The end of the “Merkel era” leaves a feeling of emptiness. In her 16 years at the helm of the nation, she managed to win the respect of supporters and opponents alike. She broke with long-established political traditions; a native of the East, a woman and a Protestant in a basically Catholic party. Her serenity, deep analysis and the search for consensus were characteristics of her leadership. She was unbeatable at the polls and occupied the political center without competition. Lately, the pandemic revalued her in the eyes of the citizens. The scientific Merkel, capable of understanding the situation, re-emerged, helping Germany to come out of the crisis better than others. She is retiring with a higher popularity than any other German politician.
Last Sunday’s election result pointed to change. The Social-Democrat Olaf Scholz could replace the current Chancellor, but everything depends on the Greens and the FDP (liberals). Without them there is no parliamentary majority, unless there is an agreement between the major parties, the CDU (Christian Democrats) and the SPD (Social-Democrats). In the last elections the CDU obtained its worst post-war result and the SPD became the weakest winner. Weeks of uncertainty await Germany.
The political spectrum
The four main political parties that emerged from this election are:
- The CDU, a Christian Democratic and conservative party,which has governed52 years the Federal Republic. It is present throughout the country, with the exception of Bavaria, where there is a “sister” party (the CSU). The two parties are united in Parliament. Obtained 151 deputies. Founded after World War II World War II, it was based on the electorate of the former Center Party, a Catholic party of the Weimar Republic, but managed to attract Protestant votes as well. Its chancellors have been Konrad Adenauer (1949-63), Ludwig Erhard (1963-66), Kurt Kiesinger (1966-69), Helmut Kohl (1982-98) and Angela Merkel (2005-21). Its current candidate is Armin Laschet and won 151 seats. It has the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and its regional partner is the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
- The SPD is the social democracy. It was founded in 1863 and has governed for 20 years since 1949. It evolved towards the center and had three chancellors: Willy Brandt (1969-74), Helmut Schmidt (1974-82) and Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) Its current leader is Olaf Scholz; he was the most voted and obtained 206 legislators. Its foundation is the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
- The FDP are the liberals. It has never led a government, but has always been part of coalitions, whether of the CDU or the SPD. It is the classic hinge party and obtained 92 parliamentarians.
- The Greens, the environmentalist party, increased its support and won 118 seats. The fight against climate change is its strong point. To enter the Bundestag it is necessary to exceed 5% of the votes.
The competition between the CDU and the SPD to win over the leftist parties has now begun. Whether a conservative or social democratic chancellor takes office depends on the Greens and Liberals. The protagonist of the last weeks has been Scholz, strategist of the Social Democratic comeback. In an election dominated by Merkel’s departure, he knew how to emulate the best of her, playing his cards perfectly. He kept a low profile, took advantage of the rival’s attrition and emerged as a reliable statesman.
In Germany, on election day it is never known what the new government will be. Once the votes are counted and the strength of each group in the Bundestag is known, the key process of negotiating a coalition begins. Although the Social Democrats came out on top, this does not guarantee that they will succeed in governing. Both they and the conservatives announced that they will seek to lead a coalition. The focus of attention is on the minority partners, who have indicated that they could first make a pact among themselves and then decide with which majority party they agree. These negotiations will be complex: the Greens have more affinity with the SPD, while the Liberals prefer to ally with the CDU.
The next government will be formed by three parties and not, as usual, by two.
The importance of these elections is also great for Berlin’s neighbors and allies, and certainly for its opponents. The direction of German foreign and security policy matters beyond national borders. The result is perceived as a turning point for Europe and the major powers are watching the near future.
In any case, the most open elections in recent times showed two fundamental facts. On the one hand, the magnitude of what Merkel achieved by taking over the center of the board and bringing together voters from all over the world. On the other, the growing pluralism and complexity of the German political system. The mainstream parties are losing support to parties on the left or right: the Social Democrats saw the Greens challenge them from the left, while the Christian Democrats saw the Liberals flank them from the right.
These elections took place in a more multipolar world, where the competition between China, Russia and the United States is much tougher. And it is clear that competition for military supremacy has again become a dominant feature. Germany is rejecting this reality and is betting on being a bridge between the sides.
Berlin is faced with a dilemma: it wants to integrate the American global order without damaging its economic interests or increasing its military power. Merkel refused to stop the Nord Stream 2 Plan, Russia’s main infrastructure project in Europe. While she talked about strengthening the alliance with the United States, she simultaneously promoted a new investment agreement with China. Although she increased her military spending, it was rather symbolic, to show herself as a reliable ally in the face of the West’s doubts.
The problem for Germany is that this juggling game is difficult to continue. The United States is upset and may favor other European NATO partners, who are more willing to arm themselves against Russia and coordinate their decisions with Washington. The delicate balance that characterizes German foreign policy involves risks and rewards. It will not be easy to maintain in the long term, but only time will tell if Berlin succeeds.