The post-Merkel Bundestag
The stepping down of Germany’s first female chancellor will inevitably lead to a paradigm shift in the social and political atmosphere of Germany. In 2018, Angela Merkel announced that she would not seek re-election at the end of her term. Merkel officially brought down the curtains this year on her 16-year tenure as the chancellor of the world’s fourth-largest economy.
In Deutschland, there exists an entire generation that has never known another leader. For many Germans, this disruption in the status quo is unwelcome. Merkel has long represented stability and resilience and is regarded as a bastion for liberal values. In the current climate, German politics is polarised. While some parties push for greener economies, others advocate for increased digitalisation in Germany. At the end of her term, Germans who yearn for security and continuity have found themselves in a political muddle, feeling the full effects of a vacuum now developing at the loss of their stalwart former leader.
Merkel’s Germany and European Union
Proponents of the former chancellor deem Merkel to be a titan of German politics. She has earned the moniker of “crisis manager” because of her accomplishments. From the Schengen crisis to the Eurozone debt issue, Merkel has been at the forefront of progress, skillfully navigating Germany and Europe out of crises. For this leadership, she has been considered by some as the ‘leader of the free world’.
As the de facto leader of the European Union, Merkel assumed the mantle of steering its foreign policy direction. Under her leadership, Germany’s goal was to act as a harmoniser of the EU. As a result, Berlin placed emphasis on leading the EU from the centre, and not as a hegemonic force.
On the other hand, detractors believe that the 67-year-old politician has neglected many issues, leaving behind nothing more than a multitude of unresolved problems. Most salient here is the disunion between EU states over Merkel’s refugee policies. Moreover, an indecisiveness in dealing with pressing concerns has led to the use of the eponymous verb merkeln —a slang term in German used to indicate inaction in resolving issues.
Merkel’s approach has largely been ineffective when it comes to bolstering the foundations of the EU. Critics have coined the term merkantilism to refer to her apparent prioritisation of Germany’s commercial interests over intra-EU unity. In recent times, Merkel was strongly criticised for her support of Hungarian kleptocrat Viktor Orban, who attacked the rule of law — one of the EU’s fundamental values. Orban was protected from the EU’s collective dissension by Merkel allegedly because Hungary serves as a prominent manufacturing centre for Germany’s luxury automakers.
Merkel has also excessively relied on neutrality and refrained from making radical decisions. This is one reason why the EU has been prevented from becoming a more assertive actor. Merkelism focused on compromising to ensure that all parties involved were satisfied. Most recently, this is best exemplified by the EU’s neutral stance on Beijing’s disinformation report on COVID-19. Moving forward, it is difficult to see how effective Merkelism will be, with growing geopolitical rivalries making it necessary for more radical action to be taken.
All things considered, Merkel’s problem-solving capabilities and her influence cannot be understated. The political contest to fill her inimitable shoes has begun. This will prove difficult as September’s volatile federal elections, wherein no decisive winner emerged, has demonstrated.
The 2021 Federal Elections
Germany has a multi-party political system. The dominant parties are the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The CDU has historically run alongside its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). These major parties are colloquially referred to as the Volksparteien, which translates to “people’s party”. The minor political parties are The Greens, Free Democratic Party (FDP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and The Left.
The most prominent figures in the running for Chancellor are the CDU’s Armin Laschet, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock. In all three televised debates held in the lead-up to election day, Olaf Scholz was the victor. This, coupled with Laschet’s unpopularity and the plagiarism allegations against Baerbock, meant that the odds were tipped slightly in Scholz’s favour to gain the chancellorship.
However, in an unexpected state of affairs on election day, none of the political parties managed to achieve an overall majority. Nevertheless, Scholz did lead the SPD to a narrow victory by gaining 25.7 per cent of the total votes. This was followed by Laschet, who won 24.1 per cent of total votes. Although Scholz gained more votes, the difference between the leading candidates is marginal. As such, to win the chancellorship, Scholz needs to gain the backing of at least three other parties.
Overall, this election is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has marked the SPD’s first win in nearly a decade and a half. Secondly, the CDU/CSU — long supported by Merkel’s popularity — suffered a landslide defeat as their vote share was diminished. Thirdly, the combined vote share of the traditional Volksparteien in post-war Germany was at its lowest recorded. Lastly, due to the absence of an overall majority and for the first time since the 1950s, the German government will need to be formed by a coalition of three parties.
What is the verdict?
These ambiguous results have posed many questions about the future of German politics. The different combinations of coalition bring with it a drastic shift in the German political landscape. Typically, the party that wins the most votes in an election invites other parties to enter into coalition negotiations. However, in these elections, the Greens and the FDP enjoy “kingmaker“ status and get to choose which party they want to form government with.
The chances of a “grand coalition” between the two dominant parties, as was the case in two of Merkel’s terms, seems unlikely given that Scholz has signalled his disinterest in the prospect. At present, the most likely coalition combinations are:-
A Traffic Light Coalition: coalition government formed between the SPD, Greens and FDP;
A Jamaica Coalition: coalition government formed between the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP; or
A Red-Red-Green Coalition: coalition government formed between the SPD, Greens and The Left.
The most popular choice among Germans, as reflected in polling conducted in early October, is the traffic light coalition. The improved performance of progressive political parties as compared to their more conservative counterparts arguably demonstrates that Germans desire change. For example, the Greens have become popular because of an increased awareness of climate change amongst the general population. Modernisation, as espoused by the SPD, is gaining greater support while more conservative values are being sidelined. Whether the traffic light coalition eventuates depends largely on how negotiations around contentious issues such as spending on sustainable initiatives will pan out. Experts predict that Scholz could be the next chancellor of Germany.
Future of Germany and the EU
The current uncertainty of the political environment in Germany is in sharp contradistinction with the calm that prevailed throughout Merkel’s era. Coalition talks will continue over the next few weeks. Germans can expect that a more decentralised government will emerge, along with the possibility that mid-sized parties will be able to exert greater influence on constitutional arrangements. The Greens will prioritise social justice and climate policies whereas the FDP, as a pro-business group, will push for tax cuts.
There is also concern about the long-term effects of this political fragmentation. With a three-way coalition, there is increased potential for a clash of interests. Adding to this uncertainty are the challenges of a post-pandemic recovery and a climate emergency that demands immediate attention.
It is evident that any leader as influential as Merkel is highly unlikely to emerge in the Union. Nevertheless, the Union’s decision-making on foreign policy will be greatly influenced by the composition of Germany’s new government. Berlin’s continued support on issues such as security, migration, and climate change is imperative. France is eager for a coalition to emerge from the negotiations so that focus can be placed on economic issues like the EU’s recovery plan, and on diplomatic issues such as the EU–China relationship. Hence, the political uncertainty in Germany has broader effects for the EU. A swift resolution to coalition negotiations is required so that focus can be placed on broader foreign policy issues.
The splintered political landscape of Germany is not uncommon in the rest of Europe. However, the EU has already been out-of-action in international strategic talks, and it cannot delay further participation. If Germany’s internal political uncertainties permeate the EU, political paralysis is a real possibility. Even after the coalition government is formed, accommodating the interests of three parties and reaching compromises will undoubtedly be difficult. Nevertheless, a move away from Merkelism in both Berlin and within the EU will assist in promoting innovative solutions when it comes to tackling challenges such as climate change. While there are uncertainties in the wake of this election, there lies beyond this uncertainty the potential for rapid policy changes.
Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues.