Explainer

Germany Has Voted. What Happens Next?

Contentious coalition talks mean German Chancellor Angela Merkel could remain in her post for months to come.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Election campaign billboards show Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democratic Party, and Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate of the Christian Democratic Union, in Berlin on Sept. 21.
Election campaign billboards show Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democratic Party, and Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate of the Christian Democratic Union, in Berlin on Sept. 21. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany’s parliamentary election yesterday, the first in 16 years without German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name on the ballot, was meant to be the contest that would decide her successor. But Germans awoke this morning to anti-climactic election results that offer little clarity as to who will lead their government in Merkel’s wake. And Merkel herself may not get the swift retirement she hoped for. Wolfgang Bosbach, a former lawmaker in for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Welt TV he is “certain” the chancellor will still be in office by New Year’s Day due to stalled coalition negotiations.

If Merkel does indeed ring in 2022 from the German Chancellery, it would make her Germany’s longest serving chancellor—a title currently held by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw reunification between East and West Germany. Whether or not that happens, however, will be entirely out of her control. As Merkel watches from the sidelines, the dueling heads of the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD)—Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz, respectively—will attempt to craft coalitions in their favor. Yesterday’s fragmented results make that a tall order. But whoever emerges victorious will seal Merkel’s political fate—and themselves begin to fill the impossibly big shoes she leaves behind.


Wait. So who won the election?

In a parliamentary system like Germany’s, it’s hard to call any party that doesn’t earn an outright majority the victor as elections are inevitably followed up by attempts to form a governing coalition with other parties. Even so, parties that earn pluralities are generally heralded as winners as they become the leaders of that future government.

Germany’s parliamentary election yesterday, the first in 16 years without German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name on the ballot, was meant to be the contest that would decide her successor. But Germans awoke this morning to anti-climactic election results that offer little clarity as to who will lead their government in Merkel’s wake. And Merkel herself may not get the swift retirement she hoped for. Wolfgang Bosbach, a former lawmaker in for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Welt TV he is “certain” the chancellor will still be in office by New Year’s Day due to stalled coalition negotiations.

If Merkel does indeed ring in 2022 from the German Chancellery, it would make her Germany’s longest serving chancellor—a title currently held by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw reunification between East and West Germany. Whether or not that happens, however, will be entirely out of her control. As Merkel watches from the sidelines, the dueling heads of the CDU and Social Democratic Party (SPD)—Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz, respectively—will attempt to craft coalitions in their favor. Yesterday’s fragmented results make that a tall order. But whoever emerges victorious will seal Merkel’s political fate—and themselves begin to fill the impossibly big shoes she leaves behind.


Wait. So who won the election?

In a parliamentary system like Germany’s, it’s hard to call any party that doesn’t earn an outright majority the victor as elections are inevitably followed up by attempts to form a governing coalition with other parties. Even so, parties that earn pluralities are generally heralded as winners as they become the leaders of that future government.

Part of what makes the results of yesterday’s election so enigmatic is Germany’s two largest parties, the CDU and SPD, emerged virtually neck-and-neck. The SPD tallied 25.7 percent of the national vote while the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), received 24.1 percent. The leftist environmentalist Alliance 90/The Greens came in third place with 14.8 percent—their best-ever showing—while the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) clocked in fourth with 11.5 percent. The far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained 10.3 of the votes—a decline from the 2017 election—and the far left Die Linke earned 4.9 percent. Other parties collectively earned the remaining 8.7 percent.

With splintered results like these, historical perspective is perhaps the best determinant of victory. For the CDU/CSU, Sunday represented the party’s worst-ever showing since its founding in 1945. For the SPD, it was a welcome resurgence. As FP’s Adam Tooze writes, over the course of Merkel’s tenure—focused on centrist consensus-building—the SPD has struggled to define its identity opposite the CDU/CSU, with which it often served in coalitions. Marred further by an internal leadership crisis, the SPD—once the standard bearer of Germany’s postwar political scene—won a dismal 20.5 percent of the votes in the last federal parliamentary election.

For Alliance 90/The Greens, the result prompted mixed feelings. Formerly a fringe, activist party, yesterday’s tally solidified Alliance 90/The Greens’s position within the new political mainstream. But it was also a disappointment: In May, Alliance 90/The Greens pulled ahead of the CDU/CSU and SPD in national polling, even nominating its first-ever chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock.


How do these results translate into Bundestag seats?

