German election 2021 under the long shadow of Angela Merkel

Francis Lee-Saunders
Senior Intelligence Analyst

Ahead of the biggest election in Europe this year, we examine the contest and assesses what may happen next.

On 27th September, the German public will elect the 598 members of the Bundestag. The German election 2021 marks the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year stint in power. Merkel – who is a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – is the longest-serving chancellor since Germany’s reunification in 1990 and leaves office with her approval ratings higher than both any other world leader and all of her possible replacements. She announced her decision to step down in 2021 after 2017’s federal elections, having been persuaded by former US President Barack Obama to serve a final, four-year term.

Political parties and candidates for the German election 2021

Leaders from different political parties are vying to succeed Merkel as chancellor.

The front-runners are:

  • Current Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet of the centre-right, Christian Democratic Union (CDU)
  • Current vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD)
  • Bundestag member Annalena Baerbock of the centre-left Green Party.

Outsider candidates include:

  • Bundestag member Christian Lindner of the centre-right Free Democratic Party (FDP)
  • The joint-leaders of the far-right AfD, Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel
  • The joint-leaders of the left-wing The Left, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow and Janine Wissler.

Laschet and the CDU began the campaign as the clear favourite, but a series of gaffes from the former has seen the latter’s polls decline. The most publicised of these was footage of the CDU candidate laughing at a press conference in one of the towns worst-affected by the extreme floods in July 2021, which killed over 200 people in Germany alone. These incidents have been particularly damaging as the CDU have sought to emphasise Laschet’s suitability for the role, framing him as ‘Merkel 2.0’.

At the same time, Scholz and the SPD have experienced a late surge in popularity, with the vice-chancellor appearing more Merkel-esque than the candidate from Merkel’s party; in a sign of his growing popularity and reputation as a safe pair of hands, ‘Scholz will fix it’ has become a major SPD slogan.

Scholz and the SPD have experienced a late surge in popularity

The Greens also remain a major player with climate change one of the central items on the agenda after July’s fatal floods. Yet the prospect of a single-party government is very remote and an outcome that hasn’t occurred since 1961, meaning that some of the smaller parties — most prominently the FDP — could serve as coalition kingmakers in a fragmented post-election parliament.

What are the possible coalitions that could be formed?

The likely fragmentation of any post-election Bundestag opens the way for numerous different government coalitions. These are often named after objects or national flags, owing to the varying colours of each political party. Some of the outcomes are listed below:

  • Germany Coalition: (CDU + SPD + FDP)
  • Jamaica Coalition: (CDU + FDP + Green)
  • Traffic Light: (SPD + FDP + Green)
  • Kenya Coalition: (CDU/CSU + SPD + Green)
  • Red-Red-Yellow: (Die Linke + SPD + FDP)
  • R2G (Die Linke + SPD + Green)

The three likeliest outcomes are the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, the ‘Kenya’ coalition or the ‘Germany coalition’. All three have both their pros and would likely be able to form a majority, given their respective performances in opinion polls so far. However, longstanding ideological differences between individual parties threaten to either derail post-election negotiations entirely or result in a government so crippled by individual divides that it is incapable of pursuing any major initiative, other than those supported on a cross-party basis.

German election outlook

Whichever figure replaces Merkel faces three significant challenges at both the domestic and international level. Among the largest is Germany’s environmental policy, where the next government will need to contend with the delicate balancing act associated with achieving ambitious climate change goals but also ensuring economic benefits from the green transition. The future chancellor must also work how to ensure the export-oriented German economy remains resilient amid a backdrop of growing supply chain disruption and wider de-globalisation trends which could see international trade stagnate. The last is demographic change, with Germany’s ageing population likely to bring fiscal challenges and greater strain on health and social security services, with the German economy likely to be more affected by the issue than most fellow G7 nations.

Germany’s ageing population likely to bring fiscal challenges and greater strain on health and social security services

Such large issues will undoubtedly require Merkel’s ability to ‘hold it together’, but are also likely to demand some form of larger, strategic vision. Can a future leader tackle these pressing issues — with often bold and possibly divisive stances — while retaining the sense of being a political comfort blanket to the wider public, amid an increasingly fluid and uncertain international picture? Finding this precise balance will be the incoming chancellor’s greatest challenge.

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