPD and Green left, bringing together the two parties of the centre-left with the post-communist Left. The three could easily find common ground on social policies like minimum wage increases and a wealth tax but would clash on foreign policy (the Left is ambivalent about the EU and hostile to NATO) and a stigma still clings to the Left as a descendent of the East German communist party. 

Which is possible? Which is likely? The coalition talks could take many months. But we will get a strong sense from the relative performances of the different parties on Sunday. Voting closes at 18:00 (17:00 in the UK, 12:00 on the US east coast) and we will be covering all the results, with commentary, data and analysis, on the New Statesman website. We will also be releasing a new, sixth episode of the Germany Elects podcast on Monday morning reviewing it all and looking ahead to the negotiations. You can find it all on our German election page here