Germans vote twice—once for a direct candidate in their electoral district and once for a national party. To enter the Bundestag, a party must earn at least 5 percent of the second vote. But if at least three candidates from a party that does not manage to cross the threshold win direct elections, the party is permitted to enter the Bundestag. This year, that rule enables Die Linke—which, at 4.9 percent, will earn 39 seats in the Bundestag—to participate in Germany’s government. The South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW), which gained 0.1 percent of the vote, will also receive a seat. The party was founded in 1948 through an arrangement with British occupation forces to represent the Danish minority in the state of Schleswig-Holstein and is not subject to the 5 percent threshold.

Seat Allocation in the 20th German Bundestag

Based on preliminary election results

 

 SOURCE: THE FEDERAL RETURNING OFFICER (DER BUNDESWAHLLEITER)

Gotcha. So how do coalition talks work?

When a party earns a clear plurality of seats—as has been the case for most of German history—it generally takes up the mantle of jump-starting negotiations with other parties. This time around, Scholz has already articulated his desire to begin talks. But Laschet also seems intent on giving it a try in what would be a last-ditch attempt to become chancellor. After the first election results came in last night, Laschet told attendees of his election night party that “we will do everything to form a government under the leadership of the union.”

Parties make no secret of their coalition preferences during the campaign. But the time after election day is when words must turn into actions. First, the plurality party’s leadership must court potential partner parties. If these parties agree to begin talks, they will enter larger negotiations and eventually produce a contract that stipulates their policy priorities for governing. If all involved party leaders sign it, a new government is formed, and the chancellor candidate of the plurality party becomes chancellor.

This process can be quite lengthy, even when the plurality party and chancellor remain constant. After the 2017 elections—clearly won by the CDU/CSU and Merkel—talks between the CDU/CSU, Alliance 90/The Greens, and the FDP collapsed after nearly a month, prompting a desperate CDU/CSU to take up (ultimately successful) negotiations with its erstwhile partner, the SPD.


What are the possible coalitions this time around?

The constellation that failed in 2017—known as the “Jamaica coalition”—is the coalition preferred by Laschet. It would also be the ideal scenario for the FDP, whose leader, Christian Lindner, would prefer to join the CDU/CSU than the SPD. But party leaders—and, indeed, the electorate—are also wary of its feasibility, given its dramatic breakup four years ago.

Scholz, for his part, would prefer the “traffic light coalition” (named for the three colors of the parties in question), which includes Alliance 90/The Greens and the FDP. This would also be the coalition of choice for Alliance 90/The Greens, which would prefer to govern with the SPD than the CDU/CSU. The results ended months of campaign drama regarding the possibility of a “red-red-green coalition” between the SPD, Die Linke, and Alliance 90/The Greens (together, their seats total just 363 spots, shy of the 368 seats required for a majority).

Both Laschet and Scholz’s preferred coalitions wade into uncharted territory. Neither Jamaica nor traffic light coalitions have ever governed Germany on a federal level; in fact, no three-party coalition ever has.

There is still the possibility of the CDU/CSU and SPD working together in a “grand coalition” as they have through most of Merkel’s tenure, though both Laschet and Scholz seem to be disinterested. “The grand coalition … is not sustainable for the future,” Laschet said at his campaign gathering. Scholz, meanwhile, is intent on pushing the CDU/CSU into the opposition. In a grand coalition, the SPD’s slim electoral margin would make Scholz chancellor.

A grand coalition is not the only means by which the two can govern together. The “Germany coalition” would tack on the FDP while a “Kenya coalition” would instead work with Alliance 90/The Greens. However, neither of these coalitions could be formed without initial common ground between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. And given Laschet and Scholz’s lack of appetite for each other—and the unprecedented nature of three-party coalitions more generally—both the Germany and Kenya coalitions remain highly improbable.

Wenke Börnsen, an editor at German public broadcaster ARD, offered an apt summary of the entire situation—likening Germany’s election results to “two maybe chancellors and two kingmakers”: Alliance 90/The Greens and the FDP.


What happens until a coalition agreement is signed?

The current government’s mandate remains in force until a new coalition agreement is signed, and Merkel stays in her post—as do all of her cabinet members. For many, including Scholz—currently serving as vice chancellor and federal finance minister—this is a delicate two-way shuffle. It also renders much of Merkel’s legacy subject to the politicking of her closest colleagues.

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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