What’s the story and why is it important?
Germany goes to the polls on 24 September in national elections that will return a new parliament – the Bundestag – and decide whether Angela Merkel remains chancellor for a fourth consecutive term.
Comfortably re-elected in 2013 and the leader of Europe’s largest economy since 2005, “Mutti” or “mummy” Merkel is seen as the ultimate safe pair of hands at home, and as a uniquely powerful stabilising force on the continent – at a time when world political nerves are jangling.
Boosted by a steady economic recovery and alarming developments abroad, in particular the UK’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election in the US, her popularity has bounced back after dipping during the 2015 migration crisis.
Hopes in Europe are now high that a Merkel victory – her CDU (Christian Democrat Union) party has a double-digit lead in the polls – could, with France’s reformist president, Emmanuel Macron now installed in the Élysée, usher in far-reaching, and necessary, EU reform.
Which parties are standing and how are they faring?
The CDU, with its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CSU), is Germany’s main centre-right party and heads the outgoing coalition government. Led by Merkel, it is popular mostly among older, rural, conservative and Christian voters, and is currently polling at up to 40%.
The Social Democratic party (SPD) is the country’s main centre-left party and the junior partner in the outgoing CDU-led coalition. Strong mainly in industrial western Germany, the party is led by the former European parliament president Martin Schulz, whose return from Brussels sparked an initial surge in support that has now subsided. The party lost a traditional stronghold, North Rhine-Westphalia, in a regional election in May, and is heading for 23-25% of the vote.
Four smaller parties should cross the 5% threshold (though remember, even if they fail they can still end up with seats if they win district contests). Die Linke is a more radical leftwing party formed in 2007. Strongest in the former East Germany, it has never been part of a governing coalition at national level and is currently the largest opposition party. It looks likely to win 9-10%.
The free-enterprise, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) have spent more time in government than any other party, but failed to enter parliament in 2103 for the first time. Now thriving under a new leader, Christian Lindner, they are polling at 8-9%. The Greens still find support in west Germany’s university cities but, on 7-8%, are not the force they were in the early 2000s, when they governed with the SDP.
Finally the nationalist, Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – which welcomed both Brexit and Trump – looks likely to enter the Bundestag for the first time in its four-year history. The anti-immigration, anti-Islam party is now represented in every German state in parliament and, while it has been hit by infighting and seen its support fall from 15% at the height of the refugee crisis, is still polling at 8-9%.
How does the system work (and who elects the chancellor)?
Germany’s recently amended electoral system, combining direct and proportional representation, is fiendishly complicated. Its 61.5 million voters get two votes on a single ballot paper: the first for a local representative, the second for a party.
Roughly half the Bundestag’s seats are guaranteed to go to the 299 representatives of the country’s electoral districts, each chosen by their constituents with their Erststimme, or first vote, in a straight first-past-the-post contest.
The rest are allocated according to the national vote share won by every party that clears a 5% threshold in the second vote, or Zweitstimme – which is also used to determine the overall number of seats each party winds up with: if a party scores 25% of the national vote, it must get 25% of the seats.
Sometimes parties return more Erststimme representatives than they are entitled to, according to the Zweitstimme. So to compensate, the other parties get extra seats – which means the Bundestag, theoretically made up of 598 representatives, could expand to as many as 800 (it currently has 631).
Once a governing coalition has been formed, which can take up to a month, Germany’s president (a largely ceremonial role) nominates the chancellor – usually the leader of the largest party – who is confirmed by parliament in a secret ballot.
What are the big issues and party platforms?
Broadly trusted and respected on the economy and as a world leader, Merkel’s unexpectedly liberal open-door policy towards refugees and migrants, which led to about 900,000 newcomers arriving in 2015, cost her the support of part of her CDU base (though it appealed to some younger voters).
Along with immigration, security is also a theme after a series of terror attacks, including the Berlin Christmas market truck attack that killed 12 people. But with her popularity now restored, Merkel’s campaign is about not rocking the boat.
Her CDU has promised tax cuts and full employment by 2025, while the SPD is focused on wealth distribution and social justice (it also opposes a promised increase in defence spending to the Nato target of 2% of GDP, which the CDU backs).
Die Linke wants tougher market regulation and a higher minimum wage; the FDP is promising tax cuts and a push for greater EU integration; and the AfD is mostly about preserving “traditional” German culture and anti-immigration measures, including immediate deportation for failed asylum-seekers.
What might the government look like?
Given the choice, the CDU’s favoured coalition partner would be the FDP – a return to the “Black-Yellow coalition” that ruled Germany for 16 years under Helmut Kohl. But polls suggest that alliance may fall short of a majority.
An alternative could be a Black-Green coalition – though that, too, looks unlikely to get to 50%, and has proved shortlived when tried at state level. That could clear the way for a Black-Yellow-Green (known as “Jamaica”) coalition of the CDU, FDP and Greens, which has worked at municipal and state level but would demand huge concessions from the Greens nationally.
If the CDU fares much worse than expected and the SPD much better, possible centre-left coalitions include Red-Red-Green (SPD, Die Linke and the Greens – the alliance now governing Berlin), or a Red-Yellow-Green “traffic light” alliance of SPD, FDP and Greens. Both are considered difficult given the parties’ differences.
For obvious political reasons, both the CDU and SPD would much prefer to govern in coalition with one or more smaller parties. Germany’s voters, however, may well mandate another “grand coalition” uniting the country’s two biggest parties in what amounts to a marriage of necessity.
All other parties have so far ruled out working with AfD.