The Weekend Politics Thread Goes to Germany

Hi there! I’m Wilhelm Wolff, one of our German residents. Uvular was so kind as to let me take over the PT header this weekend for the German federal election that is happening on Sunday. Since most of you are probably unfamiliar with the German political system, I’ll try to explain how this election works, who is running, and what the results might mean. I’ll put in a bunch of these boxes that you can click on to expand and to read some more details if you’re interested.

So, first of: Who is being elected and how does Germany‘s electoral system work?
This is the federal election for the German parliament (the “Bundestag”). As the country’s official name says, Germany is a federal republic. The president has mostly ceremonial and representative functions and is not relevant in this context. Germany has a parliamentary system, meaning that the parliamentary majority elects the head of government and most important political figure, the chancellor, and that parliament and government aren’t really separated and more entangled. For example Merkel as the current chancellor was not elected directly or indirectly by the people (like the president in the US) but by parliament. Since Merkel is retiring after 16 years of chancellorship, this election determines who will become her successor.
Germany uses an electoral system that is essentially proportional representation. But because it’s Germany, it has to be more complicated than that. The German system is called mixed-member proportional representation (“personalisiertes Verhältniswahlrecht” in German). What does that mean? In a federal election, the voter has two votes: one for the local representative of their district, and one for a party list on the federal level.
The first one works with first-past-the-post with a simple majority, so whoever wins the most votes in a district is elected and goes to parliament. The second one is actually more important: these votes are added up and the vote share of a party decides how many seats they get in parliament. The polls and results you’ll see are in reference to this vote. To get into parliament in full strength, a party needs more than 5 % or to win at least three districts. This 5 % threshold means that the result will actually not be totally representative. Depending on the result, “other” (small) parties that won’t get into parliament might get between 5 and 10 % combined. This means that you don’t need 50 % of the vote for a majority in parliament; for example if the combined others get 8 %, 47 % are enough for a parliamentary majority (100 – 8 = 92; 92/2 = 46).
This system has its merits and its faults, one of which is that parliament is getting way too big; the Bundestag currently has more members than the European Parliament. This has to do with something called “Überhangmandate” (and “Ausgleichsmandate”) that I won’t get into. There are some other problems as well, but I for one think this system is at least better than FPTP.

Now to the second point: Who is running?

There are currently six (and a half) parties in German parliament that are strong enough to form a faction or caucus. These six (and a half) parties are the same ones that are projected to get past the 5 % threshold and stay in parliament, so I’ll limit the discussion to them. In the order of the 2017 result, these are:

