In September 2021, Germans will elect a new Bundestag. After 16 years in office, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will not stand for re-election. Who will become her successor? And what might this mean for the United Kingdom’s relationship with Germany?
Due to Germany’s highly proportionate voting system, no single party tends to win the majority of seats in the Bundestag. Consequently, Germany has been ruled by various two-party coalition governments since 1961.
The first three are commonly referred to in terms of various pairs of colours: a ‘black-yellow’ coalition of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP); a ‘red-yellow’, social-liberal coalition of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the FDP; and a ‘red-green’ coalition between the SPD and the Greens. The fourth – the ‘grand coalition’ – brings together the CDU/CSU and the SPD, and has ruled Germany since 2013.
Yet according to the current opinion polls, none of these past coalitions stand to win a majority of votes this September. This is because the German party system has become very fragmented over recent decades, as challenger parties on the far left and right of the party spectrum have emerged.
In the current opinion polls, the Green Party comes first (at 25.5%), closely followed by the CDU/CSU at 25%.
Meanwhile, the SPD, Germany’s oldest and once biggest party, currently stands at only 14.9%, followed by the Free Democratic Party (at 10.8%), the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD, at 10.4%) and the Left Party (at 7.4%).
Potential coalition governments
If the current opinion polls are anything to go by, a new kind of coalition government might need to be formed. This coalition could be made up of three (rather than two) parties, some of whom have never ruled together at the federal level.
Yet the 16 German states, the Länder, have been experimenting with new coalition constellations, and in most cases, these are stable governments. What matters is a common ground, a fair and carefully drafted coalition contract, and party leaders who get on with each other.
It’s about the Greens, Stupid!
On the basis of their popularity, the Greens are very likely to join the next German government, either as a senior or junior partner. Currently, the most likely options are a Black-Green or Green-Black coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens.
The Chancellor would represent the larger party, while the junior partner normally selects the foreign minister. Two large states, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg, are currently governed by such coalitions, and they work fairly successfully.
For the first time, there could also be a three-party coalition. The most likely option here is the so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition (Green-Red-Yellow) between the Greens, the SPD, and the FDP – such a coalition is currently governing the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Greens and SPD have a track record of getting on well, having been in power together from 1998 to 2005. Yet the FDP could be an awkward partner: they pulled out of the 2017 coalition negotiations with the CDU/CSU despite a long and successful history of Black-Yellow coalition governments.
Three candidates for Chancellor
The top three parties have selected their candidate for chancellor. For the Greens, this has been a first, and has been interpreted as a sign of self-confidence.
After all, the Greens have done rather well in recent elections: 11 out of 16 states are currently ruled by coalition governments that include the Greens.
Their chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, has been co-leading the Greens since January 2019, and is likely to be the only female chancellor candidate.
Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU has selected Armin Laschet, the prime minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as its candidate.
His leadership was threatened recently when the Bavarian prime minister and CSU leader, Markus Söder, announced that he would join the leadership race.
Yet the CDU leadership has since backed Armin Laschet, the more centrist and liberal of the two men – though the less popular amongst the parliamentary party and the grassroots.
Since Laschet won the leadership contest, the CDU’s poll rating has slumped. Voters blame it for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the pandemic, and in particular, the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations.
The SPD selected its Chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, in 2020, shortly after his defeat in the party leadership contest.
Scholz is the current German finance minister: he is an experienced (though rather uncharismatic) politician who rose up the ranks of the party during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
His chances of being the next Chancellor are slim, as he is currently facing a parliamentary inquiry into how his Finance Ministry failed to prevent one of Germany’s biggest corporate scandals, the Wirecard Scandal.
The next Chancellor – and what could this mean for the UK
It looks like Germany’s next Chancellor will be either Annalena Baerbock or Armin Laschet. Baerbock’s priorities are the fight against climate change, and for a more sustainable agricultural policy.
She is an advocate for children’s rights and generational justice, and has also called for a stronger common European defence policy and a more robust engagement with Putin.
As prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet has ruled on the basis of compromise and dialogue. He has advocated for more social equality and has supported migrant integration.
Unlike many other CDU/CSU politicians, Laschet is more at ease with Germany’s status as a country of immigration.
Yet when it comes to combatting climate change – the Greens’ highest priority – Laschet’s record is at best mixed, although he is currently positioning himself as a green conservative.
Both Chancellor candidates are to the left of Boris Johnson’s Tory government – in social and economic matters.
Although they would undoubtedly seek to cooperate with the UK government after Brexit, they would focus their attention on the European Union rather than the UK, seeking alliances with like-minded governments on the issues that matter most. Thus, my money is on Germany looking to France.
By Dr Isabelle Hertner, Senior Lecturer in Politics of Britain in Europe at King’s College London.