Skip to main content

German Elections – How Critical Will They Be?

On 20th September, the CEU Democracy Institute hosted a roundtable discussion on the upcoming German elections with Sheri Berman, Carsten Q. Schneider, Thomas Poguntke and Brigid Laffan, chaired by Wolfgang Merkel.

By Isabella Lasch

On Sunday 26th September, Germany will elect a new Parliament and with it a new chancellor after 16 years. Indeed, the chancellor, who will have ruled for five thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven (5787) days on election day, is leaving the grand political stage. There will be a new government and, in all likelihood, no continuation of the "grand coalition" that has become too small for even a minimal winning coalition. On the contrary, seven parties will again enter the Bundestag and yet it is still unclear which coalition it might be.

Video URL
Current trends and campaigns

Surprisingly, so far, the polls underwent a lot of fluctuations. Professor Poguntke pointed out that whereas the Greens went from a very high to a lower poll, the Social Democrats (SPD) reversed the poll. On the contrary, the Conservatives (CDU/CSU) and its usually well-organized machinery ran a rather bad campaign which might explain why the polls go up and down so much.

Indeed, and as Sheri Berman mentioned, 16 years of Angela Merkel pushed the CDU/CSU to the center and watered its profile and now the party lacks a clear strategy. Moreover, as the mainstream parties generally decline, the candidates themselves get more attention. Still, the majority seem to want a change, a seemingly general trend in Western Europe.

Lack of EU in the campaigns?

In the German campaigns, the relationship with the EU is not mentioned. Shying away from foreign politics and other big questions, such as migration, the campaigns, according to Professor Berman, merely focus on domestic politics highlighting a mismatch between transnational policy and national politics.

Still, as Professor Poguntke mentioned, the EU today is part of the “Germany identity” and, as such, the EU and its importance is accepted by all politicians. The outcome of the coalition debates however will have an impact on the EU with regard to the Green Deal and geopolitics said Professor Laffan. Indeed, the world has changed, and with it Germany will have to leave the comfortable times of Merkelism and face new challenges.

Future coalition in Germany?

Therefore, the fragmentation of parties could be shown to be either problematic for voters who vote for a party and not for a particular coalition, according to Berman, or more fruitful, as more discussions could be healthier for democracy, as Schneider highlighted. Germany will most probably obtain a three-party coalition but the two mainstream parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Conservatives (CDU/CSU) are still relatively strong on the medium term with around 20 to 30 %.

Professor Poguntke thereby sees the Green Party as a contender for the third strongest party with young, mostly highly educated people living from state money as its base. For him, there is also more overlap between Greens and SPD in the programs and between the leaders than between SPD and CDU.

As such, there could be a possibility of a so-called Jamaica Coalition with the Liberals (FDP). By contrast, a coalition between SPD, Greens and Leftists seems less likely because of clearer structural issues. In addition, the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won’t play a role in coalition debates, at least not on the national level as, unlike before, they are more radicalized now.

Future coalition seen from outside

With Germany being an important member of the European Union, Brussels will pay attention to early polls. Yet, the EU, according to Laffan, has no preferences as it has to deal with it no matter what. Still, French President Macron prefers Olaf Scholz, the SPD candidate, and the coalition will define the future agendas, such as the agenda on climate change.

Germany is an indispensable EU member state so that the EU needs a stable axis and any conflicts within the coalition parties could be problematic. According to Berman, Angela Merkel was not very strong in terms of human rights and trade with regard to Russia and China, something that was causing some frustration to the US in the past. In this regard, Biden has some minor preferences for a non-socialist but would generally like a cooperation for some key issues, such as a 2% spending for defense, for example, and maybe a harder line in terms of Russia and China. In her recent speech of the state of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel protegee, already criticized China and this shift will also concern Germany in the future.

The legacy of Angela Merkel

The coming elections mark the end of Angela Merkel as chancellor and her 16 years of politics. Yet, having taken big decisions on migration, nuclear energy, and the European recovery fund, she didn’t seem to have really followed it up. Indeed, Angela Merkel was seen as a calm and rational leader as well as rather a crisis chancellor who had to take unforeseen and quick decisions. As such, from an outsider’s point of view, she always did enough to keep it going and learned from previous experiences as seen in the pandemic.

Moreover, she, according to Professor Laffan, always knew her brief in the EU Council and hardly anybody could stand up to her. Nevertheless, criticism can also be made when it comes to the Rule of Law in Central Eastern Europe where changes could have been made but economic and national interests came first.


The German elections surely will mark a new era for Germany and the EU. The outcome is still open and even after the results parties may engage in long debates and discussions until a coalition will be formed. Still, the new government will indeed have an important impact on Europe and outside.

You may watch the full debate here.

Research areas: