Election night in Germany proved inconclusive. There were some clear winners and losers, but it’s not like we can be sure of the size of the next German government.
The Social Democratic SPD came out on top, crowning a remarkable change in its fortunes. In 2017, it achieved the worst result in its history, the European elections in 2019 were even worse, it was plagued by internal divisions. Now the party looks united and hungry for power, with Olaf Scholz claiming chancellorship (and clearly favoring a role in opinion polls).
The Greens were also winners, gaining ground, but also wondering what might have happened. Before COVID, they seemed to be in a battle with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) for first place, but now find themselves in third place. The party figures on election night were honest that the results did not live up to their expectations.
Perhaps the widest smile of the night was that of liberal (FDP) leader Christian Lindner. His party was ready, and appears to have been forgiven for pulling out of coalition talks in 2017 – a move that most Germans considered irresponsible at the time. Lindner’s satisfaction came not only from gains of votes and seats, but from the FDP’s return to the traditional role of kingmaker. He and his team will be instrumental in choosing which major party will rule Germany.
The biggest loser was under CDU/CSU Armin Lasquet. Perhaps there was little relief that the party was gaining some support in the final days of the campaign, and the odds with the SPD were less than what the elections had predicted. But the result was widely acknowledged as a disaster, and Lachette’s suggestion on election night that the party had a mandate to lead the government was slapped by other party figures.
The two other losers were the Left Party and the Far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD). The Left came dangerously close to losing its Bundestag representation. It failed to meet the 5% threshold for representation, but it did get a 4.9% quota of MPs as it won three straight seats. The party prepares for a period of soul-searching and possible splitting.
The AFD’s performance was more subtle: the party lost ground nationally, but performed strongly in East Germany (19.2% win compared to 8.1% in the West), and even finished first in the two eastern states. Stayed on The AfD will not reach the government anywhere, but it seems to have established itself as part of the political landscape.
Who will form the government?
By far the two most likely options for a coalition are the “traffic light” arrangement between the SPD, the Greens and the FDP, and the “Jamaica” coalition of the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP. The Greens have made it clear that they are leaning east.
FDP messages have been merged. In terms of policy, an alliance with the CDU/CSU is more easily formed, but they know that it will be difficult to rehabilitate the CDU/CSU after such a horrific defeat, with or without Lashette.
An SPD/Green/Left party coalition would not have a majority, so this is no longer a serious option for Scholz. This leaves Lindner with far more leverage than expected as a potential alliance partner.
Unusually, Lindner announced that he would seek exploratory talks with the Greens, to understand common ground and, by implication, to see whether Traffic Light or the Jamaica Coalition should be supported, and under what conditions. under. Lindner would probably cost the federal finance ministry a control, and he appeared to offer the Greens an opportunity to take the lead on climate and the environment.
While the numbers pile up for an SPD-CDU/CSU alliance, there is little appetite in either party for such an arrangement. Becoming a junior partner would be hard for the CDU/CSU to feed, and SPD members are fed up with the “grand alliance”.
In the coming weeks, exploratory talks will be held. In this period, the Greens and the FDP will be willing to bargain much harder with the SPD, most likely.
Once this phase is over, formal alliance talks begin. The morning after the election, Scholz asserted his desire to see a new government by Christmas.
The maneuver will make an exciting spectacle. It will be challenging to decode whether the party’s statements are honest, or part of a wider game of bricksmanship. Finding the truth in Lindner’s cheerful demeanor will be the hardest part.
We will have a clear idea of the way forward only when coalition talks begin, and even then consensus is not assured. The ultimate paradox of Angela Merkel’s tenure, successful for the CDU and stable for Germany, is that as soon as she leaves the stage the CDU is disorganized and the future government so uncertain.