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A nation must think before it acts.
On September 26, more than 60 million Germans voted to choose their next government. After 16 years in office, Angela Merkel was not on the ballot to lead her center-right alliance of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (collectively, the CDU/CSU), and most indications were that her “grand coalition” government of the CDU/CSU and center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) would not continue.
The SPD tried to offer both change and continuity by passing over more progressive party leaders to choose Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, known as a pragmatic centrist, as their candidate. Meanwhile, the CDU/CSU chose Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhein-Westphalia. Although it can be a challenge for the leader of a party which has held the Chancellery since 2005 to claim to represent change, the fact that Laschet was not a member of the national government but rather a state governor gave him (at least theoretically) some credibility on that score.
Merkel’s retirement presaged major changes in German politics, but German voters could not quite decide how much change they wanted.
Now that the official results have been tabulated, the CDU/CSU has emerged as the biggest loser of the night, ending up just above 24%, around eight percentage points lower than their already disappointing 2017 showing. This is the worst result for the Christian Democrats in the history of the Federal Republic, going all the way back to 1949. Armin Laschet’s lackluster campaign certainly deserves much of the blame, especially since he was chosen specifically because CDU members believed he was electable. Laschet declared on election night that the CDU/CSU still has a chance to form a government, but it is far from certain that he would lead it even if that were true. The CDU has traditionally been ruthless in punishing those who lose elections.
Although Laschet deserves the brunt of the criticism, Angela Merkel cannot emerge from this debacle unscathed. In her nearly 20 years as CDU Chair and 16 years as Chancellor, Merkel had the power to shape the party, leaving critics isolated when not driving them out of active politics altogether. For all her popularity and success, she—like previous long-serving Christian Democratic Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl—was neither willing nor able to cultivate a strong successor, a failure that must be included in any future discussions of her legacy. Conservative critics also claim that her relentless centrism cost the CDU/CSU votes on the right. As we will see, that is debatable. More notable is that more than a million voters abandoned the CDU/CSU for the SPD, reflecting both Merkel’s appeal to the broad center and Laschet’s failure to hold onto those “Merkel voters.”
The SPD, which finished in first place, around two percentage points ahead of the CDU/CSU, was a clear winner. Drawing those million-plus votes away from their Christian Democratic rivals demonstrated the wisdom of selecting Olaf Scholz to appeal to the broad middle. Even if 26 percent is far from a resounding mandate, by adding five percentage points to their 2017 result, the SPD also put to rest (at least for the moment) the predictions that their days as the leading center-left party in Germany were over.
Being the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition had not helped the SPD. Much as conservatives in the CDU/CSU lamented Merkel’s lack of ideological clarity, SPD progressives complained that Merkel stole voters and ideas away from them. Being in government also made it difficult to draw sharp contrasts with their coalition frenemies. Scholz’s strong performance has given the party a chance to reclaim a leadership role in national politics.
Scholz’s unspectacular but stumble-free campaign may have confirmed the wisdom of selecting a leader with broad appeal, though it remains to be seen how he will build a government that will satisfy the desires of more progressive colleagues for a more definite shift to the left.
Those challenges will be that much more difficult because any future government will have to include the other two big winners of the election: the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Each scored well into the double digits by appealing to younger voters and to those dissatisfied with the dominant parties, while also reaffirming their place within a broad democratic consensus. Although neither on their own grew big enough to challenge for the Chancellorship, each is now poised to play major roles going forward.
The Greens had high hopes entering the campaign. Their combination of earnest idealism and environmental seriousness earned them one of the best finishes in their history. Winning nearly fifteen percent of the overall vote means there will be more than 100 deputies from the Greens in the coming Bundestag, reflecting their development from radical fringe to the center. Already serving in many state and local governments, and in a national government with the SPD between 1998 and 2005, the Greens have abandoned much of their previous opposition to Germany’s roles in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, emerging as fierce critics of Russia and China as well as advocates for transatlantic cooperation—all positions that have made them more palatable to centrist voters and which can allow them to serve in coalitions with either Christian or Social Democrats.
The FDP also comes out as a winner in this election with over 11 percent of the vote. After being ejected from parliament altogether in 2013, the party made a return to the national stage in 2017 under the leadership of Christian Lindner, who played up the FDP’s image as the representative of young urban professionals. Calling for overall modernization of society and advocating tax and spending cuts, Lindner may be more comfortable in a coalition with the CDU/CSU but has positioned his party equally well as partner for either camp. Indeed, a coalition with the SPD and Greens would allow him to polish the FDP’s image as the defender of market-friendly policies.
The overall result of the election is therefore a more fluid and fragmented political environment but one where the center has largely held. Once dominated by the two broad “people’s parties” of CDU/CSU and SPD, the center now includes more self-confident Greens and FDP. Together, these four parties won more than three-quarters of the overall vote. Coalition negotiations may be long and complex, but the many possible forms of competition and cooperation between these parties offers the chance to revitalize German democracy that some feared had stagnated under successive grand coalitions by encouraging creative coalition building among largely equal partners.
Such possibilities for German democracy exist because of something that did not happen. Despite many predictions (confident or worried), the relative weakness of the top two traditional parties did not lead to a triumph for the extremes. Although both the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the left-wing populist Left Party (Linke) each earned enough votes to enter the Bundestag, neither did well enough to have a serious chance at joining a national government, and both face serious questions about longer-term strategy.
