Politics Explained

What do the German election results mean?

Sean O’Grady explains what happens next as the parties vie to form a new government

Monday 27 September 2021 21:30
<p>The battle to succeed Angela Merkel has not seen a clear winner </p>

The battle to succeed Angela Merkel has not seen a clear winner

Perhaps the best way for a British audience to understand the outcome of the German elections is to think back to the hung parliament results at Westminster in 2017 and, more appositely, in 2010. At that point it was a “parliament of losers”, but it was obvious that the Labour government of Gordon Brown had lost its mandate to govern, or even to lead a governing coalition, even though the main opposition party hadn’t done enough to win a majority, though it was the largest party. The “winners” were the smaller parties, and in particular the Lib Dems (back in the lost world of Cleggmania). The one thing that could be said without much contradiction in 2010 was that Labour lost.

The parallels are far from precise, but the equivalent in Germany now is to acknowledge that the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) lost the election, with the lowest share of the vote in the history of the federal republic and almost 16 years in power under Angela Merkel, who tried, and failed, to hand her mantle to Armin Laschet. The Social Democrats (SPD), who’d actually shared power with Merkel for much of the past two decades, came back from the brink of oblivion, to just edge a lead and the formal title of winner. The party leader and finance minister in the Merkel government, Olaf Scholz, has certainly claimed as much. Yet both “major” parties only won about a quarter of the vote each, and would barely get a majority to form another “grand coalition”, which is now out of the question politically.

So fractured is the German party system now that it would need three parties to be assured of majority government in the Bundestag. All the parties have ruled out dealing with the extreme right AfD (Alternative for Germany), which makes the arithmetic even harder. The far-left Link, another minority player that inherited the old East German communists, are another fringe party that the others would prefer not to have to tangle with. So, the Greens and the Free Democrats (FPD, a sort of market-liberal centre party) are both the power brokers now, but the trouble is that these two smaller parties have little in common, and will be making demands of the bigger parties in mutually exclusive directions.

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