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2021 in Review: German Election Results: What Comes After Angela Merkel?

29 Dec 2021
By Dr Brangwen Stone
Olaf Scholz (SPD). Source: Dirk Vorderstraße

On 26 September, the German public went to the polls, without Angela Merkel on the ballot for the first time in 16 years. After a close election, it is still unclear who will be the next chancellor.

After a close election, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has a narrow lead over the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which plunged to a historic low, but neither party has enough votes to form a majority in the Bundestag. This means that a coalition government will need to be formed. This is not unusual, as every government since the first post-war German government has been a coalition, and Merkel’s outgoing government is a grand coalition with the SPD. The SPD’s Olaf Scholz, who has been Germany’s finance minister and vice chancellor since 2018, now wants to work with Greens and the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), to form a “traffic light” coalition, named after the parties’ traditional colours – red for the SPD, yellow for the FDP, and the Greens. But his embattled conservative rival, Armin Laschet, is not giving up just yet and has declared his intention to try to form a “Jamaica coalition” – black for the CDU, yellow, and green – with these two parties too. But there is increasing pressure on Laschet to admit defeat and resign, even from within his own party.

The Greens and the FDP, who attained 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent of the vote respectively and could form a stronger bloc together than either the SPD (25.7 percent) and the CDU (24.1 percent), have announced they will meet for exploratory talks before entering negotiations. The coalition talks may take months, and this means that Merkel may stay in office until December or beyond and overtake her mentor Helmut Kohl as post-war Germany’s longest serving chancellor.

During her long stint as chancellor, Merkel has made her mark on foreign policy, largely guiding her government’s approach herself, rather than relying on her foreign minister. Under Merkel, Germany took the lead during the euro crisis precipitated by the 2008 global financial crisis; often visited and increased trade with China; had a fraught relationship with Vladimir Putin but cooperated to build the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany; and was described by Barack Obama as his most important foreign policy partner during his presidency. Merkel already told the rest of Europe in 2017 during Donald Trump’s reign that “the times, when we could totally rely on others, have ended to a certain extent.” However, the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen by some German commentators as underlining the extent to which Germany remained the lapdog of the US, and to besmirch Merkel’s legacy.

But Merkel will probably be best remembered – both domestically and internationally – for her asylum policy and the words “wir schaffen das” (“we can do this!”). After what was labelled the “long summer of migration” in 2015, when an estimated 890,000 asylum seekers arrived in Germany, Merkel was chosen as “person of the year” by Time magazine and dubbed “chancellor of the free world.” Yet Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik (welcome policy) has since divided the German nation and was accompanied by a rise in right-wing populism. In the 2017 elections, the far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament as the third-largest party on a platform centred on opposition to immigration. Yet despite recent upheaval in Afghanistan, the AfD was not able to mobilise fears around migration to the same extent this time around and has dropped to fifth-largest party after the Greens and the FDP.

The SPD overtook the conservatives in opinion polls in early September, with the latter falling to historic lows. As an apparent consequence, Merkel, who had previously promised to stay out of the campaign, appealed to the electorate to vote for Laschet in her farewell speech to the Bundestag. She raised the spectre of a left-wing coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and Die Linke (the Left), a party that emerged from the ashes of the East Germany’s governing communist party in 2007. After her speech, Laschet and Markus Söder, the leader of the CSU party, the Bavarian counterpart of the CDU, who had been Laschet’s rival to be the conservative chancellor candidate, doubled down on the dangers of such a coalition. They underlined the danger posed by the Left, who wants to leave NATO, but also critiqued the SPD’s historical record, emphasising for instance that in the 1950s it had been opposed to both the alliance with France that formed the European Union and to joining NATO.

This reminder by Laschet and Söder of past divergencies in foreign policy belies the fact that the conservatives and the SPD’s current approach to foreign policy is very similar, and that the foreign policy of the Greens is not remarkably different either. Both the conservatives and the SPD would aim to continue Germany’s booming trade with China and are unlikely to be any more critical of the country’s human rights record than Merkel. Both parties would also sign off on the finished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia becoming operational, while the Greens are opposed to the pipeline. And all the major parties believe in a strong EU, though the Greens have been more vocal about holding other member states – such as Hungary – to democratic principles. German foreign policy under either Scholz or Laschet is likely to stay a similar course as it has for the last few years under Merkel, but it will be interesting to see whether the Greens make axing the Nord Stream 2 a condition of their participation in a coalition.

This article was originally published on 30 September 2021.

Dr Brangwen Stone is a Lecturer in the Department of Germanic Studies at The University of Sydney.

An pre-election version of this article was published in Australian Outlook on 25 September 2021.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.