Law and Society Blog

Benjamin Klasche: Commentary on the Outcome of the German Federal Election 2021

This was an uncharacteristically tight election. According to the preliminary official results published on September 27th, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) won the election, securing 25.7% (+5.2 points) of the vote, while coming in just ahead of Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) who landed on 24.1% (-8.9 points). If we want to declare anybody the clear winners and losers of the election, we should start looking right there. The Social Democrats were able to recover from a historical low, and the Christian Democrats hit one in this election. Another less obvious loser is the Green party, who increased their share of the vote by 5.8 points to a record high of 14.8% but stayed way behind earlier expectations that saw them potentially becoming the strongest power in the Bundestag (German parliament). Also represented in the parliament are the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), landing on 11.5% (+0.7 points), the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) with 10.3% (-2.3 points), and the socialist Left Party with 4.9% (-4.3 points), who even though they did not crack the mandatory 5% hurdle have enough direct mandates to qualify. The rest of the votes, an astounding 8.6% (+3.6 points), are spread on other small parties, resulting in only one seat. 


Many commentators stressed the importance of the German Election 2021 (Schicksalswahl), who saw the need for a disruption that would place Germany on a new pathway. The election happened among many things amid a global pandemic, the climate crisis, which for the first time really showed its impact on Germany, looming structural labour market problems kicked off by digitalization (and the lack thereof), and demographic problems that already today strain the pubic pension system – all known issues that the Merkel regime has largely ignored or displaced to the future. The election outcome suggests that many voters did not see the need to disrupt but instead called for the continuity, stability and comfort that the last 16 years brought along. Olaf Scholz, chancellor-candidate of the winning SPD, as well as Merkel’s Vice-Chancellor, has been titled “the Next Angela Merkel” and mostly captivated the voters with the promise of this continuous stability, and his ‘Merkelian' sereness, calmness and somewhat lack of personality. Angela Merkel, of course, has been a very popular politician who was able to win four elections in a row – and certainly would have won this one as well if she had decided to run. Her reign, however, was marked by being busy with handling crises (economic, migration, coronavirus) in the short term instead of carrying out a long-term vision that would address the issues brought forth above. It is fair to say that she was a victim of the circumstances, and in different times, she might have set the country up for the challenges ahead. Nevertheless, the last 16 years have created a rut or routine that keeps calm, displaces the management of root causes of larger issues to the future, and inhibits visions.
To me, the election outcome shows a populace with no clear path for its country in mind except for the one it was already on. The German voters have missed the chance to make a clear statement that the majority is interested in disrupting the status quo and tackling the large problems ahead. However, the political leadership is also to blame here. They have withheld the seriousness of these issues from the people by claiming that everything will turn out just fine (see, e.g., Olaf Scholzes promise that the pensions are save till 2070) to mostly secure their place (or less cynically, the place of their party) in the government. All parties have deployed this strategy, perhaps with the sole exception of the Greens in the climate topic. It contributes further to the dilution of political positions, which take a backseat to power-hungry politicians who place more value on being in the position to govern than choosing the right course for the country. This loss of ideology was also clearly expressed in the unwillingness of all parties to indicate potential coalition partners – except for the AFD, which all other parties have agreed is not a democratic party and no coalition material – before the election. This leaves the impression that the prospect of being part of government is much more important than finding true overlap in positions. This observation goes together with the fact that the voters have shown to care more about the top candidates' personalities and personal lives than being convinced by party programs. This circumstance has without a doubt been a decisive factor in the final stretch of the election, which placed the "Next Merkel" Scholz in the pole position.

Before coming to coalition possibilities, I would also like to share a positive observation. Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democrats, proclaimed in the Elefantenrunde, in which the leaders of the parties elected to the parliament meet, that the election has shown the voters trust in politics of the middle and turned away from radical positions. Lindner most likely felt compelled to make the statement by seeing both the Left party and the AFD registering losses in voter share. Particularly the loss votes for the AFD must be seen as very positive and show that they could not recruit supporters outside of their now established strongholds of  Sachsen and Thüringen, where they received the most votes out of all parties. Lindner's point is well taken and shows a German populace that is perhaps not as divided and polarized as many feared and can find much common ground in the future. This brings us to potential coalitions.

Where do we go from here?

A coalition needs at least 50% of the seats of the parliament to form a government. In a scenario like this, where the strongest party has not even reached 26% of the voter share, many possible combinations are left. The ‘grand coalition’ between the two previous mass parties SPD and CDU is arithmetically possible but is not wanted by either of the two parties, which have suffered dramatically in the previous versions. The most likely outcome at this point is a three-party coalition (never seen before on the federal level) consisting of the Greens, the Free Democrats and either the SPD (Die ‘Ampel’ [traffic lighy]) or the CDU (Jamaika-Coalition). At this point, they are equally likely as the SPD could not position themselves as an overwhelming winner. The Greens and the Free Democrats usually do not have much in common but are now in the position to decide on the next chancellor of Germany. The natural coalition partner for the Greens would be the SPD; however, the Free Democrats see most program conformity with the CDU. At the moment, the two parties embraced their power and started to have conversations without the big parties to locate similarities and decide whether a coalition with either of the two big parties seems feasible. It is certainly unusual that the strongest parties are at the mercy of the smaller ones, however, there is much promise in the situation. The Greens and the Free Democrats were certainly the parties that understood the need for change the most – the Greens in the questions of climate and the FDP in digitalization – and actively attracted voters with the slogan to stir things up. Now they have the chance to do it and drastically impact the next government and Germany’s course.