Social democrats win in German election

The German Bundestag, the legislative lower house elected by the people// Tobi NDH via creative commons

The German Bundestag, the legislative lower house elected by the people// Tobi NDH via creative commons

According to the Washington Post, the German center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) claimed victory over the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) alliance, who have led the nation for 16 years.

Germans voted for members of the Bundestag on Sept. 26 and neither party received an absolute majority, setting the stage for coalition talks between the major and minor parties that could take days or months, the Washington Post reported.

“Germany possesses one of the largest economies in the world, and certainly the largest in Europe,” said Professor of Political Science Ken Gilmore. “Its economic size and stability make it the chief influence within the European Union. In addition, its strategic location in the center of the continent, along with the decrease in U.S. power and influence in Europe and globally, makes Germany a critical player in coordinating economic and military security in the region and beyond.”

The electoral system in Germany differs from that of the United States. According to the official Bundestag website, voters choose members of the Bundestag, and the Bundestag then elects the chancellor. German ballots have two fields, the first for a local representative and the second for a preferred party. There are 299 seats for representatives and 299 seats given to parties based on the number of second votes they receive. 

To ensure that each party is represented proportionally, the Bundestag has balance seats, which are allocated to parties after the votes are tabulated.

The Federal Returning Officer reported the 2021 election results as follows: Out of the 735 seats distributed, the SPD received 206, and the CDU/CSU received a combined 196. Alliance 90/The Greens received 118, and the Centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) won 92. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) received 83, The Left received 39, and the regional South Schleswig Voters’ Association received one.

The Bundestag requires a chancellor to be chosen by the majority of representatives. One party winning a majority is a practical impossibility in the modern era, so coalitions are formed in the aftermath of each election.

“The system intentionally promotes cooperation,” said Lincoln Financial Professor of Political Science George Guo. “In the American system for small parties, there is no way to survive.” 

Guo added that small parties can become kingmakers when coalition talks start, as their support can decide who gets to form a government.

Forming a coalition in the Bundestag this session will be a complex ordeal. According to Reuters World News and the Washington Post, a grand coalition between the largest parties, the SPD and CDU/CSU, has been in place for years, but the SPD has been unsatisfied, attempting to leave it in 2017 before failed negotiations forced another. In the aftermath of this election, a three-party coalition is possible.

Any group of parties with a combined seat count of 368 could form a governing coalition, but due to ideological leanings, the ruling coalition is likely to be another grand coalition or one of two three-party arrangements, the Washington Post reported.

The first is a traffic light coalition—the Greens, the yellow FPD, and the red SPD. The SPD won the most seats, but the right-leaning moderate FPD might be hesitant to join up with two progressive parties. The second is a Jamaica coalition—The Greens, the yellow FPD, and the black CDU/CSU. According to the Irish Times, this is less likely considering the second-place finish of the CDU/CSU combined with hesitation from The Greens.

Regardless of which coalition coalesces, Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be at the helm. The BBC reported that Merkel would be stepping down after this election back in 2018. According to the Washington Post, her replacement will likely be the SPD’s Olaf Scholz or the CDU’s Armin Laschet.

“Her replacement at the head of the CDU, Laschet, lacks the temperament and charisma to build consensus within Germany or the EU,” said Gilmore. “A center-left coalition (the Traffic Light Coalition), led by the SPD’s Scholz, would be more likely to tackle climate change, and tax the rich to protect the welfare system. But Scholz is certainly no Merkeldomestically, regionally or globally.”

“There could be some change, especially if the coalition forms with the SPD,” said Professor of German Dave Lindburg. “I think they could move forward a little bit out of some of that stagnation that they talk about, just with a new focus, with a new… more left government. If the coalition ends up being a grand coalition again it could be kind of… steady, but it will definitely be different without Merkel because she is by far the most popular, most well-known, and most well-liked chancellor in German history, I think.”

The shape of Germany’s next government is a mystery. It will likely be a progressive traffic light coalition, but it could be a center-right Jamaica coalition or another unique coalition. Regardless, Merkel will be gone, and Germany’s new chancellor will have large shoes to fill.