A Historic Choice?

Ansgar Graw

Ansgar Graw has observed German domestic and foreign policy as a journalist for many years. A historian and political scientist by training, he was chief political correspondent in Washington, DC, for the daily newspaper DIE WELT from 2009-2017. In 2020, Graw became publisher of the debate portal TheEuropean. For the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Graw will go to Singapore in August 2021 as head of the Asia media program. He is the author of several books, most recently Die Grünen an der Macht: Eine kritische Bilanz and Trump verrückt(e) die Welt: Was nun? (both Munich 2020).

The Bundestag Election on September 26, 2021

Every election is a “historic” one, as we regularly learn from the candidates. But the federal election in Germany on September 26 is really different from all others.

Since Angela Merkel is not running for reelection, for the first time since 1949, Germany will have an election without a sitting chancellor on the ballot. This election will lack the so-called “chancellor bonus,” which mostly means an advantage for the ruling party.

Another major variation from all other elections in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany: For the first time, pollsters do not expect a one-on-one battle between the traditional major parties (also known as Volksparteien — “people’s parties”) CDU/CSU and SPD, which currently govern with each other in a grand coalition. Instead, it seemed clear since the previous federal election in September 2017, and especially in 2020 and the first months of 2021, that the CDU/CSU would remain the strongest party (INSA poll, March 22, 2021: 28 percent / 2017 federal election: 32.9 percent). The Greens (20 percent / 2017: 8.9 percent) and the SPD (18 percent / 2017: 20.5 percent) appeared to be fighting for second place — recognizably with a strong advantage for the Greens.

By early May, the situation at the top of the polls had changed significantly, and the Greens were ahead of the CDU/CSU in several polls. On May 3, INSA polls saw both parties on an equal footing, tied at 24 percent.

What led to such a massive shift in the balance of (demoscopical) power between the CDU/CSU and the Greens in April? In the Union, the leaders of the CDU (Armin Laschet) and her little Bavarian sister CSU (Markus Söder) had been fighting over who would be the joint candidate for chancellor. Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, ultimately prevailed over his challenger, Söder, governor of Bavaria, because the CDU’s presidium and executive committee were largely united behind him. Söder, who had led very clearly over Laschet in polls on popularity and chancellor competence, withdrew but remains recognizably dissatisfied with the decision. At the same time, in the dual leadership of the Greens, Robert Habeck, who was originally favored, proclaimed his co-chair Annalena Baerbock as the chancellor candidate — at least outwardly in perfect harmony.

The impact on the “Sunday question” in the polls (“Who would you vote for if the elections were this weekend?”): for the first time since fall 2019, the Greens moved past the CDU/CSU back into first place in the polls, climbing to 28 percent in Infratest in April, while the CDU/CSU plummeted to 22 percent and even 21 percent. The CDU/CSU and the Greens, as mentioned above, were tied again on May 3 with 24 percent each (other parties’ polling results on May 3: SPD 15 percent, AfD 12 percent, FDP 12 percent, Die Linke 7 percent).

The Social Democrats did not benefit from the Union’s slump: The SPD, Germany’s oldest party, founded in 1890, has swapped places with the fairly young Greens, founded in 1980 – the Greens are the new leading force in the center-left spectrum, as shown by polls and several state elections since 2017.

Laschet’s lack of popularity among the population and the absence of the chancellor’s bonus pose a problem for the CDU/CSU before the start of the election campaign. On the other hand, the Greens tend to be stronger in the polls than at the ballot box. Therefore, the author’s forecast would still be an election victory for the CDU/CSU. And although I expect the Greens to finish in second place, the SPD may make up some ground due to its role as a junior partner in a government fighting the Corona crisis.

The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), the free-market friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and the left-wing Die Linke (formerly known as SED and several times renamed after the fall of the East-German GDR) are expected to win more than five percent of the vote and therefore to stay in the Bundestag.

Who is running for the chancellery?

The CDU/CSU’s choice of Laschet was a decision for the CDU leader (since January 2021) and governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. Laschet governs with a CDU-FDP government in NRW and describes this as his (albeit unrealistic) desired business-friendly coalition for the federal government. Söder, on the other hand, was an early proponent of a CDU-Green coalition. During the corona crisis, for most of the time Söder has been a proponent of a strict course to battle the pandemic with lockdowns. In that sense he has been very close to chancellor Merkel (although in early May he was eager to lift restrictions for vaccinated people), while Laschet advocated a more flexible approach.

The Greens’ decision against Robert Habeck and in favor of Annalena Baerbock as the top candidate was expected. After all, the Greens have a clear requirement in their statutes to give women preference over men for reasons of equality and emancipation — and that was also the only argument Baerbock and Habeck used to justify their decision in favor of the 40-year-old member of the Bundestag (since 2013). Habeck, on the other hand, had long led in polls, even though Baerbock had closed in on him in March 2021.

In the author’s estimation, the Greens could have won more votes with Habeck in the pilot seat, since the philosopher and writer with a doctorate has seven years of government experience in Schleswig-Holstein, where he was deputy prime minister and minister for the environment, agriculture, and energy. Baerbock has a master’s degree in international law but no experience in government or administration, nor in any profession beyond party and parliament. That could leave voters wondering in the hot phase of the campaign whether she is the right candidate to negotiate from the chancellor’s office with experienced presidents such as Biden, Xi, Putin, Macron, or Erdogan.