CDU/CSU (centre-right conservatives)
(= Christdemokratische Union/Christsoziale Union, together often referred to as “Die Union”, colour: black [blue in Europe Elects polls].)
Why are there two abbreviations? Strictly speaking, the Union (this word has nothing to do with labour unions in the German context, by the way) consists of two or, as some political scientist say, one and a half parties. The CDU runs in all of Germany except for the state of Bavaria and the CSU (the half party) only runs in Bavaria. In national parliament, they join forces and caucus together, but the CSU has a distinct character, sometimes leaning more to the right than the CDU. Despite its regional character, the CSU is not in any way separatistic.
These christian democratic parties have been in charge of government for most of post-war (west-)German history and have led government since 2005. Merkel was the CDU chairwoman from 2000 until 2018. Unlike the Republicans in the US, they aren’t full blown-crazy right-wing extremists (see AfD below), even though there are some politicians who are trying to drag them more to the right and towards more inflammatory right-wing rhetoric. As of now, the Union normally just blocks progress as long as they can before giving in and taking credit, insists that left-wing extremists are as bad as fascists, and tries to benefit the rich in a measured way while shoving down austerity politics poorer people’s throats in Germany and all around Europe. They are divided on gay marriage (introduced in Germany in 2017 when some of their MPs voted against it), and while they generally acknowledge climate change and stick by the Paris Agreement, they don’t really want to do anything about it. And lest not forget, this party also has had some major corruption scandals this year as well as throughout their history.
With Merkel retiring, they have chosen Armin Laschet as their candidate for chancellor in this election after some internal wrangling. Laschet is currently governor of Germany’s biggest state (by inhibants), but his campaign has been mostly disastrous. After rains and floods devastated parts of West Germany, Laschet was filmed laughing in the back while the president addressed the victims, which seemed disrespectful; during another visit, an angered local told him that he was useless and a loser on camera. Add some uninspiring debate performances and a party devoid of ideas and no programme beyond “everything should remain the same” and you get bad polls. According to the polls, CDU/CSU might drop below 30 % nationally for the first time ever.
SPD (centre-left social democrats)
(= Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; colour: Red.)
The SPD is the social democratic party. They used to be the conservatives’ biggest rival back when there were only three or four parties. Out of eight German post-war chancellors, three have been socdems. The SPD has been part of the government coalition for 19 of the past 23 years, first as the leading party in a red-green coalition (1998–2005), and then as the smaller partner in a grand coalition from 2005–2009 and again from 2013 until now.
The SPD sees itself as a big tent party on the centre-left, even though they have been constantly losing since 2005 and barely made it above 20 % in 2017. When governing under their own chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD embraced these “new labour” kind of politics of deregulation, lower taxes for the rich, and cracking down on the unemployed. This hurt them badly in the aftermath, but they have recovered on the policy level and advocate for a higher minimum wage and higher taxes for the rich now. Even though they are certainly not a “hip” party because of their old base, the SPD is mostly solid on societal and cultural issues and they have a strong youth organisation. It’s not all their fault that they couldn’t do much on these issues while in a coalition with the conservatives. However, they often lean towards security on issues of security vs. freedom. And as a party that is historically strongly tied to coal miners with their importance to the workers’ movement the SPD has been rather slow when it comes to climate change.
Their candidate for chancellor is Olaf Scholz, the current vice-chancellor and finance minister (think treasurer). Before joining the cabinet in 2018, Scholz was best known as mayor of Hamburg (a big city that is also a state in Germany) where he definitely had some missteps. His demeanour is generally calm and boring, bordering on the robotic, but this has probably helped him in the campaign where his two main rivals floundered. Within the SPD, Scholz belongs to the centrist wing. (Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans who are to the left of Scholz share the position of party chair.) After spending big on Covid, Scholt says that he wants to reduce the deficit (which many left-leaning politicians don’t really care about anymore). His chances to become chancellor are surprisingly good according to the latest polls. He seems more inclined to form a coalition with the greens and the liberals (see FDP) than with the greens and the left.
AfD (far-right)
(= Alternative für Deutschland; colour: light blue [black in Europe Elects], some papers/websites use brown for them like for the NSDAP.)
This is Germany’s right-wing crazy party full of fascists. I think you can imagine very well what kind of rhetoric they use, so I don’t want to say too much about that. There are conspiracy theories, antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, denial of climate change, and so forth. They are more united on this kind of hateful stuff than they are on actual policies, where they are divided between those who advocate tax cuts and decimating state programs and those who want to put the social back in “national socialist” (but for Germans only).