The AfD’s success at the state level, culminating in double-digit success in 2017, led many to worry that the party threatened to become a serious power in national politics, encouraging a steady stream of dire historical analogies about the inevitable rise of such anti-democratic forces. The last few years, however, have shown the limits of the AfD’s appeal. Factional infighting and the continuing influence of white supremacist elements have hindered efforts to reach beyond the party base in former East Germany. On election night, the AfD appeared to have plateaued nationally, falling back marginally at around ten percent of the overall vote and slipping from third place to fifth overall. The AfD did come in first in Eastern states Thuringia and Saxony, which solidifies their reputation as the party of the disaffected and “left behind” sections of Germany. It remains to be seen if the party can break out of those limits and regain the momentum of four years ago.
Especially interesting will remain the question of how long the CDU/CSU will hold to their refusal to consider coalitions with the AfD. Founded in part by disaffected former CDU conservatives, the AfD has taken votes from the Christian Democrats, especially those who reject Merkel’s centrism. But the most prominent CDU conservative, Hans-Georg Maaßen, who claimed he could appeal to AfD voters by embracing some of their concerns and anti-immigrant rhetoric, failed in his bid to win a district in Thuringia. Furthermore, exit polls showing that the CDU and CSU lost more voters to the SPD, FDP, and Greens suggest that the path to national power still runs through the center.
That perspective is also reflected in the poor showing of the Linke, which had hoped to pull the SPD further to the left and join a national government for the first time. Instead, Linke saw their share of the vote cut nearly in half, leaving them below five percent of the national vote. Although they will still be represented in the Bundestag thanks to winning at least three direct district seats, Linke leadership cannot be happy with a result that leaves them on the parliamentary fringe. Olaf Scholz had never shown much enthusiasm for a coalition with the Linke, whose pro-Russian and anti-American positions on foreign policy especially make them a bad fit with the Atlanticist Greens and SPD. Even before the AfD emerged as the leading East German party, the Linke had built a base there while also hoping to appeal to leftist urban milieus in the West, but that strategy has not yet paid off. Whether it ever will pay off remains as unclear as ever.
Once the results are confirmed and each party knows how many seats it will have in the next Bundestag, coalition negotiations will begin. These can be long and grueling, if 2017 is any indication. It is dangerous to make any predictions, but three things are already clear:
The big question is who takes the lead in trying to form a government? The SPD is the most likely option. Finishing first overall, however narrowly, has its advantages. Although Laschet and the CDU/CSU do not want to be counted out just yet, it is (to put it mildly) difficult for a party that lost nearly a quarter of its previous vote share to claim it has a mandate to govern. No party ever happily loses its place in government, of course, but it may indeed be better for the Christian Democrats to spend some time in opposition to figure out their future. The days and weeks to come will reveal how well the CDU and CSU both individually and collectively handle that transition.
For Olaf Scholz, those days and weeks are likely to be very busy indeed. He has not hidden his preference for a “traffic light coalition,” including his SPD (Red), the FDP (yellow), and the Greens, and there is certainly plenty of interest in all three parties. Serious challenges loom, however. The left wing of the SPD does not much like the FDP’s positions on taxes and spending, and the suspicion is mutual. We have also already noted possible tensions between the FDP and the Greens. Even with a common desire to govern, it will take serious negotiations to build a coalition.
Meanwhile, the whole world will be watching. Angela Merkel was a global figure, even if her policies reflected Germany’s continuing ambivalence about the exercise of power. Her successors will face ever greater pressure to embrace geopolitical responsibilities to match German global economic interests, whether in dealing with Russia or China or the development of a European Union that can embrace what French President Emmanuel Macron calls “strategic autonomy.”
Commentators lamented that the German election campaign did not pay much attention to foreign policy. In the three televised debates between Laschet, Scholz, and Baerbock, domestic themes dominated, disappointing those hoping for insights into how any of these potential Chancellors planned to develop Germany’s global role. As any observer of American politics knows, timidity in approaching geopolitical issues is tempting for candidates who don’t want to challenge an electorate that prefers to ignore foreign affairs. Sooner or later, however, a crisis will force any leader to choose a strategy. Will Chancellor Olaf Scholz or Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock be ready?
Scholz is a conventional transatlanticist and pro-European, so he is not likely to undermine Germany’s existing commitments. Both he and Laschet traveled to Paris in the weeks before the election to signal their enthusiasm for European cooperation. At the same time, it’s unclear whether Scholz has the support within his party for stronger German international leadership, for EU strategic autonomy, or even to increase defense spending to hit NATO’s 2% target. Meanwhile, the Greens have become outspoken defenders of transatlantic values when it comes to opposing Russia in Ukraine or even criticizing China’s human rights record. Does that mean a traditionally pacifist party would embrace greater defense spending? Would references to common values translate into cooperation with the United States or other partners in confronting Russia or China if German business interests preferred appeasement? That’s much harder to know, especially with the business-friendly FDP in the government that is much less enthusiastic for European or Atlantic solidarity.
There is much we do not know right now. We can hope for clarity as a new government emerges. But it will be some time before we know how a post-Angela Merkel Germany will govern itself or act in the world. German voters have spoken. We await the translation of their choice into policy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.