German federal elections 2021: novelties and uncertainties

By Güney Roman Erturk*
Guest Contributor

In Germany, it’s “Superwahljahr“ (super election year). In short, this means that multiple elections will take place this year including federal elections, six states and two local elections. Nevertheless, all eyes are on the upcoming federal elections which means that this year is going to be both exciting and unpredictable.

Currently, there are six parties in the Bundestag (the German parliament). The two biggest parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), rule in a “big coalition” under German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a two-party coalition that has been in place for three of the four recent legislatures. The largest opposition party is the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a recent inclusion in the parliament in 2017, closely followed by the Liberals (FDP), the Left party and finally the Green party [1]. Although not a constitutional law [2], the chancellor is traditionally elected from the biggest party of the government coalition.

However, for the first time in German history, there are three rather than two candidates running for the position of  chancellor, (although the liberal party nominated a candidate in 2002, it was seen as a formality in an attempt to collect votes [3]). Prior to 2017, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats together would gather more than 60 per cent of the total votes during federal elections, peaking in 1972 and 1976 when both parties overall acquired over 90 per cent of the votes [4]. As a result,  the CDU/CSU and SPD traditionally competed for the position of chancellor, earning them the name “Volksparteien” (parties of the people). Nonetheless, a paradigm shift began in 2017, when only around 53 per cent of votes were cast for SPD and CDU/CSU, a record all-time low [4]. Since then, this trend has continued and according to current polls, both parties only gather about 46 per cent of total votes, which might not even be enough to form a government coalition.

One of the main beneficiaries of this change has been the Green party. After a historically strong result in the 2019 European Elections, their popularity spiked and in June 2019, the  polls forecasted them at a record-high 26 per cent, just ahead of the CDU/CSU for the first time in history [5]. Although the COVID-19 pandemic initially blunted these high ratings as approval for the governing CDU/CSU skyrocketed in April 2020, increasing discontent with the government’s course this year restored Green party poll values, peaking again in April and May after the announcement of the first Green chancellor candidate, party co-leader Annalena Baerbock [6]. Aside from  the Green party, the liberal FDP also recently benefited in the polls. This is mainly attributed to their opposition work regarding the COVID-19 pandemic during which they often criticised the restrictive measures set out by the government.

In addition to this shift in party popularity, another key factor plays an important role in this year’s election. In October 2018, incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel publicly announced  her resignation as party leader of the CDU. Although she will remain chancellor until the end of the legislature, she announced that she will not run again in the 2021 elections [7]. Her potential successor, the prime minister of Germany’s largest state North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, had to overcome two internal power struggles. This included running for party leader of the CDU in January 2021, during which he prevailed against Friedrich Merz [8]. Merz, a politician who is attributed to the conservative and economic part of the party, is known for his anti-Merkel stance and ran an unsuccessful campaign for party leadership following Merkel’s resignation. Although Laschet won, he only did so in the second run-off round with a narrow margin of  6 per cent [8], showing the dissent in the party after 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel. Later running for the chancellor candidate position in April 2021, Laschet was rivalled by the party leader of the CSU, Markus Söder. After a week of public debate Laschet prevailed again [9], but was severely weakened, which was reflected both in his own party and also in public polls. Additional errors, such as laughing in the background during a speech from president Frank-Walter Steinmeier during the floods in July earlier this year, further aggravated his situation [10].

However, Armin Laschet is not the only candidate struggling with decreasing approval rates. After her nomination as chancellor candidate last April, Annalena Baerbock was confronted with several scandals. These ranged from false statements and inaccuracies in her resumé to plagiarism accusations and a late report of additional incomes to the parliament. As a result, the surge of the Green party and their candidate was limited and with one week left before the elections the chances of a Green chancellor are considered very low.

Nonetheless, when two people quarrel, a third rejoices. Olaf Scholz, incumbent finance minister and the chancellor candidate of the SPD, has been profiting significantly from the setbacks of his rivals while successfully avoiding any negative attention during the entire election campaign. This only changed recently, as Olaf Scholzs’ ministry of finance was investigated due to accusations against the ministry’s customs special unit. His reaction, that “the investigators could have asked their questions in written form” was heavily criticised by both the coalition partner CDU/CSU and the opposition [11]. 

