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In their federal election, Germans chose change for continuity

After 16 years of conservative CDU dominance, the glue holding together a recently fraying electoral alliance has eroded, paving the way for a turbulent period of match-making between the other parties.

The reason for such an arduous process are the quirks in the German legislative system. Germans have two ballots – one for a constituency vote (in which a candidate tied to a seat is elected through first-past-the-post), and one regional list vote. In this latter ballot, voters do not choose a candidate, but rather a party – this can be the same party as their constituency vote or a different one. To gain seats through this ballot, parties must obtain a 5% threshold when all votes are counted. This is avoid extremist parties gaining significant representation whilst also affording smaller parties a voice in the Bundestag. 

To balance representation out further, the Bundestag can alter how many representatives sit in it. Depending on how strong third parties are in an election, the number can increase or decrease, but never below 598 seats. For example, in 2017 there were 709 seats (of which 111 were ‘top up’ or ‘overhang’ seats). This was to account for the instability and rise of third parties including the AfD and Free Democrats. In 2021, 26 extra seats were added to account for even more electoral volatility. These seats are elected according to proportional representation and exist to make elections as proportional as possible. An indication of the success of second and third parties is how large the Bundestag is – it is currently at its largest, meaning that German politics is very fractured amongst many parties. Why did this German election cause such a result?

Also distinct in this election is the absence of ‘Mutti’, otherwise known as Angela Merkel. The force behind Germany’s drive to the soft right has exited the electoral arena, leaving her Christian Democrats searching for an equally strong leader.

Sharing the centre-ground

The CDU’s disastrous showing – its worst ever – came after a campaign plagued by blunders and missteps. Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Armin Laschet, stumbled through the campaign with allegations of plagiarism, awkward encounters, and image gaffes. One of the most significant of these gaffes was when Laschet was caught on camera laughing during a sombre speech by the German president after disastrous floods in the city of Hagen. Not only did he seem disconnected and lacking in empathy, but he inspired little confidence in the electorate’s hope of change – when asked of his policy plans for the future he replied with a blank expression. Direction is key to any campaign, as is message ownership. Laschet had neither.

Conversely, the SDP seems to be the main beneficiary of Laschet’s polling tailspin. By mid-August, the social democrats had overtaken the CDU, buoyed by an unassuming finance minister Olaf Scholz. Seen as an asset by the party, the campaign turned presidential and pitched him against an unpopular Laschet. Conveyed as a level-headed statesman with the required experience, Scholz played on these strengths to convince CDU voters to lend their votes to him – even referring to himself as ‘Merkel’s heir’. He also fought on another front – emphasising a bold, progressive, green agenda to win back Green voters who, during the summer, were putting the Champagne on ice. 

German voters appreciate pragmatism – Scholz met many of the criteria to be one. He diluted Merkel’s policies with that of his new social democratic agenda, creating a similar, but far smaller coalition which the CDU had cultivated. Amassing shy of 26% of the vote, it cannot be claimed as a strong mandate – the CDU were only 1.5% behind after 16 years in government and only won 10 seats less.

A Green surge fizzled out

The reason for this momentous but rather diluted victory was the strong showing by the Green Party – the biggest winners of the election. Floods and the increasing awareness and concern of global warming pushed the party to a strong third showing, gaining just shy of 15% of votes. Party leader Annalena Baerbock owned the climate issue and her message consistency was strong. However, for an outside candidate with an exciting agenda, her campaign was not spectacular. She also suffered from poor debate performance, allegations of plagiarism, and doubts that her pledges could be delivered. Whilst Germans feel inclined towards level-headed pragmatism, she was perhaps a victim of overpromising and under-delivering.

Rewarding level-headedness

Those who suffered at the hands of the German electorate were those on the extreme edges of the scale. The AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) and Die Linke (The Left) dropped in their share of the vote and seats, with the latter dipping beneath the 5% threshold to still retain seats on the regional list vote. Both parties had hardline stances on foreign and economic policy and both were subsequently punished by an electorate fearful of too much boat-rocking. Whilst Die Linke plummeted to its worst share of the vote ever (most likely squeezed by the Green surge), the AfD gained control of seats in Thuringia and Saxony from the CDU, whilst losing votes and representation overall.

The federal election is certainly still relevant – the SPD are still trying to string a coalition together with the Greens and the classical liberal Free Democrats, who gained a handful of seats. However, the lesson for any aspiring German Chancellor candidate is that Germans like consistency, continuity, and pragmatism. As we have seen in Canada this year, the electorate is in a volatile and vulnerable position and will reward those with clear messages who represent the clearest continuation of stability and competence.

So, whilst Germany may be headed for its first SPD chancellor since 2005, it is no sea-change. Rather, German politics just has the opportunity to get far more divisive and consequential – and especially as the two largest parties begin to converge around Merkel-ism, the opportunities for peaceful disruptors can only increase.

Tom Bromwich is a Research and Communications Assistant at College Green Group.