Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar
One of Europe’s heaviest hitters faces an uncertain future. For the past 16 years, Germany has found a relatively safe pair of hands in Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has, after all, steered the country through the toughest times of the 21st century: a financial crash, a migrant crisis, Brexit, flooding, a global pandemic. But what happens when the leader the Germans call Mutti (‘mum’ in German) leaves? On September 26th, the next general election, we’ll find out.
The polls tell an interesting story. Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), twinned with its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have lost their lead to the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the current frontrunners by one percent. The margin isn’t big, but it is important. It means that the CDU/CSU is on track to record its worst electoral performance in 70 years. It means that we might see Olaf Scholz, SPD leader and, since 2018, Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance in Merkel’s ‘grand coalition,’ at the helm of the German government. He seems to have gained the people’s support, but we have to wonder whether that is thanks to his merit or the PR nightmare that has been CDU leader Armin Laschet’s campaign. While visiting Erfstadt, a town struck heavily by the catastrophic flooding in Germany earlier this year, Laschet, the chancellor candidate for CDU/CSU, was caught on camera, laughing amongst the wreckage. This and other such media gaffes, such as a deeply condescending response to a journalist, have seen his popularity plunge in recent weeks. There are, in fact, calls from within his own party to replace Laschet with another, Markus Söder, leader of CSU, in the candidacy for Chancellor.
Though Laschet’s indiscretions are a key reason for the considerable downturn in CDU/CSU popularity in recent months, it arguably isn’t all his fault. The evidence suggests that CDU/CSU has been on the decline long before Laschet’s campaign. Though they won both times, CDU/CSU results in the 2017 and 2019 elections were uncharacteristically poor. So does this leave room for another party to rise to prominence? Though SPD is gaining steam, their lead is still far from convincing, and without a single party breaking significantly ahead of the rest, the election’s result is by no means decided. But the opinion polls tell us not that the parties are equally popular, but that they are equally unpopular. The SPD comes in at 23%, the CDU/CSU at 22%. The Greens currently place third behind them, but in late April and early May, the Greens had briefly overtaken CDU/CSU and emerged at the top of the polls. Annalena Baerbock, their leader, is most responsible for their subsequent decline: there have been concerns about her lack of experience, but she has also come under fire for the use of a racial slur in an interview, and her ratings have felt the consequences. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the polls lie the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland, Germany’s far-right party), and the communist Left party. But far and away, the leader of the pack is ‘none of the above’ with 44%. Its lead is so big, ‘none of the above’ could almost form a government by itself.
It’s not the same story for Germany’s political parties. As things stand, even a coalition between the two parties leading in the polls, CDU/CSU and SPD – as we see in power today – would not be sufficient to form a majority in the Bundestag, the German parliament. A three-way coalition seems to be the only answer. In a way, this makes winning by whatever margin even more important for CDU/CSU and SPD. If the election turns out as the polls currently suggest, SPD will win, and it’s up to them to form a coalition, but they could exclude CDU/CSU entirely, choosing instead to cobble together a government with the Greens and the Free Democrats. Likewise, CDU/CSU could potentially regain their lead and exclude the SPD. But it would be a surprise to see the business-oriented FDP jumping into bed with the Greens, given their difference in interests. It might in fact be more likely to see the CDU/CSU and SPD continue to work together, as they have done for the past few years under Merkel. Subsuming the Green party would be a natural step, creating a palette of party colours to paint the Kenyan flag, hence the so-called ‘Kenya coalition’ (black for CDU/CSU, red for SPD, and green for, well, the Greens).
But the chancellor is most likely to come from either SPD or CDU/CSU, who are set to place first and second in the election, though it is uncertain in what order they will do so. The choice for the German people comes down once again to the nation’s two leading parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, but they will need considerable bolstering. The campaigns have, as expected, revealed differences in approach to policy. The Greens and SPD are prioritising climate change over jobs, whilst the CDU/CSU argues that this would severely dent the economy. Despite apparent political differences, the similar scores in the polls suggest either that Germany cannot decide between the two, or maybe that there is not a real choice to be made. Perhaps we can attribute this to Merkel. Many have given the outgoing Chancellor credit for ‘holding things together’ and maintaining the multi-lateral system of government during her time in office. But getting everyone to work together nicely means narrowing divisions, blurring ideologies, and advocating centrism.
If the 44% of Germany who chose ‘none of the above’ don’t vote in September, it will leave a gaping hole in the election result. The last time major parties failed to secure good results in a general election was 2017, and the far-right AfD was the third most powerful force in the Bundestag. It seems that there might be a correlation between the failure of more centrist parties and the rise of more extreme political views. AfD led the charge against Merkel’s controversial ‘open-door’ policy during the refugee crisis, and with another crisis brewing in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, xenophobic far-right rhetoric and sentiment will only increase in Germany. But it is doubtful whether AfD will gain any real political momentum as a party. In January 2020, MP Verena Hartmann left the party because it was becoming too extreme. She says, ‘Those who resist this extreme right-wing movement are mercilessly pushed out of the party.’ AfD simply cannot hold on to what support they manage to steal from the centre-right.
It’s a sprint to the finish for the parties, but there’s little support for any of the runners, and the lack of popularity among any of the major parties does not bode well, not only for Germany, but for the rest of the world. Brexit negotiations showed the UK just how consequential German leadership can be as a leading power in the EU. With the election on a knife-edge, the fate of German, European, and global politics hangs in the balance.