This month’s German election will mark a turning point in Germany’s political future as Angela Merkel steps down as leader of Europe’s largest economy after four terms as German chancellor.
Having been Chancellor of Germany since 2005, Merkel has been able to navigate the intricacies of German, as well as EU politics with enormous dexterity, and political skill. Her departure, however, also leaves a huge hole which will be difficult to fill with the array of current incumbents seeking to replace her.
It remains to be seen what Angela Merkel's legacy will be, considering that for the last ten years the problems she has confronted have as yet not been adequately dealt with. Depending on where you sit on the political divide, she is either a political colossus who has kept Germany as Europe’s most efficient economy, or a political procrastinator who, while keeping the train on the tracks, has failed to address the enormous challenges facing not only Germany, but the EU as a whole.
Whichever side of the fence you sit, one thing is certain – the political void she leaves will make German politics much more complicated, as well as potentially shifting the balance of power in Europe, when it comes to shaping EU policy.
Looking back at the 2017 German election
In 2017, it took over five months for the various parties to form a new government. with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU coalition coming to an agreement with the SPD on 7 February 2018 to form a Grand Coalition, a move that was finally ratified on 14 March 2018, almost six months after the actual vote on 24 September 2017.
The decision to form another Grand Coalition with the SPD only came about after the failure of the CDU/CSU to form a Jamaica Coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats, due to divisions over immigration and energy policy.
In the 2017 German election, the CDU/CSU vote fell to 33%, a swing of 8% from 2013, while the SPD suffered its worst result since the end of World War 2, with only 21% of the vote. Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD came third, having been nowhere to be seen in 2013, with 12.6% of the vote while the Greens got 9%.
The advance of the AfD is also an added wrinkle given the reluctance of any of the other parties to engage with them at a political level, due to their nationalist agenda and anti-immigration stance. This reluctance to engage is unlikely to change, which means that trying to build a coalition from the remaining parties will not be any easier.
Since 2017, the arithmetic in the polls has shifted further with the CDU/CSU losing more ground, while the vote share of the Greens has improved significantly, with voters’ main considerations in this year’s vote being the current pandemic, as well as climate policy, overtaking migration which was the key touchpoint in the 2017 German election.
The impact of climate change on the German election
Climate is an area which has improved the Green's vote share in the last four years. However, Germany has struggled to reduce its reliance on coal for its power consumption, despite boosting its use of solar and onshore and offshore wind from the low levels of 20 years ago to 41% of overall power production in terawatt-hours (TWh).
It still relies on coal and lignite for around 25% of its power capacity, and natural gas for another 15%, making it Europe’s largest polluter, while nuclear power has fallen sharply to 11.7%, according to preliminary data from BDEW. This fact makes Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power, as a result of Fukushima, even more inexplicable. While German voters want any new government to deal with the various climate issues, it is likely to come with a very high price tag, given how much of German industry and the economy relies on fossil fuels. Politicians won’t get any thanks from voters if their measures to deal with the climate crisis helps to push more people into fuel poverty. This is one particular area that the green lobby conveniently overlooks, and it is something that will need addressing to get voter buy in.
What the polls are showing
Given current polling trends, the Greens will still have a big say in who becomes the next German Chancellor, with the increased focus on climate change which has seen their popularity grow. This popularity has grown largely at the expense of the CDU/CSU, with Merkel’s replacement, Armin Laschet, lagging in the polls after a series of political missteps.
One of the latest polls put the CDU/CSU down at 22%, and behind the SPD for the first time in 15 years.
Laschet has insisted that a move towards greener policies too quickly could well be counterproductive. However, a series of gaffes has undermined his credentials as Merkel's replacement, while the Greens co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, pushed back strongly, arguing that a climate tax would protect German jobs.
Baerbock has had to confront problems of her own in recent weeks, coming under fire from various quarters, as her own credentials get scrutinised in much more detail.
Olaf Scholz, who is vice Chancellor to Merkel, as well as finance minister in the current coalition, is the SPD candidate to replace her, and has overseen a significant improvement in the SPD’s polling numbers, with the party slowly starting to overtake the CDU/CSU as front runners in this year's German election.
Amongst his rivals, Scholz remains the most visible, and is also seen as the most dependable. He’s also been around a while having served under Gerhard Schroder back in 2003.
On current polling trends, the SPD has come back from its lows of a year ago, when it was languishing at 16% of the vote to be leading at 24%, while the CDU/CSU share of the vote has plunged from 36% to 21% now.
The Greens have remained steady at 17%, but were as high as 24% in May. They have since slid back over concerns about the credibility of co-leader Annalena Baerbock, after she was accused of plagiarism in a recent book which outlined her personal manifesto, “Now: How We Renew Our Country”
Given the current state of the polls, it's highly unlikely we will know for certain who the next German Chancellor will be for quite some time, though Scholz looks to be in the box seat at the moment. Unlike in the 2017 German election, the polls are much tighter, and even then, it took six months before Merkel was sworn in.
With the polls as they are it could equally take until next year before we know for certain who will be sworn in to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor.
The bigger question will be how long any new government will be able to last, with the FDP Free Democrats, AfD and Linke parties all likely to want a say, polling at 12%, 11% and 7% respectively.
The FDP Free Democrats are much more fiscally conservative, and were part of the German government in 2013, and will be much less likely to be amenable to tax rises, which will make consensus building, if it comes to possible coalition talks, that much more difficult, especially if the Greens are also involved.
We saw back in 2017 how talks fell apart as a result of unbridgeable divisions between the two sides, and while politics has moved on since then, those ideological divisions haven’t.
While the collapse of the CDU vote could see them shut out of any prospective government completely, that seems unlikely given that any new coalition without them would need the FDP and Greens to co-exist together. This seems a big ask, and while possible, is still less likely than the CDU becoming a junior partner with a new leader, with Laschet unlikely to survive such a big defeat. Whatever happens, any new government is likely to see an easier fiscal stance, assuming they can agree on a set of priorities over the next four years. For that to happen, they need to agree on a leader first, and that could take a while.
The German election takes place on Sunday, 26 September 2021.