The Social Democrats have chosen Olaf Scholz, the current minister of finance, as their candidate for the chancellery. Scholz is a moderate Social Democrat and an experienced politician, accepted across the aisles. But in the perception of his party, he was too conservative to win the race for the party chairmanship in 2019. On the other hand, the then-ch­osen leadership duo, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, both representatives of the party-left, are too unknown and unpopular to run for the chancellery.

Possible coalitions

According to the current polls, various coalitions are conceivable that could find both a mathematical majority and political acceptance:

1) CDU/CSU with the Greens (Black-Green),

2) The Greens with CDU/CSU (Green-Black),

3) Greens, SPD, and FDP (Traffic light coalition), or

4) In some polls (Kantar/Emnid of May 1) there is also a prospect for a left coalition: Greens, SPD, and Die Linke (Green-Red-Red).

A continuation of the grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD is rather unlikely. At present, the SPD is too weak, and in addition, in 2017 it took a lot of effort to convince the base of the party, which is moving to the left, to govern again as a junior partner of the CDU/CSU. Even currently, the co-chairs Esken and Walter-Borjans, as well as their powerful deputy Kevin Kühnert are against a grand coalition. Same goes for Rolf Mützenich, the chairman of the SPD faction in the German Bundestag.

Negotiations for a Jamaica coalition (CDU/CSU, Greens, FDP) failed in 2017, and it is very unlikely for 2021 because the CDU/CSU and Greens presumably would not need a third partner should they decide to govern together. (Therefore, Union and Greens would be the new “grand coalition.”)

A government with the Greens as the CDU/CSU’s partner would largely prioritize climate protection and make CO2 emissions significantly more expensive for companies and citizens alike. A government with the Greens in the chancellery would mean a massive shift to the left in German politics, even if, unlike in 1994, the party no longer calls for a withdrawal from NATO and the disbanding of the Bundeswehr.

By contrast, Die Linke continues to demand an end to all Bundeswehr missions abroad. Major concessions would therefore have to be made in foreign and security policy before a Green-SPD-Left coalition could be formed. But none of the three parties rule this out. Should a left-wing Green-Red-Red majority come about, the issues of redistribution and higher taxes for the wealthy and companies would take on a much higher significance.

In the end, the only certainty is that the AfD will not be in government in any case, because none of the parties in the Bundestag are willing to form a coalition with the Alternative für Deutschland.

Main challenges for the next government

Let’s dare to look ahead to the election campaign: Currently, the coronavirus policy is not very controversial between CDU, SPD, and Greens. But if the pandemic lasts until September, the SPD is likely to try to blame CDU Health Minister Jens Spahn for delaying vaccination, CDU Economics Minister Peter Altmaier for the impact on the German labor market, and the chancellor for the overall situation. The same can be expected from the current opposition parties, the Greens, AfD, FDP, and Left. If Germany is still (or again) in lockdown cycles due to a “fourth wave,” this could lead to vote losses for the CDU and CSU and possibly also for the co-ruling SPD in view of people’s increasing dissatisfaction with the situation.

Another election issue will be whether the economic consequences of the pandemic should be battled only through higher government debt (CDU/CSU) or additionally through redistribution and higher taxes (Greens, SPD, Linke). The FDP will focus primarily on less government and more entrepreneurial freedom; however, Germans tend more toward security than freedom.

Migration and internal security would become an election issue above all if there were another large wave of migrants heading for Europe before September or acts of sexual harassment and violence against women by migrants like those on New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015. This would benefit the AfD in particular.

Typically, foreign policy does not dominate elections in Germany. Nevertheless, three brief observations about transatlantic relations:

1) The Greens are traditionally skeptical of America’s security policy, but also critical of Russia’s human rights violations. Therefore, the Greens have been anti-American at least in the past, but never Russophile.

2) The SPD is more divided. Its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz and Germany’s current Foreign Minister Heiko Maas are “Realpolitiker” and therefore skeptical about Vladimir Putin, Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine, and the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. But the party’s left wing is animated by the idea that Germany needs to renew dialogue without preconditions, strengthen cooperation with Russia, and end sanctions against Moscow. The SPD and the Greens are committed to NATO. But at the same time, the Greens are calling for a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and thus an end to Germany’s nuclear participation in NATO’s deterrence policy.

3) The CDU/CSU is strictly transatlantic and even willing to increase German defense spending toward two percent of GDP. On the other hand, Chancellor Merkel ensured that the European Union signed an investment agreement with China at the end of December. This happened even though then-President-elect Joe Biden, through his national security adviser Jake Sullivan, had specifically asked to wait until Biden’s inauguration to allow time to develop a joint Western concept for dealing with the new superpower China. The fact that the CDU chancellor turned down this request and gave Biden the cold shoulder shows that trade relations with China are at least as important to German politics as security guarantees from the United States.

And that means that transatlantic relations are likely to be under great strain over the next years. Donald Trump is gone, but not all bilateral problems have gone with him.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.