Just days after Canadians took to the polls, Germans, too, elected a new parliament. Having lead Germany for sixteen years, Angela Merkel was not on the ballot again: the end of an era in German politics and the arrival of something new.
The first signs of spring also brought the first indications that this campaign season would be different. With record approval ratings, Germany’s Greens nominated Annalena Baerbock, and entered the race for chancellor for the first time. Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), struggled to agree on a candidate: disputes over the party’s programmatic direction coincided with top-level personnel debates. Although Armin Laschet could eventually convince his party to support him, he failed to connect with the broader electorate. The Greens, too, suffered several setbacks throughout the summer.
Thanks to his competition’s weaknesses Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD) emerged as the winner of Germany’s first-ever three-way race. The SPD had put forward Scholz as their chancellor candidate much earlier than the other two parties and successfully prevented internal differences to result in yet another public mud-slinging contest which had cost the SPD much support in recent years. The CDU, in turn, received their worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. The Greens realized their best results yet, coming in third after SPD and CDU with just below 15 percent of votes – but far off from their spring heights when polling at 28 percent.
Post-election opinion polls indicated a growing desire for change among Germans. While the Greens’ plans for Germany’s green transformation seem to have gone too far for many – although not far enough according to researchers to reach Germany’s carbon emission reduction target for 2030 – Armin Laschet’s CDU failed to make a convincing case for why the party that had led the country for the past sixteen years would be the right one to now lead its modernization. Olaf Scholz won by adopting Merkel’s moderating approach and even her signature rhombus hand gesture for a photo shooting with a German magazine to signal continuity in style and combined it with a programme of moderate change.
One can only guess what such a programme will look like on the international stage: foreign policy was largely absent from the campaign. Under Merkel, the chancellery took charge of most high-level global portfolios. From Russia to China, to the European Union, Merkel called the shots, often reducing foreign policy to little more than foreign trade policy. It could be similar with Scholz as chancellor. Yet, because his party will only hold one-quarter of seats in the Bundestag, the SPD’s coalition partners will have considerable influence over the new government’s programme and its implementation over the next four years.
Most observes expect Scholz to form a so-called traffic-light coalition: red for Scholz’s own SPD, yellow for the liberal FDP, and green for the Greens. In recent years, it was the Greens and FDP who were among the quickest to grasp that, in the words of German diplomat Thomas Bagger, “the assumption of gradual convergence as it had dominated the analysis of international politics in Germany after 1989 […] was now in clear contradiction to the world emerging before our eyes.” Here they will clash with some in the SPD who still hold on to the convergence myth, just as many ordinary Germans do.
Adjusting to this new reality is not going to be easy. Merkel kept geopolitics at an arm’s length throughout her tenure; nothing really followed from her epiphany in 2017 that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent.” But Europeans expect more from Berlin. The next government will need to make a greater effort to halt and reverse democratic deconsolidation within the EU and at the same time build up international democratic solidarity with targets of autocratic coercion. It will also need to lead on developing strategies and capabilities to resist coercion by systemic rivals and prevent Europe’s geopolitical marginalization. A more realistic assessment of the strategic context Germany finds itself in thirty years after “the end of history” will be the first step the new government should take on foreign policy.
Check out the most recent report from ECFR on “Beyond Merkelism: What Europeans expect of post-election Germany”