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Bundestagswahl 2021: the most contested election in post-war German history?

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

In less than a week, Germans will go to the polls to decide who is going to become their next chancellor, and, for the first time in 16 years, Angela Merkel is not running. The upcoming election will create the 20th parliament of the post-war era, which has been largely defined by successive CDU/CSU governments. However, in an unexpected turn of events, the CDU’s hold over German politics has been severely weakened. It seems more likely that Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate and current finance minister of the federal government, will take the crown.

What should we expect to see on election day? And why has this election in particular become so contested? Here is your pre-election briefing.

Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

A unique election:

It’s not just the candidates that have shaken up German politics in recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the way that Germans will vote. More people are expected to cast their vote by post than ever before. Compared to 28.6% of postal votes in the 2017 federal election, as many as 50% of eligible voters in some regions have already applied for postal vote. Thus, the impact of any last-minute changes in the election race will not be felt as deeply, as some Germans have already made their decision on who they want to see in government.

Perhaps it is also important to mention here how Germans will actually be voting on election day. 47 parties are listed on the ballot sheet, although most of them will fail to reach the 5% hurdle necessary to enter the German Bundestag. The CDU/CSU, SPD, AfD, FDP, the Left and the Greens are Germany’s 6 main political parties, but there has also been talk about the rise of new parties, such as Die Basis, which positions itself as an anti-lockdown party.

Germans will cast two votes. The Erststimme elects a candidate standing in their constituency and the Zweitstimme is for a party list of candidates in their federal state.

The candidates:

Campaigning by each of the parties has really taken off in the past few weeks. Election posters can be found everywhere across German towns and cities. The Green Party has been touring across the country, stopping in places such as Augsburg, Hamburg and Annalena Baerbock’s hometown of Pattensen. The three main chancellor candidates (Armin Laschet for the CDU, Olaf Scholz for the SPD and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens) have also made regular TV appearances. The Triell or trio debates have allowed them to voice their parties’ positions on matters concerning climate, economy and social policy. All three candidates have been accused of failing to address foreign policy in any of these debates.

The final trio TV debate, held on 19th September, presented Olaf Scholz as a clear winner. According to Deutsche Welle, “both Baerbock and Scholz suggested that it would be “good if the CDU were to enter the opposition”, though they were keen [to] underline that they would be willing to negotiate with all parties except the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).”

Laschet has been accused of appearing too aggressive in previous TV debates. In Sunday’s Triell, he seemed more composed but still relied heavily on the CDU’s accusation that the centre-left parties would bring a socialist Left party into government.

The polls:

A quick look at the German polls will show that this election has always been anything but certain.

After Annalena Baerbock was announced as the Green party’s candidate in April, her party surged ahead in the polls in front of the CDU, if only for a brief moment. Hopes of a Green chancellor were quickly dashed when Baerbock became involved in a series of scandals, accused of inflating her CV and plagiarising passages in her book.

Soon after this, the CDU re-established itself as top dog in the polls but was also struck by a series of scandals. The floods that ravaged western Germany in July and killed 190 people severely damaged Laschet’s image as a crisis manager. Laschet was also caught laughing in the background of a televised speech by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was paying tribute to the flood victims.

In recent weeks, the SPD has crept ahead in polls. A Forsa poll released shortly after Sunday’s debate by the Sat 1 TV network shows that 42% of viewers thought that Scholz was the winner, followed by 27% for Laschet and 25% for Baerbock. A national opinion poll published by INSA placed the SPD at 26%, the CDU at 21% and the Greens at 15%.

What to expect on Sunday:

The narrow gap between parties in the polls (particularly the CDU and the SPD) makes it difficult to predict anything about the election. Olaf Scholz is the favourite to win, but a state election in Saxony-Anhalt in June of this year saw the CDU unexpectedly win a secure 29.8% of the vote. This same kind of trend may be repeated in the federal election, in a scenario where the CDU ends up beating the odds and maintaining its majority.

Even after election results come in, all will still be to play for. Because none of the parties are forecast to win more than 25-27% of the vote, coalition talks will be a necessary part of forming the next government. Coalition talks have proven difficult in the past, with parties of different political affiliations often struggling to find common ground. The traffic light coalition (SPD, Greens and FDP), the Jamaica coalition (CDU, Greens and FDP) and a Red-Red-Green coalition between the SPD, the Left and the Green party all seem possible.

Olaf Scholz, the current favourite to win. Photo: @olafscholz via Instagram.

Sunday’s election will not only determine Germany’s new chancellor, but also the country’s entire future. The election will set the precedent for a decade in which massive political changes must be made if the world wishes to avoid the disastrous consequences of an already looming climate crisis. It will also tell us a lot about a new generation of voters in Germany, who have seen little change in the past decade and are now harnessing their political voices. How badly this change is wanted and whether it can even be achieved will be revealed on 26th September, when Germans finally take to the polls.


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