Swinging to the left for the first time in a generation, Germany elected a new parliament on Sunday that is poised to select a centre-left chancellor to succeed the retiring incumbent, Angela Merkel, as the leader of continental Europe’s most dominant and prosperous nation.
After a short but sweet rollercoaster of an election run-up, with three different parties taking turns as frontrunner in the four-yearly parliamentary election, the centre-left Social Democrats, led by their colourless finance minister Olaf Scholz, came surging from behind – rising improbably from third to first place over the final five weeks of a forgettable, cautious campaign.
In an election that could have lasting repercussions across Europe and bring to an end an era of self-satisfied stagnation in Germany, the SPD emerged with a rare victory as the largest party in the new parliament to be seated in the Reichstag building. The party gained 26 per cent of the vote, following four straight federal election defeats stretching back to 2005, according to exit polls announced by public broadcaster ZDF television after voting stations closed at 6 pm. Rival network ARD projected the SPD and conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) to be neck and neck, with each on 25 per cent. But even if the conservatives finish on par with the SPD, they have fewer paths to power given that their preferred partners, the Free Democrats, finished a distant fourth.
The SPD, having long been Germany’s proud guardian of the labour movement, but having suffered badly as Ms Merkel’s junior partner in a loveless coalition for the past eight years, has vowed to break away from the conservatives and try to form a coalition with two smaller parties. This would give post-war Germany its first three-party coalition, although the presence of at least one unwanted bedfellow has given rise to concerns over the stability and longevity of such an alliance.
Ms Merkel’s CDU, meanwhile, suffered its worst ever defeat, falling to second place and ignominiously out of power for the first time in 19 years, with 24 per cent of the vote, down from 32.9 per cent in the last election four years ago. Their gaffe-prone candidate Armin Laschet, the uncharismatic state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, squandered a promising early lead in the polls with a series of embarrassing blunders that attracted considerable attention, in an otherwise unspectacular election campaign that saw candidates debate various first-world problems.
In a race that was his to lose, given his conservative party has dominated German politics by ruling for 52 of the last 72 years, Mr Laschet’s amateurish errors ranged from getting caught on camera giggling childishly in the background while German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a solemn tribute to the victims of deadly floods in July, to even fumbling the simple act of voting on Sunday by failing to properly fold and seal his ballot – thus allowing both polling station workers and photographers to see that he had voted for himself.
The pro-environment Greens, who had peaked early and even held a slim lead over the conservatives for about a month in late April and early July, ended up with 15 per cent – a disappointing outcome after an undulating campaign was dominated by their signature issue, the climate crisis. That was down a surprising 10 points from their earlier peak, which crumbled due to minor discrepancies in candidate Annalena Baerbock’s CV. It was nevertheless nearly double the 8.9 per cent they won in 2017, and should be enough to help the party form a coalition with the SPD – with a third partner yet to be decided.
Mr Scholz will have little trouble getting the Greens to join his centre-left coalition, after the two parties made it clear in the latter stages of the campaign that they wanted to renew their “red-green” coalition from 1998 to 2005. But with only 40 per cent of the vote, the SPD and Greens will need a third partner, and that’s where things will get tricky.
Their preference would be to ally with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who came in fourth place with 13 per cent and are eager to get back into power after spending the past eight years in opposition. As much as the FDP would prefer to rule together with the CDU, there appears to be no path to power on the conservative side, as the two parties together have just 37 per cent.
So the most likely outcome is that the SPD (party colour red), Greens (green) and FDP (yellow) will hammer out a so-called “traffic light” coalition over the next four to eight weeks. If the FDP demands too much, or balks at the expected tax-increase proposals from the two left-leaning parties, the SPD and Greens could in theory turn to the far-left Linke party, which finished in sixth place with just 5 per cent of the vote. But both parties have expressed doubts about a so-called “red-red-green” coalition with a party that traces its origins to the Communist SED party and has called for Nato to be disbanded.
Support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party fell to 10 per cent on Sunday, according to exit polls, down from 13.3 per cent four years ago.