2021 German Federal Election Overview

Today, Germans will head to the polls to select a new parliament. The election marks the an end of a political era as Chancellor Angela Merkel will be leaving politics after 16 years in office, leaving behind a legacy centered on consensus-building and quiet leadership. This post covers the electoral system in Germany, the political and policy issues leading up to the election, and the platforms of every major party.

The Federal Government of Germany

Similar to other parliamentary democracies across the world, Germans do not select the Chancellor, their Head of Government; they only select the parliamentary member (MdB) from their electoral district that will represent them in the Bundestag, or Federal Diet. Following the election, the party with the most seats in the Bundestag will be given the mandate to form government and select a new Chancellor. However, as Germany has a bicameral legislative system, the Bundestag only makes up one half of the German legislature and fills the role of a lower house. The German upper house is the Bundesrat, or Federal Council, also participates in legislature and fills the role of an upper house. Members of the Bundesrat are not elected federally, but are rather delegations sent by each of Germany’s 16 federal states with member sizes depending on the population of each state. The delegation of each state almost always includes the leader of the state.

Germans also do not directly vote for the President, their Head of State; the responsibility is delegated to the Federal Convention, an electoral college that consists of the entire Bundestag and a council of state-represented electors.  While the German President is not a monarch, their power is limited to a ceremonial role similar to Heads of State in constitutional monarchies.

Federal Elections and Politics in Germany

Federal elections in Germany take place once every four years through a mixed-member proportional representation system, which balances the representation of local and national level party politics while maintaining the proportion of each party’s power based on vote count. Unlike a first-past-the-post electoral system found in Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States, Germans cast two votes in a federal election: their preferred constituent MdB plus their preferred political party. Tallies from the first ballot will be used to select constituent seats to fill one half of the Bundestag’s 598 base seats. Elected MdBs from the first ballot will directly represent their electoral districts.

Tallies from the second ballot will determine seats in the other half of the Bundestag, which are selected to meet the proportion of party votes within each federal state. For example, if a party wins 25 percent of the second ballot in one state, the party will be guaranteed 25 percent of seats designated to that state in the Bundestag’s overall seat count regardless of how many constituent seats they have won. Elected MdBs from the second ballot are selected from individual party lists from each state. However, for any party to be represented in the Bundestag at all, they must either win at least three constituent seats or at least five percent of the national proportional vote.

If a party wins more constituent seats than the proportion of seats they are entitled to in the second ballot, the party will still keep its extra seats which are then known as overhang seats. However, to ensure proportional representation in the Bundestag, the other parties will also be given compensatory seats known as levelling seats. As a result, the final number of seats usually exceeds the base number of 598. The previous federal election produced an extra 111 overhang and levelling seats for a grand total of 709 seats in the Bundestag.

Since Germany’s proportional electoral system does not often produce majorities for a single party to govern, German federal politics has a continuous culture of governing coalitions as there have been no majority governments since 1960. Coalitions are usually named from the colours of the governing parties. For example, a coalition of the Union parties (black), SPD (red), and Free Democrats (yellow) is a Germany coalition as the colours correspond to the German flag. Additionally, a coalition of SPD (red), Free Democrats (yellow), and Green (green) is also known as a traffic light coalition.

Key Issues

The focus of debates this election have been mainly around domestic policy issues such as ambitious climate action plans, pandemic, and recovery. The emphasis on climate action has put the Green party in the spotlight alongside its early rise in the polls. Foreign policy issues have been centered around Germany’s role in NATO and other international organisations.

Below are the six major parties that will compete for seats in this year’s federal election. The most up to date polls currently indicate a toss-up between the Union parties and the Social Democratic Party. Additionally, the most likely coalitions currently include the traffic light coalition of the Social Democrats (red), Green (green), and Free Democrats (yellow), as well as the Jamaica coalition of the Union parties (black), Green (green), and Free Democrats (yellow). However, all parties have stayed fairly silent on the coalitions they would be interested in forming.

Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union (CDU/CSU)

Colour: Black
Armin Laschet (Chancellor candidate, CDU Leader), Markus Söder (CSU Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: European People’s Party
Similar internationally:
Liberal Party of Australia (moderate wing), Conservative Party of Canada, The Republicans (France), Conservative Party (United Kingdom), Republican Party (United States; moderate wing)
Current seats in Bundestag: 246

The incumbent party in the Bundestag consists of a longtime alliance between the Christian Democratic Union, the big-tent and right-leaning party in federal politics, and the Christian Socialist Union, a more socially conservative party that represents Bavarian regional interests. With lofty shoes to fill after Merkel’s departure, the Union parties have prioritised a platform of climate action focused on transport policy, income tax reductions, and commitments to housing through further reductions on taxes and bureaucracy. All the while, the Union parties have pitched that the country’s past 15 years under Merkel has been overall beneficial, and promised that another government led by the Union parties would continue to do the same.

