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[M]: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL; Reto Klar / FUNKE Foto Services; Julia Steinigeweg / DER SPIEGEL; Hermann Bredehorst / Polaris / laif

A Fragmented Party Landscape German Voters Punish Merkel's Party in an Election Without a Clear Victor

As expected, German voters declined to choose a clear victor on Sunday, setting the stage for a difficult search for a governing coalition. Angela Merkel's CDU suffered an abysmal result while the Social Democrats have new life. Ultimately, though, two other parties will play kingmaker.

There was a clear victor in Germany’s general election on Sunday. His name is Olaf Scholz. He has somehow managed to revive his almost lifeless Social Democratic Party (SPD) within just a few months, such that it was able to attract more votes than any other party. He managed to maximize his chances to the point that he could be moving into the Chancellery in a few weeks. He has led the way in his party’s resurrection. Some in the SPD are calling it a miracle.

It was hardly a surprise, then, that Scholz laid claim to the Chancellery on Sunday evening. "The citizens of this country want change. They want the next chancellor to be the candidate from the SPD,” Scholz said when he finally appeared before his supporters at SPD headquarters in Berlin an hour after the polls closed.

But there is another candidate who also sees himself as victor: Armin Laschet from outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). While his party received its lowest share of the vote ever in postwar Germany, Laschet at least managed to stop his party’s rapid plummet in the final days before the election. He helped ensure that the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) (collectively known as the Union) didn’t slide all the way to 20 percent, leaving open the possibility that he, too, might be able to cobble together a coalition with himself in the Chancellery.

Indeed, Laschet also claimed the right on Sunday evening to build Germany’s next governing coalition. "A vote for the Union is a vote against a federal government under leftist leadership. And that is why we will do all we can to build a government under Union leadership,” Laschet said when he appeared before his followers on Sunday evening.

The End of the Big-Tent Era

The upshot, though, is that Germany’s election on Sunday essentially produced the political stalemate that pre-election polls had predicted would be the likely outcome. There is no clear election victor. Nobody has a clear mandate to build the next coalition government. But there were also surprises on Sunday. The Left Party had its worst result in many years, and the far-right Alternative for Germany received far few votes than it did in 2017.

One of the clear messages from Sunday’s election was that Germany is facing what will likely be several weeks of laborious negotiations during which a variety of different coalitions will be probed.

Another: The era of strong, big-tent parties is over – as is the era of stable, two-party coalitions. Most of the future governing coalitions will likely include three parties, making the search for compromise even more difficult than it has been in the past.

Which means that Germany’s democracy is in for a difficult, strenuous few weeks as the parties wrangle for power. Who might emerge victorious?

As the first exit polls hit the nation’s television screens on Sunday evening just after 6 p.m., there wasn’t an empty seat in the atrium of SPD headquarters in Berlin. Even former staffers were unable to squeeze in. High up in the glass staircase, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas looked on at the celebrations below. It was the first time in a very, very long time that the mood inside SPD headquarters had been so exultant.

“An outstanding success for us – a disaster for the Union. It is a clear governing mandate for the SPD and for Scholz.”

Ralf Stegner, SPD

In the crowd below, SPD campaign manager Lars Klingbeil embraced the party’s advertising guru Raphael Brinkert. "Yes!” shouted Brinkert, who had been certain of SPD victory even in the afternoon before the first prognoses were available. "A year ago, I told the SPD leadership that I thought we would win. Olaf’s response at the time: 'Me too.’”

"I’m getting congratulatory messages from friends and acquaintances. That’s never happened before,” exulted one long-time SPD staff member. And even Ralf Stegner, the cantankerous member of the party’s left wing, was jubilant. "An outstanding success for us – a disaster for the Union. It is a clear governing mandate for the SPD and for Scholz.”

The initial prognoses released at 6 p.m. demonstrated the SPD’s success, but also made it clear just how close the outcome was. And when the candidate finally did appear to receive the cheers of his supporters, he was anything but euphoric. It’s simply not in his DNA. Scholz obediently thanked the voters and extended his gratitude to the party soldiers who made it possible, and then said: "We will now wait for the official results and get to work.” The only thing to indicate that the evening was somehow special in any way was the fact that his wife, Britta Ernst, joined him on stage.

The mood at CDU headquarters, meanwhile, was a completely different one. The results on Sunday for the Union, and especially for the CDU, were nothing less than a disaster of historical proportions. Never before in Germany’s postwar history had the CDU and CSU seen a cumulative result (significantly) below 30 percent. It is comparable to the SPD’s resounding defeat in 2009, when the party plunged from 34 percent in the prior election to a result of just 23 percent. And that election marked the beginning of a long period in the electoral wilderness for the SPD.

And the person primarily responsible for the miserable Union showing? Armin Laschet.

