In just on five months, on 26 September, Germany goes to the polls in what will probably be the most significant election of 2021. It will mark the retirement of prime minister (or Chancellor) Angela Merkel, in office since 2005.
Merkel, of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), has served four four-year terms, all but the second of them in coalition with her party’s historic rival, the Social Democrats (SPD). The arrangement has not been good for the SPD: at the last election, in 2017, its vote fell to 20.5%, its worst result since the nineteenth century, and the polls have it set to fall further still.
But the CDU has not had it all its own way either. The choice of a successor to Merkel has been a messy business. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer got the nod back in 2018, but she resigned last year in the wake of the disputed premiership election in Thuringia. A party election to succeed her was postponed due to Covid-19, and when it was finally held in January this year it resulted in victory for Armin Laschet, the moderate premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.
That wasn’t the end of the matter, since many CDU members wanted Markus Söder, the leader of its more conservative sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, to be their prime ministerial candidate. Polling showed that he was the more popular candidate, but last week the party’s executive decided to stick with Laschet. Söder said he accepted the decision and promised his full support, but the contest has exposed deep divisions within the party.
And whether or not it’s a matter of cause and effect, the recent brawling has coincided with a slide in the opinion polls for the CDU. For the second half of last year the polls were very steady: the CDU in the mid- to high 30s had a big lead, and the SPD and Greens had a similar total between them, with the Greens generally a few points ahead. The three minor parties – the far-right AfD, the far-left Left party, and the liberal FDP – sat (in that order) between five and ten per cent.
A couple of months ago, however, the CDU started trending downwards. It’s now dropped about ten points: still ahead, but only narrowly, of the Greens, whose support (after a bit of a lag) started rising in response and is now well into the 20s. The SPD has stayed fairly constant in the mid-teens, and the others are still well back, although the FDP has made strong gains to be sitting about level with AfD at around ten per cent.
It may be that, rather than anything particularly new, this just reflects a reversion to pre-Covid patterns. The situation actually looks a lot like it did about 18 months ago, except that AfD then was polling noticeably stronger. (Its standing has presumably not been helped by hosting a strain of Covid-denialists.) It seems as if the health crisis gave the CDU an artificial boost that, for whatever reason, has now dissipated.
With five months to go there may well be more surprises in store. But for now it looks as if the CDU and the Greens are on track to win a majority between them for the first time since 1994 – and all the signs are that if that happens they will go into coalition together, as they did last year in neighboring Austria. The alternative combinations of CDU-SPD and CDU-FDP both look like being well short, and the SPD would be most unlikely to sign up to the former again even if it was an option.
That does not, however, exhaust the possibilities. If the Greens vote holds up, it may well be that it and the SPD would be able to reach a majority with the addition of one minor party, either the FDP or the Left. It was the failure to stitch up an SPD-FDP-Greens combination (a “traffic light” coalition, as it’s known) in 2005 that allowed Merkel to take office in the first place, but such a coalition has just been re-elected in Rhineland-Palatinate.
The SPD, Greens and Left also govern together in three states, but the SPD refused to pursue any such arrangement at federal level when the numbers were there for it in 2013. Given its anti-democratic background, many are reluctant to consider giving the Left a share of power, but there’s also a strong argument that there are benefits from bringing it within the tent. (There may one day be a corresponding argument on the right for AfD, but for now its fascist credentials are rather too strong.)
Whatever coalition emerges after September, the Greens look almost certain to be a part of it, and have their sights set on leading it. Last week they nominated Annalena Baerbock, one of the party’s joint leaders, as their candidate for chancellor. Like Laschet, she represents her party’s moderate wing, but unlike the CDU, the Greens have presented an image of unity: “a model of calm professionalism,” as Al-Jazeera puts it.
It’s going to be interesting to see just how far that will take them.