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Germany’s arithmetic

Almost every party claims to have done well in Sunday’s election, but forming a new government requires an unprecedented coalition of three parties

Klaus Neumann Hamburg 28 September 2021 2205 words

Greens co-leader Robert Habeck, kingmaker and possibly Germany’s next deputy chancellor, arriving at party HQ on the day after the election. Andreas Gebert/POOL/AFP via Getty Images


Of the 61,168,234 Germans invited to cast their vote in Sunday’s national election, almost a quarter declined the opportunity. And barely a quarter of those who did vote chose finance minister Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, the party that claimed victory. So it was entirely predictable that Scholz’s competitors were quick to point to the weakness in his claim that he ought to lead the first post-Merkel government.

Scholz nevertheless presents himself as the contest’s clear winner. His claim rests partly on the fact that his party’s share of the vote, at 25.7 per cent, exceeded the combined 24.1 per cent achieved by the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU. This is only the fourth time in twenty national elections that the Social Democrats have come out ahead. More importantly, though, Scholz points to his party’s gains, and the conservatives’ losses, since the 2017 election, when the Social Democrats won just 20.5 per cent of the vote while the Christian Democrats and CSU attracted a combined 32.9 per cent. Sunday’s result was the worst ever for the two conservative parties.

If gains or losses since 2017 were the only criterion, though, the Greens would be considered Sunday’s undisputed winners, having increased their share by 5.9 percentage points. But as recently as May they were the frontrunners, with the conservatives a close second and the Social Democrats a distant third on 15 per cent. And that was before the devastating July floods in the southwest and west of the country, which reminded voters of the urgent need to deal with climate change, and before the government’s scandalous mismanagement of Germany’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Greens’ candidate for the office of chancellor (and the party’s co-leader), Annalena Baerbock, could partly be blamed for its disappointing 14.8 per cent. Early in the campaign it was revealed that she had failed to declare income she had received in addition to her salary and had made inaccurate claims in her CV. As if these self-inflicted troubles weren’t enough, she released a book containing more than a hundred plagiarised passages (including some taken from a book by her Greens co-leader, Robert Habeck). Baerbock’s popularity — and with it the Greens’ position in the polls — dropped sharply.

Baerbock had good reason to feel hard done by. Her mistakes might well have been written off as oversights, and Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats — initially her main competitor — had himself published a book containing passages copied from others without proper attribution. A few years ago, what’s more, Laschet resigned as lecturer at Aachen University after he lost his students’ exam papers and botched an attempt to award them marks said to be based on his notes. Baerbock may have exaggerated some of her achievements, but Laschet’s CV entirely omits his fifteen-year period at Aachen University. Voters nevertheless seemed to care more about Baerbock’s transgressions.

Laschet’s downfall came soon enough. He was captured on camera sharing a laugh while listening to German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier extending his condolences to the victims of the July floods. The twenty-second scene — combined with persistent sniping from the sidelines by the CSU’s Markus Söder, who considered himself the better option as the conservative parties’ joint candidate for chancellor — ruined Laschet’s chances of matching Angela Merkel’s 2017 results. Less than a month before the election, the Social Democrats overtook the conservatives in the polls.

Laschet, too, was entitled to feel aggrieved. That’s because his opponent Olaf Scholz seemed immune to criticism. The Social Democrat, who is sometimes referred to as Teflon-Scholz, was not troubled by credible claims that he condoned the Warburg Bank’s failure to pay a €47 million tax debt in 2017 when he was premier of Hamburg. Or, more recently, that he failed to act in a timely manner as finance minister after the financial services company Wirecard admitted it had cooked its books to the tune of €1.9 billion. And during the election campaign, he was barely troubled when his ministry was raided by investigators probing an anti–money laundering unit he oversees.


When the election result became clear on Sunday night, both Laschet and Baerbock put on a brave face. Baerbock pointed to the fact that the result was her party’s best ever in a national election. Laschet stressed that his party had almost caught up with Scholz’s during the final week of the campaign.

In fact, many more parties declared themselves winners than losers. The Free Democrats claimed victory despite increasing their vote by a meagre 0.8 percentage points. Politicians of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, said they were pleased by its 10.3 per cent, a fall from 12.6 per cent, with co-leader Alice Weidel arguing that if the vote for other, smaller parties with similar agendas was taken into account then the AfD increased its share of the vote.

Of course, some parties failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold necessary to gain a seat, a rule designed to keep minor parties out of the Bundestag. None of them would have been surprised by the fact. They include Die Basis, a newly formed party that tried to attract those opposed to masks and vaccinations to protect against Covid-19, which scored 1.4 per cent. The Freie Wähler, a party currently represented in two of sixteen state parliaments and led by Bavarian deputy premier Hubert Aiwanger (who also refuses to be vaccinated), won a respectable 2.4 per cent. Another 1.5 per cent of voters opted for the larger of two animal rights parties. And 1 per cent chose Die Partei, a party founded by the editors of the satirical magazine Titanic, which pokes fun at the programs and politics of traditional parties. Altogether, more than four million Germans voted for parties that failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold.

Of the parties represented in federal parliament, only the left-wing Linke openly admitted defeat. Its vote fell by almost half, from 9.2 per cent in 2017 to 4.9 per cent. But it snuck into the Bundestag thanks to a clause in the electoral laws that allows a party to circumvent the 5 per cent threshold if it wins at least three electorates. By holding three of the five electorates it won in 2017, it just survived as a political force — as it had in 1994, when it scored only 4.4 per cent but won four seats directly.

