Traffic light or Jamaica? What to make of the German election results

By Maxim Bönnemann and Liz Hicks

Sunday’s Federal elections in Germany mark the end of Angela Merkel’s 16 year term and the beginning of a new era in German politics. Regardless of who forms the next government, the election is historic for several reasons.

As the Bundestag is proportionally elected (explained below), political parties must negotiate to form coalitions with each other in order to govern. Two parties have traditionally dominated German politics: the Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

These have been referred to as ‘Volksparteien’ or ‘catch all’ parties: political parties capable of appealing across demographics and to a variety of voters. Coalitions — particularly at the Federal level — have been historically formed with at least one of those parties as the major coalition partner and one or two other ‘junior’ coalition partners. A ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU/CSU and SPD, led by CDU/CSU Chancellor Angela Merkel, governed between 2005 to 2009, and since 2013.

While both the SPD (25.7%) and the CDU/CSU (24.1%) secured the largest votes of all the political parties, the combined vote for the two ‘Volksparteien’ sunk to the lowest in post-war German history. The CDU/CSU in particular — under the leadership of Armin Laschet — recorded their worst election result, following a sudden decline in the polls.

Outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel is seen up close
Angela Merkel's departure has left a vacuum in German politics. Pic: Flickr

This is significant for several reasons.

Firstly, it means that the next government will, for the first time since the 1950s, likely be formed by a coalition between three political parties. This departs from the traditional model of two party coalitions at the Federal level and may create a degree of instability, particularly over the next period while coalition negotiations are underway.

SPD Chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, has signalled that he is not willing to enter into a new ‘Grand Coalition’ between the SPD and CDU/CSU. As the two parties with the next highest share of the vote, the Greens (with 14.8%) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) (11.5%) will be the ‘Kanzlermacher’ or ‘kingmakers’ who choose the Volkspartei with which they will form government. The far right Alternative for Germany (10.3%), by contrast, will play no role in building a coalition as all other parties have ruled out any form of cooperation with the extreme right.

A man wearing a jacket and shirt waves while standing in a garden
Olaf Scholz does not want a 'Grand Coalition'. Source: Dirk Vorderstraße/Flickr

Secondly, the election results and decline of the “Volkspartei” indicate that German politics is pluralising. This is also clear in the volatility of the polls in the weeks leading to the election. Such volatility indicates an increasing willingness amongst voters to switch political camps. It also points to the increasing role of personalisation in driving election results.

Increased voter focus on leaders personally arguably speaks to the effect of Angela Merkel upon German politics and the vacuum created after her departure.

How is the German Bundestag elected and how do coalition negotiations work?

German voters elect the Federal Bundestag through a system of mixed-member proportional representation. Voters submit two ballots.

A graphic depicts a German election notifcation letter juxtaposed over the country's parliament
Source: Pixabay/Geralt

The first (‘Erststimme’) allows the voter to choose the candidate they would like to represent the voter’s district, and follows a first-past-the-post system. The second ballot (‘Zweitstimme’) allows the voter to choose the political party they would like to govern, which determines the percent of seats the party will have in the Bundestag.

The number of seats in the Bundestag fluctuates to accommodate both the 298 seats for districts, and whichever additional number is necessary to allow party representation proportional to that elected in the second ballot. The most recent Bundestag had 709 members.

Traditionally, the party that receives the highest vote invites other parties to enter into negotiations to form a coalition. If this pattern repeats, Olaf Scholz will emerge as the next Chancellor in a coalition with the FDP and Greens.

Despite trailing the SPD with slightly less votes, the CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has vowed to persuade the Greens and FDP to form government with the CDU/CSU instead.

In a twist on tradition, the FDP and Greens have proposed that they first meet to negotiate with one another, before they then meet with the other parties.

Once parties agree that they would like to form a coalition, the parties finalise a coalition contract and determine which party will occupy which ministry. Negotiations between the parties may continue over weeks, if not months, during which time the current government will remain in a caretaker role.

The next Coalition: ‘traffic light’ or ‘Jamaica’?

With a ‘Grand Coalition’ provisionally ruled out by the SPD and CDU/CSU — and arguably also by voters — there are two other options.

A ‘traffic light coalition’ between the SPD, Greens and FDP — and led by Olaf Scholz as Chancellor — seems the most likely outcome of negotiations.

A traffic light showing the green light for cyclists
Pic: Albert Bridge/

It also faces roadblocks: while the SPD and the Greens are close on many issues, both parties have major differences with the FDP. Those differences are particularly pronounced with regard to economic and financial policy — a crucial difference in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. While the FDP campaigned on a promise to cut taxes, the Greens and SPD have drawn attention to the difficulty of cutting taxes in the wake of the recent crisis and argue greater taxation of the wealthy may be needed.

The FDP and Greens also differ fundamentally in their approach to debt and investment in public infrastructure. The Greens are more willing to borrow while the FDP remains fiscally conservative.

