Updated: Sep 28, 2021
The preliminary results indicate that Germany's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) have narrowly beaten Angela Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU by two percentage points. But the tight race means that possibilities for a coalition are still unclear.
Germany is now set for weeks of coalition talks, as the election set to determine the incumbent Angela Merkel's successor after her 16 years in power failed to produce a clear winner. After a long and uncertain election night on Sunday, preliminary results on Monday morning indicated that Olaf Scholz's centre-left SPD had won the tight race with Armin Laschet's conservative bloc - by just 1.6%.
Certainties about the next ruling government are never guaranteed on the day following a German election, but 2021 seems to be especially unclear. Official results have indicated that the SPD gained 25.7% of the vote, with the CDU/CSU union just behind them a 24.1%. The small size of these vote shares is already highly unusual - no winning party has ever taken less than 31% of the vote in a German election. But the narrow gap between the two has meant that Germany's two dominant political parties are now battling it out to build a stable coalition with other parties.
Amongst the smaller parties, the Green Party won 14.8% of the vote share in its best-ever showing in a federal election, settling in a comfortable third place. The pro-business Free Democrats won 11.5% of the vote, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) netted 10.3%, and the socialist Left party suffered severe losses, with a vote share of 4.9% - but just winning a place in the Bundestag due to an election bylaw.
So what do these results mean for the next few weeks - and for the next government?
As of Monday, the biggest unknown that remains is who will be in charge. Both the SPD and the CDU/CSU have claimed a right to govern.
Even though the election brought the CDU/CSU union its worst-ever election result since WWII, party leader Armin Laschet has said that he is determined to build a conservative-led coalition. He has claimed that the SPD is not far enough ahead to assert authority. Addressing CDU followers at the party's headquarters on Monday, Laschet vowed to "do everything possible to build a conservative-led government", saying that the bloc was focused on forming a "government of the future".
Meanwhile, his rival Olaf Scholz has also claimed that the German electorate has tasked him with forming the next government. He told cheering supporters at the SPD's headquarters that voters had made it clear they wanted him to be the next chancellor. This claim is backed by the fact that the election cycle has shown Scholz is vastly more popular than Laschet, with the former winning the final televised debate according to polls. "The citizens want change", Scholz has proclaimed.
But what kind of change? Under the German political system, the winner does not, in fact, take all. Instead, it is up to the parties to take the initiative and form a government. In this case, with no clear leading party - and the SPD and CDU/CSU all but swearing off working together again this election cycle - it seems it will be up to the smaller parties to decide who will succeed in the battle for power.
Making up over a quarter of the vote share together, the Greens and the FDP appear to stand as the definitive kingmakers for the next German government, as the preferred coalition partners for both the SPD and CDU/CSU. Both parties have announced that they are open to negotiations with either side. As the key to a majority, coalition talks could be a chance for the runner-up Greens and the business-focused FDP to win power over ministerial departments or push for change on key policy issues.
However, three-way coalition talks with these two parties mightn't be an easy ride. Not only do Laschet and Scholz have less bargaining power than they might like, with only 25% of the vote share each, but the FDP and Greens are not necessarily easy bedfellows. Whilst both parties are popular with young voters and have broadly progressive ideas about social issues, they have many contrasting views on economic matters. Furthermore, they disagree on perhaps one of the most significant issues of the election: the climate crisis. The pro-business FDP has the last ambitious climate target of all the major German parties, committing only to carbon neutrality by 2050. On the other hand, the Green party wants carbon neutrality for Germany by 2041 and has also vowed to shut down all remaining coal power stations by 2030.
However, the FDP's leader Christian Lindner did indicate on Monday that they would prefer to engage in bilateral talks with the Greens before speaking to the SPD or the CDU. He reasoned that as the two parties are the most polarized within the centre, they should first find common ground as the "progressive center" of the country's next coalition. When questioned directly about the suggestion, Baerbock did not dismiss the idea. If the FDP and Greens manage to form a united front, the battle for power could end with the two smaller parties simply picking their preferred coalition partner.
Whether the SPD or the CDU will clinch victory in this election is now down to each party's negotiating skills. Formal coalition talks are set to take weeks, if not months. An SPD-led coalition would seem to have a better mandate, given its more significant overall majority than its CDU-led alternative, and the fact that its three parties were the only ones to make gains in the election. However, a centre-right coalition with the CDU would also make sense - the FDP would undoubtedly prefer to work with them, and an increasingly centrist Green party could be persuaded to join them.
It will be a while, then, before we can say what the future of the German government without Merkel will look like. Europe, the West, and the wider world will be watching.