The Search for Merkel’s Successor: The Political Ramifications of Germany’s Historic Election

(Photo: Financial Times)

By Jacob Starr – Regular Contributor

As Chancellor of Germany since 2005, Angela Merkel has not only overseen a long period of relative political stability domestically, but has simultaneously acted as the de-facto leader of the EU on the global stage. Her decision not run for a fifth term in last Sunday’s German federal election could represent the beginning of a new political era for both Germany and Europe. After a tightly contested election, however, the shape of this political future remains in doubt, and will be subject to coalition negations between multiple parties in order for the new government to be formed.

Merkel’s party the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a large centre-right Christian-democratic party, has a long history of governance, being in government for the majority of the post-war period. Nevertheless, despite Merkel’s continuing personal popularity there is appetite within Germany for political change in the post-Merkel era. After a notable political recovery in the polls in recent months, Germany’s other major party, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), sought to be the beneficiary. During the Merkel era, it has been in opposition or more recently, a junior coalition partner in ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU.

Other smaller but nonetheless influential parties include the Greens, who have profited over the prominence of climate crisis issues during the campaign amidst devastating floods in the west of the country in July, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a centrist liberal party. Additionally, the far right AfD have risen to prominence in recently years, largely through their anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric, while Die Linke (The Left) have also achieved moderate electoral success in recent elections.

Regardless, the two realistic candidates to succeed Merkel remain the CDU’s Armin Laschet, current Minister-President of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, who is Merkel’s Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister in the outgoing coalition government. Both will, however, be obliged to pursue a coalition with other parties to form a government, having failed to achieve a majority in the Bundestag.

In line with recent promising polling, the SDP came out as the largest party, winning 206 seats with 25.7% of the vote, an increase of 53 seats from the previous election. Contrasting, the election was a clear defeat for the CDU, only winning 196, down from 246. Meanwhile, the FDP and particularly the Greens, both increased their seats to 92 and 118 respectively, positioning both parties in a strong negotiating position in coalition negotiations. AfD and Die Linke both decreased their seats to 83 and 39, leaving them very unlikely to be involved in any coalition formation, for both political and numerical reasons.

Another ‘grand coalition’ between the SPD and the CDU is, while numerically possible, less likely under the current political landscape. Scholz, with the most obvious mandate to form a coalition government, has demonstrated preference for forming a government with the FDP and the Greens, dubbed a ‘traffic light’ coalition in light of the parties respective colours of red, yellow and green. While this remains the most likely coalition, political differences will complicate the process, partially between the SDP and the more economically liberal FDP.

Furthermore, Laschet, despite rejection at the polls and the resulting discontent growing within his own party, also aims to form a coalition with the FDP and Greens. The leaders of the two smaller parties will discuss with each other prior to negotiations with either the SDP or the CDU. Complicating matters further, arising from ideological differences, the FDP would likely prefer a coalition with the CDU, while the Greens would be more inclined to govern alongside the SDP. Resultingly, coalition negotiations will likely take months to form a new government. As such, Merkel will remain as Chancellor in a caretaker capacity for the time being.

Irrespective, pending the completion of such complex coalition negotiations, Scholz stands as Merkel’s most likely successor. On the right of the SDP, he will aim to position himself as Merkel’s natural successor and emulate her apparent political stability. In essence, political continuity will be targeted, coupled with the incorporation of more centre-left policy. Not only is he presented with the tenuous task of forming a government in the first place, he must also oversee a post-Covid economic recovery, having previously been praised for his role as Finance Minister during the pandemic. Under pressure from German public opinion, the new government will need to ensure that Germany is a world leader in combatting the climate crisis. Scholz will likely be pushed by the Greens to take bolder action on the crisis.

Although, fundamentally, his greatest challenge may well prove to be the matter of flowing a political leader as dominant as Merkel has been in European politics over the last 16 years. The recent election may have introduced a new German political era, but Scholz, Germany and Europe may well remain in the shadow of the outgoing Chancellor for some time. 

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