The current Chancellor candidate is Armin Laschet, who previously served as the Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous and economically robust state. On the campaign trail, Laschet has been criticised within and outside his party. Many have railed against his more conservative platform compared to previous Union governments, while his inner party circles have suggested that perhaps Markus Söder, the leader of the CSU, may have made a better candidate. Laschet also squandered more support in the summer after he was filmed laughing during the President’s speech regarding the German floods. But nearing election day, polls have indicated that the Union parties are closing in on the lead once more.

Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)

Colour: Red
Olaf Scholz (Chancellor candidate), Saskia Esken (Co-Leader), Norbert Walter-Borjans (Co-Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: Party of European Socialists
Similar internationally: New Democratic Party (Canada), Labour Party (United Kingdom), Democratic Party (United States; progressive wing)
Current seats in Bundestag: 153

One of the oldest parties in German history, the left-leaning SPD and the Union parties make up Germany’s historical Große Koalition or Grand Coalition as the two most dominant parties in federal politics. Campaigning on a platform of affordable housing, pensions, and job security in the transition to renewable energy, the SPD has saw its surging popularity over the summer dwindle to a near-nonexistent lead this week. However, Olaf Scholz, the current Finance Minister under the Merkel cabinet, remains the most popular candidate for Chancellor, as nearly half of Germans would prefer him as Chancellor if they had the opportunity to cast a direct vote.

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Colour: Blue
Alice Weidel (Chancellor candidate), Tino Chrupalla (Chancellor candidate, Co-Leader), Jörg Meuthen (Co-Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: Identity and Democracy
Similar internationally:
People’s Party of Canada, Front Nationale (France), UK Independence Party, Republican Party (United States; nationalist wing)
Current seats in Bundestag: 94

Formed in 2013, the Alternative for Germany are a populist and Eurosceptic party that has moved further to the right. Alongside the global rise of populism, the party made their splash into federal politics by winning the third-most seats in the Bundestag in the last election. Outside of its key supporters, reception of the AfD’s rhetoric and platform have ranged from thinly-veiled disdain to outright condemnation, where its harshest critics have compared the party to the Nazis. No other parties have currently expressed interest in forming a coalition with the AfD. In this election, the AfD have predominantly campaigned on social media with priorities such as drastic limitations on immigration and a commitment to fossil fuels. Concurrently, the party has also decried the perceived erosion of freedom during the pandemic such as lockdowns and mask mandates, promising to lift restrictions if elected.

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Colour: Yellow
Christian Lindner (Chancellor candidate, Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: Renew Europe
Similar internationally:
En Marche! (France), Republican Party (United States; liberal wing in state levels)
Current seats in Bundestag: 80

The Free Democrats are a pro-European and classically-liberal party that usually sits right of the spectrum compared to other liberal parties worldwide. Led by Chancellor candidate Christian Lindner, who is also the lone leader of the party, the FDP’s embrace of the free market has attracted high-earning and educated voters. Lindner has previously been touted as a rising star in the Bundestag, but has faced criticism in the past when he refused to enter a coalition. However, with the FDP a key topic of discussion for potential coalitions again, Lindner has opened up to negotiations as he sees himself as a candidate for Finance Minister. The FDP platform has been focused on tax reductions, faster naturalisation processes for skilled immigration, and opposition on climate action.

The Left (Die Linke)

Colour: Orange/Red
Janine Wissler (Chancellor candidate, Co-Leader), Dietmar Bartsch (Chancellor candidate), Susanne Hennig-Wellsow (Co-Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: The Left in the European Parliament
Similar internationally:
France Insoumise
Current seats in Bundestag: 69

The Left Party consists of remnants from the ruling East German socialist party and disaffected SPD members at the turn of the Century. With both the SPD and Greens polling steadily, the viability of the Left Party as a component of a all-left coalition has grown increasingly popular among progressive voters in Germany. The platform of the Left Party, which consists of ambitious climate goals by 2030, a speed limit on the Autobahn, higher minimum wages, and tax hikes on high earners

Alliance 90/The Greens (Grüne)

Colour: Green
Annalena Baerbock (Chancellor candidate, Co-Leader), Robert Habeck (Co-Leader)
European Parliament affiliation: European Green Party
Similar internationally:
Australian Greens, Green Party of Canada, Europe Ecology – The Greens (France), Green Party of England and Wales (United Kingdom)
Current seats in Bundestag: 67

The German Greens are a historical combination of the Green Party in West Germany and the Alliance 90 formed in East Germany during the 90s. Currently the major party with the fewest seats in the Bundestag, the Greens had shortly led in the polls earlier this year but have faded in the final stretches. The Greens have also run into trouble with their Chancellor candidate in Annalena Baerbock, where many party insiders have suggested that Co-Leader Robert Habeck may have been a better choice. In this election, the Greens have promised to only put emission-free cars on the road by 2030, raise taxes for high income brackets, and make the path to naturalisation easier in Germany.

Above Featured Image: The interior of the Reichstag dome. (Sean Wu)

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