The Future of Centrism in a Post-Merkel Germany

Anthony Cardinale, Editor

After serving 16 years as Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel’s decision not to run for re-election placed the country in an uncertain position regarding the federal election of 2021. Often viewed as the figurehead of liberal democracy in Europe, Merkel has left an undeniable effect on the political landscape of Germany and the European Union as a whole. Merkel’s position of authority in the European Union and fiscal leadership in the eurozone has made her a largely beloved German figure. However, that is not to say her policies have gone uncontested. Her leniency towards Russia and lack of environmental concern during the construction of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline received heavy backlash from the Green Party, Germany’s political party of environmental sustainability. Additionally, the far-right party, Alternative for Germany, launched a series of racist campaigns against Merkel’s decision to allow over one million Syrian refugees into the country, and consequently saw significant gains in Bundestag representation. While the rest of the European Union generally holds favorable views of Merkel, she remains largely unpopular in Greece following the European debt crisis beginning in 2009. However, most Germans still agree that Merkel’s 16 years as Chancellor have proven to be among the most stable years in modern German history and that her departure leaves a profound absence. [1]

Before one can understand the implications of the federal election results, it is imperative to understand the nature of German elections. Germans cast two separate votes: one vote to elect a local candidate for the Bundestag, the German parliament, and a second to vote for a party. The elected constituencies in the first vote are guaranteed seats in the Bundestag, and the parties allocate the remaining seats following their percent of the second vote. The percentage results of the second vote determine the proportion of party representation in the Bundestag, and it is, therefore, the more important vote in determining the governing coalition of Germany. Additional seats are added to ensure the winning constituencies from the first vote are guaranteed seats while maintaining the proportional makeup of the Bundestag determined by the second vote. As such, the number of parliamentary seats will change accordingly for each new election cycle. If no single party wins a majority, which one rarely does, several parties must form a governing coalition to ensure a majority when legislating. After the formation of a coalition, a Chancellor is elected by the Bundestag. [2]

While no party won a majority, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won the highest percentage with 25.7% of the vote. Their performance was followed closely by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s center-right party with a focus on European integration, limited welfare programs, and social conservatism, with 24.1%. [3] Formerly an opposition party, the SPD is Germany’s center-left party, and it is currently helmed by Merkel’s soon-to-be successor, Olaf Scholz. Scholz is often considered closer to the political center than the base of his party and is largely risk-averse. He is well known by his nickname, Scholz-o-mat, or the Scholz-machine, inspired by his perceived lack of charisma. Consequently, there is not much widespread enthusiasm for Scholz as Merkel’s successor. 

How could the party of Angela Merkel suffer such a defeat immediately after her departure? Many attribute CDU losses to the unpopularity of its candidate for the chancellery, Armin Laschet. In June of 2021, Laschet was caught laughing in the back of a memorial service for victims of flooding, and his campaign was effectively derailed. A series of political blunders by Laschet lost what could have been a decisive victory for the party of Merkel. The success of the SPD in the second vote reflects a reluctance of German citizens to have a CDU-backed coalition that would move to elect Laschet as Chancellor. 

Due to the split results of the second vote, three parties instead of two will be required to form the new German governing coalition for the first time since 1957. Although there are several potential possibilities for the party makeup of the coalition, early talks suggest that the coalition will consist of the SPD, the Green Party, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The primary conflict in forming the coalition will come in merging the Green Party’s liberal climate-based agenda with the FDP’s brand of center-right liberalism. 

On the surface, it would appear that the landscape of German politics is moving further left with the first victory of the center-left party in nearly 20 years. The Green Party’s reentrance to the governing coalition for the second time in their history furthers this sentiment. Still, the nominal change in party leadership conceals a continuity of centrism in German politics. Scholz was primarily popular among Germans due to his similarities to Merkel, despite belonging to the opposition party. Scholz adopted many overt references to Merkel on the campaign trail, including mimicking Merkel’s signature rhombus hand gesture and referencing himself by the female version of Chancellor, Kanzlerin. While previously unpopular among his party, Scholz’ centrist tendencies have positioned him perfectly as Merkel’s true successor. Laschet’s public relations missteps only served to distance himself from the collected, authoritative image of Merkel. In many ways, Merkel’s opposition party saw popular success in styling themselves in her image. [4]

German policy, both domestic and foreign, is likely to remain largely consistent with the precedent set by Merkel in the last 16 years. Moreover, while it is likely that Scholz’s campaign promises of raising the minimum wage to 12 euros and increasing housing production will be passed as progressive domestic reforms, further reform will be largely limited by the nature of the composition of the coalition. [5] The ideological differences between the FDP and the rest of the coalition will likely hinder efforts to pass substantial eurozone reform or dramatic climate action. Despite the change in party composition of the Bundestag and Chancellery, Germans still demonstrate a desire for Merkelism as opposition parties shift towards the center to accommodate.

[1] Matthijs, Matthias. 2021. “Merkel’s Legacy and the Future of Germany.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2021.

[2] Andrews, Sophie, Peter Andringa, Alexis Barnes, Aaron Brezel, Jason Bernert, Lenny Bronner, Mohar Chatterjee, et al. 2021. “The Washington Post.” German Election 2021, 2021.

[3] Clarke, Sean, and Antonio Voce. 2021. “German election 2021: full results and analysis.” The Guardian, 2021.

[4] Schuetze, Christopher F., and Katrin Bennhold. 2021. “Olaf Scholz Is Running as the Next Angela Merkel, and It Seems to Be Working.” The New York Times, 2021.[5] Kundnani, Hans. 2021. “The Merkel Consensus Will Live On.” Foreign Affairs, 2021.

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