Voters turned out Sunday in Germany’s federal election, which was one of the most pivotal votes in the country’s recent memory. Through a nearly year-long campaign season marked with electoral twists and three parties vying for the top position, voters delivered the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) a very slim majority, setting up both SPD candidate Olaf Sholz and his center-right rival with the opportunity to form a coalition government.
With weeks, or even months, of negotiations ahead, the exact power-sharing agreement that will emerge in the German parliament, or Bundestag, is yet to be seen. Second-place candidate Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats has expressed his intention to form a coalition, but with the electoral victory, Sholz is best situated to lead the new Berlin government. The next few weeks or months will determine what coalition partners will make it happen, with both major parties wanting to finish coalition negotiations by December. But whatever form it takes it marks a turning point for Germany.
Although Sholz and the SPD have secured this initial victory, at the center of this election is the woman stepping down from politics — Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the country and her party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), for 16 years. Merkel, who guided Germany through economic and political crises and dominated European politics for two decades, announced in 2018 that she would not seek re-election as the head of the CDU after disastrous regional elections saw her party and its coalition partners earn 10% less support in the state of Hesse than during the previous election.
But over her four terms in office, Merkel’s steady governing earned her the nickname Mutti, or “mother,” because of her ability to deliver stability and economic success to Germans. Her handling of the 2011 Eurozone economic crisis is credited with keeping Greece in the European Economic Union. During the crisis, her demands for Greek austerity measures were deeply unpopular in Greece, but she was able to manage what could have become a much larger economic catastrophe.
Additionally, low unemployment throughout her terms and Germany’s relative wealth compared to its neighbors have all contributed to Merkel’s lasting popularity. Merkel’s moment of political crisis came during her 2015 decision to open Germany to Syrian refugees during the European migrant crisis. The decision had deep political ramifications — such as a surge in support for the far-right anti-immigration AFD party in Saxony and Thuringia — and became hugely unpopular. Merkel’s personal popularity during this time dipped to a low of just over 50%, only rebounding after immigration policies were changed. But her resolve throughout it all won her admiration from supporters and opponents alike.
Merkel’s announcement of her intention to step down opened up German politics like never before. Within her own Christian Democrats, party infighting eventually resulted in the nomination of Armin Laschet, the current premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, as the successor to Merkel. Throughout the campaign, Laschet faced off against Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats and Annalena Baerbock of the Green party. Baerbock initially surprised observers by inching ahead in the polls, beating out both the CDU and SPD for a moment, but this success was short-lived. By election day, the Greens had fallen to a comfortable third place behind the nearly-tied Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.
With the CDU and SPD ruling out the potential for a “grand coalition” between them, the role of kingmaker falls to the third-place Greens and fourth-place liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Whereas in the past the two main parties determined the ruling structure in Berlin, this year these two smaller parties hold all the cards, and their support is crucial in deciding who will step into Merkel’s role. Such a situation puts Germany in uncharted territory, which has never seen such an uncertain outcome on election night.
As both Sholz and Laschet attempt to form a coalition government and assume the role of chancellor, the challenge facing them is two-fold. For starters, there is the question of how to best manage the issues that matter to German voters, the most important of which is climate change. For an industrial economy like Germany, the task of shifting to green energy is a notable one, and during her time in government Merkel struggled with this same issue, even as she won praise internationally for her work in pushing for sustainable development. After devastating floods hit Germany in July, Merkel visited victims and announced: “We stand by your side, and we will put everything in order, step by step” with regard to climate infrastructure. Now it is up to her successor to see that promise through.
Secondly, they face the difficult challenge of filling the shoes Merkel left behind as the most powerful leader in Europe and one of the most influential world figures. During the Trump administration, some dubbed Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” in part as a dig at the isolationist attitude that gripped Washington. But the title is fitting. Merkel weathered the rise of populism in Europe and the United States and stood firmly against Russian President Vladamir Putin. The question for Sholz and Laschet is whether they can command the same kind of respect and influence as the outgoing chancellor.
Germany stands today as the largest economy in Europe and a country that has managed the global COVID-19 pandemic comparatively well. Germany’s mortality rate per 100,000 people is among the lowest in Europe and German hospitals never experienced the overcrowding that was seen in the United States; patients from overwhelmed healthcare systems in Italy and Spain were brought to Germany for treatment.
Much of this success can be attributed to Merkel in her last term, but as she bows out and leaves the door open for newcomers, the future of Germany is, for the first time in years, out of her hands. Scholz believes he has been delivered a mandate by voters, and as he aims to take the Bundestag left for the first time in two decades, his coalition-building experience will be essential. For Laschet and the CDU, the narrow victory secured by the SPD is proof enough that German voters rejected an outright liberal government and still want conservative voices in Berlin.
For the next few months, all eyes will be on the Greens and the Free Democrats as they prepare to act as kingmakers and determine who will step into Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shoes. Even when either Sholz or Laschet eventually forms their government and assumes office, Germany will still find itself in uncharted territory as new leadership takes on the monumental task of living up to Merkel’s legacy.