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Germany’s (sort of) change elections

Olaf Scholz and the center-left defeated Angela Merkel’s party, but this election was a fight for the center.

Olaf Scholz, chancellor candidate of the German Social Democrats, waves to supporters at SPD headquarters on September 26, in Berlin.
Maja Hitij/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

BERLIN — The release of one of the first election exit polls showed Germany’s center-left Social Democrats with a slight lead. That was enough to send the crowd at the Willy Brandt Haus, the party’s headquarters in Berlin, into cheers and applause. After 16 years of Angela Merkel and her center-right party, Germany looked as if it might be on the verge of political change.

It would take quite a few more hours, but early Monday, German election officials released results for the parliamentary elections, putting the Social Democrats (SPD) ahead with 25.7 percent of the vote. They narrowly beat the conservatives Merkel had helmed for almost two decades, who won 24.1 percent.

It was a remarkable turn for the SPD, which had trailed in the polls for most of the election. But the party presented its candidate, finance minister Olaf Scholz, as a stable and competent leader — a natural successor to the retiring Merkel, at least in temperament. Scholz’s opponents also did him plenty of favors. Despite being tapped as Merkel’s successor, Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) made some big gaffes, and his unpopularity appeared to bring his party down with him.

The SPD’s slim victory showed a vote for change — of sorts. For the first time in 16 years, a center-left party will have the most seats in the Bundestag, or German parliament. Vox spoke with candidates from various political parties, SPD campaign officials and party members, pollsters, and other experts (as part of a delegation of journalists to observe the elections, funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation), and it’s clear that the campaign was largely a battle for the center. The Greens — who put up a chancellor candidate for the first time — led the polls at one point, and had a historic showing, with almost 15 percent of the vote. But the election ultimately came down to a fight for the voters who are still in Merkel’s orbit.

The SPD won that fight in this election. But now begins the unpredictable process of trying to bring together the next German government. Germany’s proportional representation system means that chancellor candidates aren’t directly elected, and with the close margins, both the SPD and the CDU (with its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union) will be courting other parties to try to form a government coalition. It means weeks, if not months, of uncertainty. The last time Merkel tried to form a coalition, after elections in 2017, negotiations took an unprecedented five months. The only sure thing is that Merkel will stay on as caretaker chancellor until Germany sorts out its political future, whatever that might look like without her.

Olaf Scholz built a campaign of modest change with big hints of Merkel

The word “Kompetenz” flashed across a video screen at Scholz’s closing rally in Cologne Friday. Even if you don’t speak German, it’s clear what the campaign was trying to sell.

That message wasn’t subtle, but it did what it intended: frame Scholz as a natural successor to Angela Merkel, even though they’re from different parties. The outgoing chancellor steered Germany through tumult, from the refugee crisis in 2015 to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her perceived steadiness and stability has made her, even after 16 years of power, the most popular politician in Germany.

Large red balloons surround a political poster with Olaf Scholz’s face and the slogan, “Kompetenz fur Deutschland.”
An election poster of German finance minister and SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz at an election campaign event in Lehrte, Germany, on September 21.
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Scholz also serves as the vice chancellor and finance minister as part of the current coalition government between the CDU/CSU and the SPD (the junior partner), and that role helped him come across as the next best thing to Merkel.

Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the SPD, said before the election that the SPD was focusing on people who voted for the conservative party because of Merkel. And so, with a little nudge, they could be convinced to vote for the Social Democrats. “Wer Scholz will, wählt SPD,” read one of the SPD’s campaign slogans; “Those who want Scholz, vote SPD.”

“We have a candidate that is a good alternative to Angela Merkel, and this is the whole story of the election,” Klingbiel said.

In this fight for the center, the SPD embraced modest policy proposals that focused on issues like building more affordable housing, preserving the pension system, and enacting a 12-euro minimum wage. Climate change was also a prominent issue in the campaign, with Scholz talking about expanding Germany’s electrical capacity and supporting industries as they transitioned to renewable energy sources. Scholz paired this message with a broader idea of respect — that these policies were about the dignity of workers, a message geared especially to working-class voters in the party. The SPD positioned Scholz as “Merkel with a plan,” offering a new direction, if not radical change.

