The German vote produced the most fragmented parliament in the country’s history, a clear sign that some are clamouring for change. But it also shows reluctance to steer too radically from convention.

Workers remove election campaign posters showing Annalena Baerbock, Chairwoman of the Greens, and Armin Laschet, candidate for Chancellor of the Christian Democratic Union party.
Workers remove election campaign posters showing Annalena Baerbock, Chairwoman of the Greens, and Armin Laschet, candidate for Chancellor of the Christian Democratic Union party. (Fabian Bimmer / Reuters)

Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has narrowly beaten the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel in a closely contested election that produced the most fragmented Parliament in Germany’s history. The election is set to end Merkel’s 16-year reign as Chancellor. 

Preliminary results show the SPD led by Olaf Scholz has won the largest share of the vote at 25.7%, followed by the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU, which collectively received 24.1% – the worst result in the history of the Christian Democrats. 

Nevertheless, CDU leader Armin Laschet has vowed to do “everything possible” to build a conservative coalition. Scholz, for his part, said voters had given the party a clear mandate because they wanted change.

Weeks if not months of intense negotiations are now expected, likely leading to a three-way coalition where the Greens led by Annalena Baerbock, alongside the market-oriented Free Democrats (FDP) of Christian Lindner are likely to play the role of kingmakers. The two parties received 14.8% and 11,5% of the vote respectively. It was the best result ever in a national poll for the Green Party, which nearly doubled its share of the vote compared to 2017. However, even that result was mixed as the party dropped about 13 points since last April. 

With 10% of the vote, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will get seats in the Bundestag for the second time, after it was propelled into the political scene on the back of the 2015-16 refugee crisis at the last federal elections. The far-left party Die Linke did not make the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag, but will be represented due to a caveat in Germany’s electoral rules that says any party that wins more than three first-past-the-post seats does not have to meet it.

Germans cast two votes last night: one for a direct representative in their local constituency, who will have won the Bundestag seat under a first-past-the-post system; and one for a party list, with seats subsequently assigned proportionally. Parliament has swelled in size from 709 to over 730 members.

Will Germans get what they voted for?

“It’s hard to say what voters actually wanted,” Ulrich Brückner, Professor for European Studies at Stanford University in Berlin, told TRT World.

“We knew from the media that there are six potential winning coalition options. And that is unheard of when you look back to the history of Germany, when we usually have a people’s party, a party that manages to integrate all kinds of social groups and classes and educational levels and religions with one convincing German offer. And that used to be the Social Democrats on the left and the Christian Democratic Union on the right,” Brückner added.

According to an analysis by the pollster Infratest Dimap published late on Sunday night, at least 40 percent of Germans voted for “fundamental change”, counted mostly among supporters of the Greens, the AfD and Die Linke. But results also showed that many voters made a smaller shift within the centre, with the SPD securing the support of 1.36 million CDU/CSU voters. 

An analysis by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen shows the SPD made big gains among older voters – only 17 percent of their voters are under 30 - while the younger demographic flocked to the Greens, whose 40-year-old leader Annalena Baerbock was by far the youngest candidate running for chancellor.

 Several polls including one conducted by market research firm YouGov signal a clear preference among Germans for Scholz to become chancellor over his rival Lashet, making the so-called “traffic light coalition” (the SPD with the Greens and the FDP) the favoured, but by no means certain, outcome of negotiations.

“We saw this in the 60s and 70s, that the second placed [candidate] found a powerful coalition partner,” Professor Brückner explained. “But then the question comes back, what does the voter want? And the vote clearly sends a signal that change is needed.”

Or, as the newspaper Süddeutsche put it, the vote showed that "Germans longed for change, but lost their nerve a bit."

Will Merkelism live on?

At a press conference on Monday, Scholz – who has been finance minister in Merkel’s grand CDU-SDP coalition since 2018 – told journalists he aimed to reach an agreement to form a government with the Greens and the FDP before Christmas.

"My idea is that we will be very fast in achieving a result. It should be before Christmas if possible," he said.

FDP leader Christian Lindner said his liberal party would be ready to talk to the conservatives or the SDP after talks with the Greens.

 Analysts say that the end of the Merkel era once the new government is formed is unlikely to bring tectonic shifts in the way Germany positions itself within the European Union, or vis-a-vis its foreign policy. The new government is going to be staunchly pro-European, while likely to continue pursuing its own foreign policy goals.

“There is a broad consensus on EU policy in Germany,” David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast, told TRT World.

“Given what was discussed during the election campaign, there's no indication of any bold moves which Germany is going to push on on the European scene,” Phinnemore added, “Olaf Schultz, assuming he does become the next chancellor, has been adopting a line where he's been drawing on the approach of Merkel, at least domestically.”

Merkel, who earned a reputation as the “crisis chancellor” for the way she steered Germany through some of the European Union’s worst crises – from the financial crisis to the pandemic – has been known for putting out fires when needed, while sitting on the fence when it comes to finding durable solutions to address the EU’s predicaments.

“The next government needs to address climate change, modernisation of public administration, a reform of the European Union, positioning Germany towards Russia, China, the United States and NATO, thinking of a European defense concept if NATO is no longer as reliable as we wish it to be,” Brückner said, “there will be a lot that has not been openly discussed with the electorate.”

The parties’ campaigns, Brückner points out, were for the most part focused on internal affairs, addressing economic concerns including minimum wage, pension reform and the pandemic. While climate policy was one of the top issues in the campaign, critics pointed out that even that was navel-gazing with hardly any discussion of climate and energy policy on a European level. 

“Merkelism could potentially survive without Merkel,” Brückner said.

“The Social Democrats won the elections with a massive majority of old people voting for them, and older people tend to be afraid of changes,” he added, “[People] feel there is a need for change after 16 years, that it’s time that someone else takes over, but they are not extremely eager to address the big changes.”

Source: TRT World