Another peculiarity of Germany’s electoral laws made it possible for a party that won no direct seat and attracted only 55,330 votes to be represented in the Bundestag. That’s the centre-left Südschleswigsche Wählerverband — a party appealing to ethnic Friesians and the Danish minority in Germany’s far north — to whom the 5 per cent rule does not apply. It won its first seat in federal parliament since 1953.

Stefan Seidler, the politician representing Germany’s Danish speakers, will be one of 735 members occupying a chamber designed to accommodate a parliament of 598 — 299 of them directly elected, 299 nominated by the parties. Germans have two votes: one to elect their local member and one to determine the overall composition of the Bundestag. If the number of direct seats won by a party surpasses the number of seats it has been allocated according to that party’s overall share of the vote, then all other parties need to be compensated for those extra seats. This topping-up has become routine because the number of seats directly won by the CSU regularly surpasses the number of seats calculated according to its percentage of the overall vote. In this election, the CSU won all but one of Bavaria’s forty-five electorates (the Greens won the other) but attracted only 31.7 per cent of the vote.


A focus on the overall election outcome obscures sharp geographical and demographic differences. In electorate #19, which comprises Hamburg’s western suburbs, the Greens won about 30 per cent of the vote and the Social Democrats about 25 per cent, with the AfD managing only about 3 per cent. In the East German state of Saxony, by contrast, the AfD came first on about 25 per cent, despite a fall from its result four years ago. No other party reached 20 per cent.

Among the 260,000 young people who took part in a national under-eighteen straw poll, the Greens came first overall. The AfD came sixth, with about the same number of votes as one of the animal rights splinter parties. In the two East German states of Saxony and Thuringia, however, the AfD won that poll.

According to an exit poll, two-thirds of over-sixty-year-olds voted for either the conservatives or the Social Democrats (with the vote being roughly evenly split). About half of those under twenty-two voted for either the Free Democrats or Greens, again with the vote evenly split. Only a quarter of young people for whom the 2021 poll was their first opportunity to vote chose either of the two major parties.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that neither of the two major parties can claim to speak for a sizeable proportion of the population. In fact, claims by Christian Democrats and Free Democrats on Sunday night that only a quarter of the electorate voted for Scholz actually overstate his support.

The 14.4 million Germans who chose not to vote won’t be represented in the Bundestag, and nor will the four million voters who opted for parties that didn’t reach the 5 per cent threshold. Of the 83.1 million people living in Germany, about 69.4 million are eighteen or older, but only 61.2 million are eligible to vote. More than eight million adult residents are barred from voting in national and state elections because German law makes it difficult even for second-generation migrants to take out citizenship and acquire the right to vote.

While Free Democrats and Greens don’t share many policy positions, both are committed to making it easier for migrants to become German citizens, not least by allowing them to retain the citizenship of their or their parents’ countries of origin. Both parties would also allow sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote, which could again increase the legitimacy of future governments.

Whoever forms the new government will need to try to represent the interests of East Germans and West Germans, young and old, whether they live in rural and regional Germany or in the cities. The new government will need to introduce far-ranging policies with an enormous impact on Germans’ day-to-day lives, and it needs to attempt to win over a majority of the population, young and old, people in the East and in the West, migrants and non-migrants, for those policies. That’s a huge ask.

The task might be slightly more manageable after this election because the new government will itself be diverse. As things stand, it will be made up of Greens and Free Democrats, plus either the Social Democrats or the conservatives. Hypothetically, the results would also allow for a continuation of the grand coalition between the conservatives and the Social Democrats, but both sides have ruled that out.

A coalition of three partners would be a first in postwar German history. Also unprecedented is the fact that the Greens and the Free Democrats have commenced negotiations rather than letting either of the two major parties (which are no longer that “major” after all) take the lead. That makes sense: whatever the final outcome — Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats; or conservatives, Greens and Free Democrats — the differences between the left-leaning Greens and the free-market Free Democrats are the most difficult to bridge.

Taking the initiative also means, once they have identified some common ground, the two parties can play off Christian Democrats against Social Democrats. The result could be that their major coalition partner, whichever that is, will have much less say in the personnel and program of the new government.

The current German government was formed over a tortuous 172 days, drawn out when the Free Democrats decided belatedly that they didn’t want to be part of a Jamaica coalition after all. The only option in that case was for the Social Democrats, who had initially been unwilling to continue their alliance with the Christian Democrats and CSU, to come to the party. Both the Greens and the Free Democrats say they have learned from the mistakes of those failed negotiations four years ago.

This time, all political leaders are committed to taking fewer than ninety-six days — the time from election day until New Year’s Eve. Nobody wants this New Year’s address, traditionally delivered by the chancellor, to be given once again by Angela Merkel.

I’m not holding my breath. After a dispiriting campaign we are probably in for drawn-out and extremely difficult negotiations. Unlike in 2017, neither Greens nor Free Democrats have the option of abandoning such negotiations (as the Free Democrats’ Christian Lindner did four years ago, when he declared that it is better not to govern than to abandon one’s principles).

There is more at stake now than in 2017. This is Germany’s last chance to change course if it wants to meet its Paris Agreement targets. With none of the parties that will sit in the Bundestag offering policies strong enough, the challenge will be far bigger than the task of reconciling ideological preferences and personal egos. •

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