Overall, voters do not seem content with their choice of candidates. In a recent poll which asked voters who they would directly elect as their chancellor, 44 per cent of people answered none of the available candidates [12].

The volatility of this situation may lead to a novelty in German federal politics. With the rise of the Green party, a likely strong result for the liberal party and the recent inclusion of the AfD in the parliament in 2017, this might be the first time that a majority cannot be formed by any two major parties. On the other hand, a variety of three-party coalitions are possible, ranging from “RGR”, a left-oriented coalition between Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party, to “Jamaica”, a coalition between Christian Democrats, Greens and Liberals, an option that already began to be  negotiated in 2017 but failed due to the rejection from the Liberal Party [13]. As the elections approach, public debate focuses not only on the candidates but also the prospective government options.

In the context of the current popularity of the SPD, the main focus of this discussion has been the RGR coalition. CDU/CSU especially, but also the FDP, have accused Olaf Scholz multiple times not to have distanced himself from the Left party [14]. The Left party has mainly drawn attention by their demand to dissolve NATO, a demand that has been criticised and opposed by all other parliamentary parties. On the other hand, the Left party has officially declared their willingness to participate in a RGR coalition [15]. This debate went so far that even Angela Merkel, who is usually rather reserved during election campaigns, stepped in and emphasised that “there is massive difference between me and him” and that there would be no coalition with the Left party under her rule [16]. 

All things considered, the outcome of the election still remains unpredictable. The SPD holds a strong lead in the polls, and considering that this year might mark an all-time record in postal voter turnout [17], they are considered as the frontrunners to win the election. The recent public TV debate between the three candidates did not lead to a significant change in public opinion but instead consolidated Olaf Scholz’s lead in the elections [18]. Looking forward, despite the outcome, this election will lead to a change of pace in German politics. Although CDU/CSU still advertise their Motto “Weiter so!” (Keep it going), their chances of government participation are lower than ever and all other parties are keen on moving forward and breaking out of the lethargy that has shaped German politics over the past  years. 

References:

[1] https://www.bundestag.de/parlament/plenum/sitzverteilung_19wp

[2] https://www.bundestag.de/parlament/aufgaben/kanzlerwahl

[3] faz.net/aktuell/politik/wahlkampf-westerwelle-erster-kanzlerkandidat-der-fdp-160522.html

[4] https://www.bundestag.de/parlament/wahlen/ergebnisse_seit1949-244692

[5] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/deutschlandtrend-1671.html

[6] https://www.rnd.de/politik/kanzlerkandidatur-baerbock-grune-stehen-in-umfrage-vor-union-WIIGEL55Y27FPU3IM5MSNWZ3ZY.html 

[7] https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/merkel-cdu-parteichefin-1.4190183

[8] https://www.cdu-parteitag.de/wahlergebnisse

[9] https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/laschet-wird-kanzlerkandidat-der-union-soeder-akzeptiert-cdu-wahl-17302644.html

[10] https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/armin-laschet-lacht-im-hintergrund-als-frank-walter-steinmeier-den-opfern-sein-beileid-ausspricht-a-0025f0be-0dc8-453a-b9a0-51a218106bab

[11] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/btw21/scholz-cum-ex-fiu-101.html

[12] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1489/umfrage/direktwahl-vom-bundeskanzler/

[13] https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/ende-der-jamaika-verhandlungen-warum-die-fdp-die-jamaika-verhandlungen-platzen-liess-1.3757550

[14] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/btw21/rote-socken-101.html

[15] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/btw21/rot-gruen-rot-101.html

[16] https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/btw21/wahlkampf-merkel-scholz-101.html

[17] https://www.swr.de/swraktuell/wahl/bw/bundestagswahl-2021/briefwahl-btw21-lage-100.html

[18] https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/politik/tv-triell-blitzumfrage-laschet-scholz-baerbock-100.html

*Güney is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. He completed his BSc. in Biochemistry at Freie Universität Berlin (Germany) and is currently completing his MSc. Although Güney holds a strong profile in the science field, he is also active in local politics and has a keen interest in German and European politics.

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