The AfD was originally founded as an anti-Euro party (Euro as in €); now they want Germany to leave the EU completely. They first made it into parliament in 2017, after narrowly missing the threshold in 2013. For a while it seemed like they would continue to rise after the last election, but for now it looks like they’ll come in below 15 % and probably somewhere around their 2017 result (12.6 %). The AfD is especially strong in East Germany where they will probably win some districts as well. For now, no mainstream party wants to work with the AfD. It remains to be seen how the conservatives develop and whether they keep their right wing in check, especially in eastern states. Of course, the more extremist factions within the AfD aren’t interested in coalitions anyway, as they want to take the country over whole, and the AfD in general does not understand how parliaments work or what parliamentarians actually do. They have a high turnover because there is constant infighting and the party has been steadily moving more to right since its founding. Their financial backing is very shady; the party or some of its members are probably involved in some illegal party finance dealings.
FDP (centre-right liberals)
(= Freidemokratische Partei Deutschlands, colour: yellow)
The FDP are what we refer to as liberals in Germany. In that context, as in many parts of Europe, liberal isn’t the opposing side to conservatives. Rather, these liberals form a centre-right party with libertarian tendencies and prefer to ally with the conservatives. The FDP unfortunately made a comeback in 2017, after being voted out of parliament for the first time (since 1949) in 2013. There were talks for them to join the Union and the Greens for a coalition government in 2017, but the FDP broke off these talks because they felt they couldn’t make enough of an impact in this coalition, prompting a bit of a crisis in stability obsessed Germany. This is why I remain very sceptical of a possible coalition between them, the SPD and the Greens this time around.
The FDP’s programme consists of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation. They think the free market will solve all of our problems, including climate change, and the government should just get out the way. They are also pro gay marriage and against more surveillance, but they are usually willing to ignore these kind of socially liberal positions if the conservatives offer them the right tax cut. Their libertarian douchebag position means that they oppose measures that aim at achieving more gender equality likes the ones that SPD, Greens and the Left support. Christian Lindner is the FDP’s chairman, sole leader and most prominent face by far. My impression is that his (and by extension his party’s) success rests on black and white photos of him on posters and billboards with some phrase about digitalisation or something.
The Left (democratic socialists)
(= Die Linke, colour: red/purple)
This party is literally called the left, so you can guess where it lands on the political landscape. It came into existence in the mid-2000s when the remains of the former socialist government party (the PDS) from the DDR (the East German country) united with a newly founded western party that had split off the SPD over the socdem’s turn towards the centre with Blair-like policies. The Left now faces the challenge that their eastern base is dying off while they haven’t been able to fully establish themselves in the West. Moreover, like any serious leftist party, they struggle with internal divisions.
The Left wants to raise the minimum wage even more than the SPD and the Greens, they want to tax the rich to a higher amount, and get more of the essential public services under public control while regulating the private sector. They are pretty good on climate issues, definitely better than the SPD, and they take the separation of state and church more seriously than the other parties that have many connections and entanglements with the churches and religious communities. Defence spending should be decreased according to them, and public transport should be expanded and free. They vehemently oppose any deployment of the German army and want Germany to quit NATO, which is the most controversial demand of their manifesto when the possibility of a coalition with SPD and Greens is concerned (both of which are committed to NATO).
The Left occasionally has issues with the kind of antisemitism that you sometimes see from the anti-imperial left. One division on the German left that exists in this party is the divide between anti-imps (who are very critical of Israel and the US) and anti-Germans (who are very critical of patriotism and supportive of Israel). Some prominent left politicians also warn about identity politics and how identity politics are supposedly more dividing than uniting and so on. The Left is the only German mainstream party to have no man in charge, but two chairwomen, Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (one from the West and one from the East).
The Greens (centre-left environmentalists)
(= Bündnis 90/Die Grünen)
The Greens started out in the 80s as an anti-establishment party centred on environmental issues (including being strongly against nuclear energy) and piece. They have since become normalised and are a progressive centre-left party nowadays. They were part of the red-green coalition from 1998 to 2005 where they moved more towards centrist “Realpolitik”. In some German states, they govern with the SPD (and the Left), while in others they are in coalitions with the CDU (and the FDP).
The Greens’ manifesto is in many regards very similar to that of the SPD, but obviously their emphasis is more on the climate crisis. They want to speed up Germany’s exit from coal (currently scheduled for 2038, they demand 2030) and the transition to e-mobility, more bike lines and fewer cars in inner cities and so on. On foreign politics, they aren’t the piece-loving hippies they used to be anymore, but supported the deployment of the German army to Afghanistan and the NATO in general. Of all German mainstream parties, the Greens probably are the most enthusiastic about the EU, and they have the youngest membership with the highest percentage of female members (which doesn’t say much if you look at the others).
For the last few years, the Greens have been on the rise and it looked like they would overtake the SPD (and sometimes even the CDU/CSU). This is why they nominated a candidate for chancellor for the first time, Annelena Baerbock. Baerbock then came under scrutiny from the press and received a lot of bad press for some minor “scandals”, which led to the Greens’ plummeting in the polls back to third place.

