Three Things to Learn from the German Election

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor 

On September 26, Germany held a federal election to elect the members of the Bundestag, the only federal representative body, as well as to decide who will succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

Merkel has served as Chancellor since 2005. In late 2018 she announced that, after the 2021 elections, she would step down — 16 years after she first took the position. Now, Olaf Scholz, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is poised to succeed Merkel as Chancellor. Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor as leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), oversaw the party’s worst performance since 1949, the year it was originally formed. Scholz will likely seek to partner with the center-left Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).  

Though there are still months of negotiations left before we see what the new coalition looks like, the election results offer a few important takeaways. 

Firstly: things change — fast.  

In January this year, the CDU was polling very well, consistently hitting around 35-37%. It looked like, despite Merkel’s intention to step down, power would remain in the hands of the center-right. Then, the CDU began a sharp decline to around 25% in mid-April. This coincided with a significant increase in support for the Greens, which rose from 17% to a peak at 28%. For a moment, it looked like Annalena Baerbock, the young leader of the Greens who spoke of bringing the nation in a new direction, would lead post-Merkel. The SPD was polling at a very weak 15%, with some speculating that they could potentially be a junior partner to the Greens. 

Once again, the race changed, with both the CDU and the Greens struggling to return to their previous highs. Finally, at the end of August, the SPD rose to around 25%, creating a small lead over the CDU that they were able to maintain through election day.  

Now, Olaf Scholz will almost certainly become Chancellor, with the CDU being locked out of a governing coalition. 

Secondly: these results may be indicative of a growing center-left resurgence across the West.  

Over the past year, center-left parties have seen several successes. This includes the very strong performance of New Zealand’s Labour Party and Biden’s victory last year. This year, this includes the creation of a coalition dominated by the center-left in Italy and now the favorable results for the German center-left. There are exceptions — such as Britain’s Labour Party that has not been in power since 2007 — but, by and large, Western center-left parties have been doing well over the last two years. 

With Australia’s Labor party neck-and-neck with the center-right Liberals in the primary vote and beating the Liberals by 6% in the two-party-preferred vote, it looks as though this trend could continue next year. However, as the first takeaway noted, things can change quite a bit. But, as of now, things are looking a bit better for many center-left parties. 

Thirdly: despite gains by the center-left, the far-right has not vanished. Much like in the United States, Germany has seen the growth of a nationalism-centric ideology that heavily utilizes xenophobia and antagonistic rhetoric. In Germany, this has taken the form of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Though the AfD dropped from 12.6% of the vote in 2017 to 10.3% this year, it remains a relevant party.  

There is something critical that separates the current far-right movement in the United States. In the U.S., the GOP has largely accepted this faction, which has, in turn, pulled the party right and gained significantly more support. On the other hand, no major party in Germany has had any interest in having the AfD become a coalition partner, and both the CDU and FDP are resistant to adopting similar policy stances.  Because of this, the far-right movement in Germany likely cannot grow much outside of the AfD.  

However, though far-right movements may not be able to take over larger and stronger center-right parties, the new but smaller far-right parties and movements that have sprung up — even those that will struggle to find new support — will likely remain present in Western democracies in the near future.  

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