A ‘Jamaica coalition’ — named because the colours its parties resemble that of the Jamaican flag — would also require a challenging compromise between the CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens.

Jamaica's green, yellow and black flag waves against a blue sky
Pic: Dickelbers/Wiki Commons

Notably, negotiations to form a Jamaica coalition fell through in the aftermath of the 2017 Federal elections after the FDP withdrew its support.

It would also be unorthodox for a Jamaica coalition to form in the current circumstances and may fail to gain the support necessary from the Greens’ membership. The party with the highest vote ordinarily produces the chancellor. As the CDU/CSU did not receive the highest vote, it would require the Greens to effectively support the (conservative) ‘loser’ of the election to become its ‘winner’.

‘Volksparteien’ under pressure

Although the SPD gained a higher vote compared to the 2017 election, this election’s results confirm that the ‘Volksparteien’ are in decline (at least with respect to their dominance in the party landscape)

‘Grand Coalitions’ comprised three of the four coalitions under the leadership of Angela Merkel. For the first time, neither party has achieved greater than 30% of the vote.

Three other parties (the Greens, FDP and AfD) achieved double digit percentages. Only the Left Party remained in single digits and surprisingly failed to get past the five percent hurdle.

On the one hand, the poor performance of ‘Volksparteien’ reflects a greater degree of pluralisation in German society and fatigue with their dominance in government.

Perhaps more significantly, the poor performance of CDU/CSU and SPD demonstrates the reduced significance of ‘Volksparteien’ for younger voters. The Greens, followed closely by the FDP, received the highest votes amongst voters under 25. This means that, leaving aside the existential threat the youth demographic’s vote poses for ‘Volksparteien’, the SPD and CDU will need to adjust to coalition models involving three parties.

Key issues for the next coalition: Climate and digitalisation

Regardless of who ultimately forms a coalition, a number of issues will be crucial for the the next government constellation. The climate crisis has become one of the most important issues in Germany, particularly following the floods of July 2021.

As the Greens will likely form government as junior coalition partner, the climate emergency will be at the front of the agenda.

A man stands in floodwaters in the city of Hagen
Pic: Klaus Bärwinkel/Wiki Commons

Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy in 2011 and is now determining its timetable for phasing out coal. The pace of withdrawal from coal remains a significant point of contention between political parties.

The FDP will continue its push to modernise Germany’s digital infrastructure. Germany still scores comparatively low in international rankings on digitalisation.

Foreign policy is likely to remain relatively unchanged under the next coalition. Despite the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, foreign policy was remarkably absent as an issue in the election campaign. Overall, party platforms were introverted. The SPD, the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP all remain committed to the European Union, NATO, and the transatlantic partnership.

A potential sticking point between the parties could, however, emerge with respect to Russia: the SPD has traditionally encouraged friendlier relations with the former Soviet power, while the Greens have preferred a more hard-line stance.

The vaccuum after Angela Merkel

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves
Pic: Wolfgang van de Rydt/Pixabay

Over the coming weeks the CDU in particular will be focussed on analysing what went wrong. The public mood turned against the CDU remarkably quickly during the final weeks of the election.

The Greens face similar questions. The Greens led the polls with 28% of the vote in May. While they significantly increased their votes since the last election, they failed to follow through on the prospect of a Green chancellor.

The fluctuation in polls, particularly during the final weeks of the campaign, arguably reflects the vacuum left by Angela Merkel’s departure. To a greater extent than previous elections, this campaign was largely focussed upon the personalities of chancellor candidates.

Less attention was afforded to serious debates regarding policy. Germans were voting on Merkel’s successor — whose leadership was arguably characterised by her personalised style of managing crises, rather than taking the initiative on debates about Germany’s future. As The Economist noted, candidates campaigned within a framework that ignored the country’s looming problems.

The campaign’s focus on the personal qualities of chancellor candidates left space for small errors to have significant consequences. Mistakes by the leading candidates quickly led to radical slumps in the polls.

Following the experience of this campaign, the CDU/CSU may provide even greater power to its leadership. Individual politicians may even attempt to take an example from Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

The CDU/CSU could also veer further to the right if it lands in opposition. Whether this is strategically wise, however, is debatable. After all, the CDU/CSU lost most of its voters to the Social Democrats and the Greens.

One aspect of Angela Merkel’s appeal was her apparent ability to marry progressive policies with a number of conservative commitments. How Germany — and the conservatives — adjust in her wake remains to be seen.

Maxim Bönnemann is editor at Verfassungsblog.

Liz Hicks is a doctoral candidate in comparative constitutional law at Melbourne Law School and Humboldt University of Berlin.

Banner image: The German Bundestag building is seen in Berlin. Source: Felix Mittermeier/Pixabay


politics; environment; policy Politics; Environment; Policy germany Germany

Election Watch: Past Editions