On to the next point: What kind of result can we expect and what will it mean?

The polls have been highly volatile in the past few months. On a general level, the polls indicate that SPD, CDU/CSU, and Greens will become the three strongest parties, with SPD and Union getting something between 19 and 27 % and the Greens likely coming in third. The AfD should get another result between 10 and 14 % and the FDP is somewhere in this range as well. The Left stagnates around 6 and 8 %, but should make it past the threshold. There are a lot of other parties running, too, but none of them is projected to get near 5 %, so I’ll leave them out.

To me it seems like the media and a lot of voters care more about the parties’ leading personal than about their manifestos. For the conservatives this meant voters realising that Merkel, who had a last surge in popularity due to the pandemic, wasn’t running again and that they didn’t like Laschet, who the Union picked to replace her, so the Union tanked. The Greens were brought down from their high by the “scandals” of Annalena Baerbock and so the SPD suddenly rose to first place, as their candidate seems like a secure and reasonable choice.

The last poll I saw looked like this:
SPD 25%
Greens 17%
FDP 12%
AfD 10%
Left 6%
Others 8%

Who will become chancellor?

Since 1957, (West-)Germany has always had coalition governments of two parties (counting CDU and CSU as one). With the polls looking the way they do, it’s quite possible that no two parties will have a majority. It’s also possible that a coalition of two parties has enough parliamentary seats, but that the parties prefer another combination. Theoretically the option of a minority government (for example a red-green coalition supported, depending on the issue, by the Left or the Liberals) also exists, but since Germany is obsessed with “stability”, it is unlikely to happen. Therefore, there will be some kind of coalition, probably involving three parties, but we don’t know yet which combination it will turn out to be.

However, there is no constitutional mechanism that says that the chancellor comes from the strongest party. This issue has been hotly debated lately. Depending on what happens after the election, it’s also imaginable that the CDU/CSU or the SPD comes in second and still their candidate becomes chancellor. This situation with a close result, no clear winner, and many different options for coalitions is kind of new and it’s hard to tell how it will play out. But according to the newest polls, either Olaf Scholz (SPD) or Armin Laschet (CDU) will become Merkel’s successor. There might be some scenarios where Laschet is replaced after the election as CDU chairman and the new CDU/CSU leader (Markus Söder?) somehow puts together a coalition, but I find that highly unlikely.

Which coalitions are possible?

Of the six parties that will probably get into parliament, five could be involved in a coalition. I’ll list the possible coalitions, trying to go from left to right:

