Mutti’s Era Ends Amid Uncertainty

The ongoing race to succeed Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as chancellor of Germany has yet to produce a clear winner in the recent preliminary election. Following the ballot held on 26 September, the German public voted to elect representative members of the Bundestag – the German federal parliament – who will subsequently form a coalition government and elect the new Chancellor from their ranks. The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) has narrowly won the largest share of the vote at 25.7%. Meanwhile, Merkel’s own centre-right Christian Democratic Union – Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU) bloc has suffered the worst-ever performance in its 70-year history at 24.1%. Despite losing their early lead, the Green party and Free Democrats are set to become “kingmakers” in the following coalition negotiations, as they both share a quarter of the vote.

Following the results, SDP Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz has announced that he aims to build a coalition with the Greens and the FDP. He said “the voters have very clearly spoken,” and that forming a SDP-Greens-FDP coalition “is the clear mandate.

Despite the SDP leading in the polls, the CDU-CSU could still lead if they create a coalition with the Green party and FDP. CDU Chancellor candidate and Merkel’s chosen heir Armin Laschet has challenged claims that the SDP will rule. He said  “[W]e cannot be happy with these results,” and deemed the election outcome “unclear.” He concluded that “we will do everything we can to form a German government led by the CDU because what Germany needs now is a future coalition that modernizes our country.”

This election is particularly pivotal, as it marks the first time in its post-war history that an incumbent chancellor has not sought re-election. Even after 16 years as chancellor, if Merkel were to campaign for a fifth term, it is likely that she would secure victory – something that competing parties are acutely aware of. Both the SPD and the CDU have built their campaigns on this basis, conveying images of a level-headed statesman who is a true champion of Merkelism. In an interview with France TV, European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune explained that “on a certain level, the Germans have voted for Angela Merkel.”

As it stands, a three-way coalition is needed to form the Bundestag. The new government will likely either take the form of a “traffic light” (SDP/red, Green, FDP/yellow) or a “Jamaican flag” (CDU/black, Green, FDP/Yellow). Although the Green party and the FDP share similar voting demographics and social policy, their fiscal policies and climate change targets differ significantly.

The climate crisis has been the dominant topic of concern for German voters in this election campaign, and the Green-FDP policy divide is substantial. For the Greens, who built their party on the basis for progressive climate change policy, it is no surprise that it is their central policy issue. According to an analysis by Deutsche Welle, by 2030, the party seeks to reduce 70% of carbon emissions, phase out coal and improve rail services to supersede short-haul flights. In comparison, the FDP has the least ambitious targets of all competing parties. They support a free-market instrument of emissions trading, yet the goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2045 has not been explicitly stated in their campaigns.

Both Scholz and Laschet will have to navigate these policy differences to gain the chancellor’s seat. Negotiations to form the Bundestag will take some time, and in the meantime, Merkel will continue to stand in as chancellor. This election has proven that in Germany, moderate centrism can prevail over the radical populism that is spreading across the continent. Germans wanted another Merkel, and they will get such in due time.