Four things you need to know about the German election

By Martyn Kreider
EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges

The most likely outcome of the German federal election on September 24 is that Angela Merkel – the longest serving leader in the Western world – will win an historic fourth consecutive term as Chancellor.

The longstanding ‘leader’ of Europe is leading opinion polls by a wide margin, seemingly benefitting from her tested reputation as a steady hand during times of global tension and uncertainty. But voter engagement is low and the two centrist parties are seeing a decline in support.

Here are four things to know about the German election and why it is significant.

The Merkel Effect

Unlike in neighboring France and the Netherlands, third-party populist candidates have not been a sustained threat to the two mainstream parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). Dr Merkel and her centre-right CDU have consistently led opinion polls this year, despite her controversial decision open German borders to almost one million refugees from Syria since 2015.

Merkel’s only real threat comes from the centre-left SPD and its leader Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament. Soon after Schulz announced his candidacy earlier this year, the Schulzzug (‘Schulz train’) picked up new support for the SPD and for a short time, observers considered it possible for Mr Schulz to oust Dr Merkel. Then the SPD suffered losses in state elections, including a devastating defeat to the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state and traditional SPD stronghold, and the Schulzzug has since ‘derailed’.

Battle for third will be key in shaping policy

The anti-immigrant, anti-EU, nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is in the four-way race for third place.

Each party has coalesced support by targeting a specific demographic: the Greens with urban and well-educated voters, Die Linke (the Left Party) with those in former East Germany, and the fast growing AfD successfully poached the disgruntled middle class and conservative supporters of the CDU on refugees. Each party has around 10% support in the latest polls.

The fourth party in this race for third is the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Shut out from the Bundestag in the 2013 election, the FDP then elected the young and charismatic Christian Lindner as chairman. Lindner helped turn around the FDPs woes since unveiling the new party platform focused on digitization and education, while maintaining its long-established stance for the free-market economy, civil liberties and strengthening ties to the EU. All four parties are expected to reach the 5% threshold to take seats in the Bundestag, but the centrist FDP could be the key party in forming a coalition.

A new coalition?

Forming a coalition government has become standard procedure in Germany. Usually the coalition is between one of the two biggest parties and a small party (a so-called ‘narrow’ coalition). But the current government is Dr Merkel’s second ‘grand coalition’ – a term referring to a coalition between the two biggest parties, the CDU and SPD.

To evade her third grand coalition, Merkel is eyeing a partnership with FDP or the Greens, but a partnership with either is unlikely to be enough to form government. The other option, a ‘Jamaica coalition’ with CDU, FDP and the Greens (the party colours match the Jamaican flag) was recently ruled out considering the ‘diametrically opposed positions’ of FDP and the Greens. With all parties refusing to form a coalition with the AfD, another grand coalition might be inevitable.

Voter disengagement

Germans are more likely to identify as centrists compared to others in the EU. In a recent EU-wide poll, only 2% of German respondents said their political affiliations were extreme left or extreme right. In France that number sits at 7% and 11%, respectively. And in a recent attitudes survey, Germans expressed they “can’t afford to be polarized because we are surrounded by the three madmen Trump, Erdogan and Putin”.

However, only about half of voters have decided who they will vote for, and 30% say they are inclined not to vote. At the same time, about half of voters think the outcome has already been determined.

Issues that affect young voters have largely been ignored this election cycle and the turnout of young people is expected to be lower than other age groups. It will be noteworthy whom young voters support and whether third parties are able to capture their resentment in later state and national elections.

Banner image: The Bundestag. Credit: Adam Groffman/Flickr

Thumbnail image: German campaign posters. Credit: Getty Images


politics; immigration; election Politics; Immigration; Election de-cdu; de-sdp; de-left; de-greens; de-alternative Christian Democratic Union (CDU); Social Democratic Party (SPD); The Left; Alliance ‘90/The Greens; Alternative for Germany

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