Even though the conservatives are railing against this possibility and warning that Germany might become some socialist hellhole, neither SPD and Greens nor the Left have ruled out this option. Neither Scholz (SPD) nor Baerbock (Greens) appear to like the Left very much, but they want to keep their options open. The biggest issues between these parties are foreign policy and military deployments, with the Left wanting to leave NATO and the others committed to stay in NATO and to what they call “active foreign policy”. The Left also has some more radical politicians who might not like to adhere to the logic of compromise that coalitions demand, so the responsibility of government would put them to the test. Polls project a narrow majority for this combination.
This would easily work and it’s the preferred option for both parties, but a majority is highly unlikely, as is a minority government.
(In German this is called “Ampel-Koalition” because the colours are those of a traffic light.) If SPD and Greens need a partner, they will probably try to get the liberals to join them. This coalition is projected to have a solid majority. It is however difficult to see what these parties have in common: SPD and Greens want to raise taxes for the rich; the FDP wants to lower them. SPD and Greens want to do something about climate change, including regulations; the FDP says the market knows best and corporations will come up with innovations on their own. They could probably get together on foreign policy and some social issues, but not all, as the FDP opposes gender quotas and other feminist measures. So the problem here might be that SPD and Greens would have to give a lot to get the FDP on board and then this coalition might very well suck, but who knows.
(I’m not even sure there is a name for this combination yet. How does Libya coalition sound?) If the FDP refuses and they can’t work it out with the Left, maybe SPD and Greens will ask the conservatives to join them. I find this highly unlikely. If the CDU/CSU suffers a devastating loss, they’ll want to regroup in opposition and probably will need to find new leadership. Regarding policy however, this might work better than the “Ampel”, because the conservatives are so devoid of conviction. This enables them to be very flexible for the sake of power. Plus, if no other option is left, it might be possible to pressure them into this coalition by appealing to their responsibility for Germany’s “stability” or whatever. This combination would also have a large majority and the most votes in Germany’s second parliamentary chamber.
(“Große Koalition”) However, SPD and conservatives might not even need the Greens for a majority, so they could just form another “grand coalition”. Only this time, the SPD would take up the chancellorship. What stands in the way of this combination is that the SPD is sick of the conservatives’ shit and that the conservatives wouldn’t want to join a government when they’re not leading it.
(“Deutschland coalition” because the colours match Germany’s flag.) I deem this scenario highly unlikely, especially if the SPD wins, because the SPD would want the Greens involved and the Greens want to be involved. The SPD would have to be even more stupid than they often have been in the recent past to form a coalition with two centre-right partners. If the Union wins, the Greens are more likely to join the Union and the FDP than the SPD is, because the Greens want to be back in government business after 16 years of opposition (they already acted like a government party in waiting for much of the past few years), whereas the SPD isn’t quite as eager and their left wing might even be sick of governing with the conservatives who block all of their good ideas.
(“Jamaica coalition” because the party colours correspond to the colour of Jamaica’s flag.) Even if the Union comes in second, they could still lead a government. I don’t even think this scenario is totally unlikely. If FDP and Union refuse to join a SPD-led government, they could try to get the Greens to join them. The Greens, desperate to finally get into government, say yes. In 2017, this coalition almost happened, but the liberals backed out. On a policy level, it is hard to see what the Greens would be able to push through in this combination, but at least they’d go in stronger than in 2017. Perhaps they would abandon their stances on taxes and some social issues in order to get some compromises on climate issues. According to the polls, this combination would have a majority, but not necessarily a big one.

If the conservatives come in first:

(“Kenia coalition”, again referring to the country’s flag.) If the conservatives win, this combination is not totally unlikely and it has been done on the state level. I think the “Jamaica-coalition” is more likely, though, so “Kenia” only happens if the conservatives win, but there is no majority for Jamaica or a grand coalition.
(“Grand coalition”, see above SPD-CDU/CSU.) This is the coalition that has governed Germany for the past 8 years and from 2005-2009. Again, I think this is unlikely. If the socdems don’t win and don’t get to nominate the chancellor, they probably don’t want to remain in government as the smaller partner of the conservatives. Greens and FDP together should become stronger than the SPD and willing to govern this time, so there should be no necessity to force the SPD into another grand coalition. But I thought the same thing four years ago, so what do I know?
A couple of months ago, I was convinced the next government would consist of these two parties. Since the conservatives have basically no programme and the Greens too are somewhat flexible, this would probably work, as it already does in some states. Now however, these parties hardly get a combined 40 % in newer polls, so this coalition is unlikely.

As you can see, there are a lot of options. Obviously, what government comes out of this election depends on the result, but even the result itself won’t bring clarity. Perhaps we’ll already know who becomes the next chancellor. If we’re lucky, some party leaders will start to express preferences on election night. There might also be some resignations. But it will take a while until we know what the next German government looks like. After the election in September 2017, it took until March 2018 for the Bundestag to re-elect Merkel as chancellor.

First projections will come in as soon as the polls close at Sunday 18:00 Central European Time, whatever that corresponds to in your timezone. These first projections might not be very accurate, but they give you an idea. Results should then come in over the course of the night.