Orkan Özdemir, an SPD candidate for the Berlin parliament from the Friedenau district who hails from the left wing of the party, said ahead of the election that Scholz was the “right person at the right time.” It sounded a lot like the case some Democrats made for Joe Biden in the 2020 US presidential election, but rather than an antidote to turmoil, Scholz would offer a continuation of Germany’s stability.

But it’s also hard to ignore that Scholz may have gotten the biggest boost from the weaknesses of his opponent, Laschet. Though the CDU and Laschet led by quite a bit early in the campaign, Laschet’s missteps drove down support. Laschet faced intense scrutiny after being seen laughing and joking during a memorial for German flood victims in North Rhine-Westphalia (he’s also the minister-president of the state), and for other missteps that tanked his already-fragile popularity and prevented him from becoming the stability candidate.

The SPD’s victory is remarkable because they were in a much weaker position not that long ago. The party had suffered a pretty dismal defeat in the 2017 elections. The SPD was a junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, which had hurt them with more left-leaning members, who saw them as basically the same as the CDU, and with centrist voters, who figured they might as well vote for Merkel.

For most of the election campaign, the SPD trailed both the CDU and the Greens. The Green candidate had her own set of scandals this summer which contributed to her party’s slide, but it wasn’t until about a month ago that the SPD began to get ahead of the CDU. At the Willy Brandt Haus, as the results were coming in, there was a sense of success in just being able to pull off this kind of a turnaround — no matter what happens with the government.

A victory for the SPD, but now comes the hard part

The German elections are over, but now the parties have to figure out the next government.

No party has enough support to govern on its own, so the major players will have to reach out to smaller parties to form a coalition government. This arrangement was also the norm under Merkel, whose CDU was in a coalition government with the SPD for 12 of the last 16 years.

The SPD’s narrow win means the party will get the most seats in the German Bundestag, but it doesn’t guarantee much more than that. The SPD and the CDU are reaching out to other parties and they may both try to form a government. The SPD is arguing that the election results give it a mandate, and that is likely an advantage in any talks, but it’s not a guarantee that they will get to form a government first or be part of one.

In these negotiations, two parties — the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a pro-free market party — are the kingmakers. The Greens reached nearly 15 percent of the vote, a real expansion of their representation in parliament, but it felt a bit anticlimactic for the party after it once led the race. The FDP, meanwhile, received a little more than 11 percent of the vote.

If the SPD wants to govern, it needs both these parties. If the CDU wants to govern, it needs both of these parties. (Both the SPD and CDU have indicated they don’t want to repeat another grand coalition by partnering with each other, though it’s too early to rule that out entirely.)

The problem is that neither of the most likely combinations is a natural fit. The SPD and Greens are both on the left side of the spectrum, which means you can expect them to be in sync on policies. But throw in the FDP, which is a bit more skeptical of government, and all of a sudden you’ve got to make a lot of compromises on issues like taxes, for example.

The same issue exists for the CDU. It needs the FDP, which is generally more closely aligned on economic issues with the conservatives. But the Greens aren’t at all, and their voters tend to be younger and more progressive.

Right now, the SPD-FDP-Greens coalition (known as the “traffic light” coalition because of the party colors of red-yellow-green, respectively) seems the most likely, but that does not mean a smooth process. It will take weeks, and potentially longer, to hash out deals and make compromises. And the CDU still has a pathway to join with the FDP and Greens, in what’s known as the “Jamaica coalition” because black, yellow, and green are the colors of, yes, the Jamaican flag.

None of this is unusual; Germany’s political parties work together in various coalitions regularly, especially in state and local governments.

But this helps explains Germany’s vote for modest change. Germany’s political system has fractured in recent years, with the two main center-left and center-right parties losing support to smaller (and now growing) parties. But to govern, these often ideologically different camps have to create these coalitions, and the need to compromise and moderate tends to pull things toward the center. There are challenges — parties refuse to go into government with Germany’s far-right Alternatives for Deutschland (AfD), for example, and it can be hard to form coalitions in regions where the AfD does well — but it also blunts some of the polarization that exists in other democracies.

Still, the coalition jockeying could make German politics a bit more volatile. Merkel will be around for a little longer as the parties negotiate, but she is ultimately leaving to maybe read a little and take a nap. Change is coming, but it’s up to the next German chancellor and government to determine how much.