Germany election: Olaf Scholz’s social democrats come out on top but smaller parties hold the key to government

Election night in Germany proved inconclusive. There were some clear winners and losers, but not such that we can be sure of the shape of the next German government.

The social democratic SPD came out on top, crowning a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes. In 2017, it bagged the worst result in its history, in 2019 the European elections were even worse, it was riven with internal division. Now the party looks united and hungry for power, with Olaf Scholz laying claim to the chancellorship (and clearly favoured for the role in opinion polls).

The Greens were also winners, gaining ground, but will also be thinking about what might have been. Prior to COVID, they looked to be in a battle with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) for first place but now find themselves a distant third. Party figures on election night were honest that results had not met their expectations.

Perhaps the broadest smile of the night was that of liberal (FDP) leader Christian Lindner. His party was up, and appeared to have been forgiven for walking out of coalition talks in 2017 – a move most Germans considered rather irresponsible at the time. Lindner’s satisfaction came not just out of gains of votes and seats, but rather the return to the FDP’s traditional role of kingmaker. He and his team will play a key role in choosing which of the larger parties would govern Germany.

The biggest loser was the CDU/CSU under Armin Laschet. Perhaps there was slight relief that the party seemed to pick up some support in the final days of the campaign, and the gap with the SPD was lower than polls had predicted. But the result was widely acknowledged to be a disaster, and Laschet’s suggestions on election night that the party had a mandate to lead the government were slapped down by other party figures.

Two other losers were the Left Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The Left Party came perilously close to losing its Bundestag representation. It failed to meet the 5% threshold for representation, but did get its quota of 4.9% of MPs as it won three seats directly. The party is set for a period of soul-searching and possible division.

The performance of the AfD was more nuanced: the party lost ground nationally, but performed strongly in eastern Germany (winning 19.2% compared to 8.1% in the west), and even coming first in two eastern states. The AfD will not get anywhere near government, but seems to have established itself as part of the political landscape.

Who will form a government?

By far the two most likely options for a coalition are a “traffic light” arrangement between the SPD, Greens and FDP, and a “Jamaica” coalition of CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP. The Greens have made it clear they lean towards the former.

Messages from the FDP have been mixed. In terms of policy, an alliance with the CDU/CSU is more easily formed, but they know that rehabilitating the CDU/CSU, with or without Laschet, after such a bruising defeat, would be difficult.

An SPD/Green/Left Party coalition would not have a majority, so that is no longer a serious option for Scholz. That leaves Lindner with significantly more leverage than he might have expected as a potential coalition partner.

Unusually, Lindner declared he would seek exploratory talks with the Greens, to understand common ground and, by implication, to form a view on whether a traffic light or Jamaica alliance should be favoured, and under what terms. Lindner’s price will probably be control of the federal finance ministry, and he appeared to offer the Greens the opportunity to lead on climate and the environment.

While the numbers stack up for an SPD-CDU/CSU alliance, there is little appetite in either party for such an arrangement. Becoming junior partner would be hard for the CDU/CSU to stomach, and SPD members are heartily fed up with “grand coalitions”.

In the coming weeks, exploratory talks will be held. In this period, the Greens and FDP will be keen to drive a very hard bargain with, most likely, the SPD.

Once this phase has concluded, formal coalition negotiations begin. The morning after the election, Scholz emphasised his desire to see a new government in place by Christmas.

The manoeuvres will make for an exciting spectacle. It will be challenging to decode whether party statements are sincere, or part of elaborate games of brinksmanship. Finding the truth in Lindner’s cheerful expressions will be the hardest task of all.

Only when coalition talks start will we have a clear sense of the way forward, and even then agreement is not assured. The final paradox of Angela Merkel’s term of office, successful for the CDU and stable for Germany, is that as she leaves the stage the CDU is in disarray and the future government so uncertain.

Ed Turner receives funding from the German Academic Exchange Service and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.