On October 3, Germany celebrated thirty-one years of German reunification. Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel used the occasion to take stock and stated that “mentally and structurally, unification hasn’t been completed yet.” Just a week earlier, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party suffered a dramatic defeat during Germany’s federal elections for the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. The CDU’s defeat was particularly glaring in the five former East German states. Certainly, the results are ironic in view of Merkel’s biography as a former citizen of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
German federal elections differ substantially from elections in the United States and the United Kingdom. Germans have two votes to decide on the composition of the Bundestag—one for a candidate in their district and the other for the party list in their state. Germany’s election system is based on “proportional representation.” The total of votes cast for a party list determines the number of deputies that party will gain. Every vote counts; there is no “winner takes all.” Consequently, candidates of smaller parties can win seats in parliament. The system of proportional representation allows small splinter parties to enter the Bundestag once a five percent threshold is crossed. Clear parliamentary majorities are difficult to achieve; therefore, coalitions have become the rule.
Sixty-one million of Germany’s current population of eighty-five million people were eligible to vote on September 26. The official turnout was 76.6 percent, which represents a steady increase in voter turnout over the last decade. For the CDU party, the election result was the worst in history.
Merkel had served as the CDU party chair for eighteen years until 2018. After lengthy and bitter intra-party fighting, Armin Laschet became the chair in early 2021. Historically, Volkspartei (the people’s party or “catch-all party”) captured between forty to forty-five percent of all votes, but the CDU together with its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) dropped to only 24.1 percent with 11.17 million votes. Its main competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), as the other former Volkspartei, finished slightly better at 25.7 percent with 11.95 million votes. Over the last year, the SPD gained some ten percent of voters, while the CDU/CSU dropped ten percent from the thirty-five percent it had in the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic. No surprise, Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate for the chancellorship, and his lieutenants declared themselves the clear winners and claimed legitimacy to lead a coalition government. In the jargon of German politics, the resulting government would be a “traffic light” coalition, combining the SPD (red), the libertarian Free Democratic Party (yellow; 11.5 percent of voters, 5.32 million votes), and the Green Party (green; 14.8 percent of voters, 6.85 million votes).
What are the key takeaways from the September 26 election?
One: Whatever the next coalition government is, Germany has caught up with other European countries, and the era of the all-encompassing Volksparteien is over. This fact will make for a more complex political party system in Germany and more tedious efforts to build coalitions among smaller parties. It appears that six political parties will be permanently represented in the Bundestag because they will collect more than five percent of the total votes, which is the threshold for entering the parliament.
Two: Voters blocked a sharp turn to the left. Support for Die Linke, German for the Left, which combines remnants of the old East German communist Socialist Unity Party of Germany and socialist ideologies of the West, dropped by half to 4.9 percent. Die Linke stands for withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), further reduction of Germany’s military, massive entitlement programs, and expropriation and/or socialization of key industries. Die Linke lost 800,000 votes to the SPD, some 600,000 to the Greens, and about 200,000 to the FDP. Even though SPD candidate Olaf Scholz remained opaque, an SPD-Green-Linke (red-green-red) coalition was a realistic option, considering the strong left-wing trends inside the SPD. But the dramatic defeat of Die Linke at the polls, particularly in the eastern states, prevents a major disruption in German politics and beyond. In the final phase of the campaign, the CDU aggressively warned against a red-green-red coalition—at least the CDU was successful on this score.
Three: The Green party with its rigid policy prescriptions to combat climate change was the German media’s favorite. For years “climate change” has been portrayed as the most important issue for German voters, certainly for the young generation, and the Greens as the only party with effective solutions. The German branch of the “Fridays for Future” has enjoyed the broad support of journalists, intellectuals, and other urban activists in higher income brackets. Given this seemingly broad support, the popularity of the Greens had reached almost thirty percent, and Annalena Baerbock was nominated as their candidate for chancellor. But Baerbock’s candidacy was a sobering disappointment. The Greens scored only 14.8 percent (6.85 million votes), less than half of what appeared reachable just months before. Most importantly, the majority of young voters, especially first-time voters, did not vote Green. Young people cast their votes in nearly equal shares for the libertarian (twenty-three percent) and Green (twenty-two percent) parties. To put it differently, some eighty-five percent of the German voters did not vote Green. They were not moved by the at-times apocalyptic scenarios for planet Earth if Green policies did not prevail. Recent election trends in Europe indicate that young voters prefer liberty and individualism. It’s a myth that solidarity and social justice are primary drivers for young people. Only fifteen percent of first-time young voters cast their votes for the SPD, followed by ten percent for the CDU, which is clearly a huge challenge for the former Volksparteien CDU and SPD.
Four: Many commentators and politicians called the German elections a victory for democracy, alleging that they were a resounding defeat for the extreme Left and Right and invigorated the political center. But this optimistic perspective is only partly true. The extreme right-wing party, the Alternative For Germany (AFD) appears to have established itself as a permanent player in German politics. The AFD suffered slight losses but still won 10.3 percent of voters (4.8 million votes) nationwide. Most noteworthy is the AFD’s dominance in almost all former East German states. Immediately after reunification in 1990, the CDU dominated key eastern states like Thuringia (Erfurt, Weimar, and Jena) and Saxony (Dresden and Leipzig). At times, the CDU even commanded an absolute majority. Successful governors like Kurt Biedenkopf and Bernhard Vogel were even familiar in American circles of Germany watchers. The recent election result is devastating for the CDU. In Thuringia, the CDU only achieved third place with 16.9 percent of the vote, whereas the AFD won Thuringia with twenty-four percent. And similar results came from Saxony: the AFD won 24.6 percent of the vote and the CDU only won 17.2 percent. The SPD, with its social justice messaging, in particular, with its advocation for a minimum hourly wage of €12.00, did much better than the CDU. In Sachsen-Anhalt (Halle and Wittenberg), the SPD won with 25.4 percent of the vote, and the AFD got 19.6 percent; in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Schwerin and Rostock) the SPD won 29.1 percent, and the AFD got eighteen percent; and in Brandenburg (Potsdam) the SPD won 29.5 percent, and the AFD got 18.1 percent.
Five: Foreign policy or national security issues hardly played any role in election campaigns, which reflects the current overall mood in Germany. Most Germans disdain calls for a stronger military role in NATO, let alone the commitment to increase Germany’s contribution of two percent of its gross domestic product to NATO, and prefer to only navigate the nascent external threats with enlightened multilateralism and constructive dialogue, which is at times accompanied by an air of moral superiority. Most Germans see the United States as the primary threat to peace, not Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. According to Pew Research Center’s public opinion results of 2020, “clear majorities in Germany do not see the United States as a partner on protecting free trade, democracy, and human rights, nor on dealing with China.” Admittedly, Donald Trump’s attempted bullying of Germany and Angela Merkel personally still shapes German perceptions. Whatever coalition will emerge in the coming weeks in Berlin, Germany’s foreign policy is unlikely to change in substance, except that Germany’s role in NATO may become less predictable. The calls for a tougher stand vis-à-vis China, primarily from the Green Party on human-rights grounds, will dissipate. Too intertwined is Germany’s economic wellbeing, in particular the survival of its carmakers, with a smooth relationship with China. Whether the European Parliament will finally derail Chancellor Merkel’s European Union investment agreement with China remains in doubt. The fact that forty-eight new Jungsozialisten (Young Socialists, which is SPD’s youth organization) will join the SPD caucus in the next Bundestag will further burden Germany’s role in NATO. It’s hard to imagine that any SPD chancellor, even Olaf Scholz, will get permission to extend “Germany’s nuclear participation.” In the next few years, Germany needs to decide on the next generation of nuclear-capable jet fighters. Already last year, the leader of the SPD caucus called NATO’s nuclear posture obsolete and dangerous. One remembers Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose SPD sabotaged his chancellorship in 1981-1982 and opened the door for Chancellor Helmut Kohl by a vote of no confidence and a subsequent resounding election victory.