According to standard party logic, his tenure at the top of the CDU should have come to an end on Sunday evening. But instead, Laschet’s initial comments indicated that he still sees a path to the Chancellery for himself and his party – and initially, no senior member of his party contradicted him. Indeed, he was celebrated when he appeared on stage, with most of those present already on their second or third beer. It was an unsettling atmosphere, as if CDU headquarters was located in a different galaxy than the rest of the country.

The election night party at SPD headquarters

The election night party at SPD headquarters

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

But Laschet’s appearance and the cheering weren’t just the product of political self-affirmation. It was informed by a clear, unyielding calculation.

Laschet on Thin Ice?

As early as 5 p.m., an hour before the first prognoses were to be broadcast on public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, CDU leaders gathered together. The results of the exit polls conducted by various polling institutes were already being circulated among the different parties and it was clear that the Union was in for a poor showing.

Would Laschet have to shoulder the consequences for his share of the responsibility for such an historically bad result? It was really impossible to know so early in the evening, and there was too much room for the numbers to change. Indeed, it wasn’t even yet clear whether the Union had actually lost to the SPD. The late afternoon meeting was too early to begin cutting Laschet down to size.

As is so often the case in politics, Sunday evening was, for Germany’s conservatives, an exercise in managing expectations. It all depends on how you look at the results. In Laschet’s camp, the disaster wasn’t even seen as such. After all, according to their argument, the party had outperformed expectations if you go by the weeks of public opinion polling that had preceded the vote. It was an attempt to reframe the election night collapse as a successful, late campaign recovery. But would it work?

One thing the tight results have done is make it extremely difficult for those waiting in the CDU wings to take the reins once the leader stumbled. For those who had hoped the election would provide the impetus for a vast reshuffling of personnel.

Had the results been a bit clearer, either Friedrich Merz or Norbert Röttgen – both of whom had hoped to become the head of the party in spring – could have grabbed the microphone immediately after the polls closed. They could have claimed that such a disastrous result would never have happened had they been the candidate.

"We want to continue leading the government.”

Jens Spahn, CDU

Or Jens Spahn, the health minister with ambitions of his own. Toward the end of the campaign, he appeared to distance himself from Laschet, apparently presuming that the CDU would fare poorly on election night. But instead of leaping into the limelight, he, too, was forced to take a wait-and-see approach. In a statement to DER SPIEGEL, he said: "Armin Laschet put up a tenacious fight in recent weeks. We are essentially tied with the SPD, which many had no longer thought possible. We want to continue leading the government.”

The CDU’s primary focus is holding onto power. For as long as there is even a tiny chance it might be able to cling to the Chancellery, the party will continue to back Laschet. Even the CSU, which had increasingly vented its frustration with Laschet’s campaign in the days before the election, is now striking a more conciliatory tone. Before Sunday, the party had been saying that if the Union ended up in second place, there is no way it could hold onto the Chancellery. But now, such talk has essentially evaporated. In light of the tight results, conservatives have closed ranks. At least for now.

Another way of reading the election results is: German voters are no longer interested in having a single party steer the country. Instead, they have opted for a challenging plurality.

It almost seems as if voters don’t want any of the parties to be able to govern as they would like. As if they want all of the leaders of the various parties to keep a close eye on each other so that nobody rushes out ahead. The perfect form of checks and balances.

But the vote has also expressed a significant level of distrust. Neither Laschet, nor Scholz, nor the Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock have received enough votes to be able to claim that they have been granted the trust of the electorate. Germany has distanced itself from its political leaders, to a certain extent – at least from those that the parties chose as their leading candidates in this campaign.

And the result also means that voters will have to be patient. It will take time for a coalition to be hammered out, given the rather large number of different possibilities. And until then, the future direction of the country will also remain unclear.

Still, it can be said that true power has been delivered into the hands of the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). They are the kingmakers of the new government, however it might look, since both are elements of the two possible coalitions that are considered to be most likely: a grouping of the Union, Greens and FDP or the trio of the SPD, Greens and FDP. The first is known in German political parlance as the "Jamaica Coalition,” since the colors associated with the political parties involved – black, green and yellow – are the colors of the Jamaican flag. The second is known as the "stoplight coalition” for the same reason.

A third option is also possible: Yet another grand coalition pairing the Union with the SPD. Germany, though, has been governed by a grand coalition for the last eight years, and it hasn’t always been pretty. Both the SPD and the Union made it clear during the campaign that they had no desire to revisit such a pairing, particularly not as junior partner.

What, then, lies in Germany’s future? A conservative-liberal government with a tinge of green? Or an SPD-Green coalition with a liberal, FDP corrective?

The Green Approach Will Be Decisive

FDP head Christian Lindner made it clear early on in the campaign that he preferred an alliance with the Union under a potential Chancellor Laschet. The two are friends and work well together. Furthermore, the two parties have been matched up for the last four years in a governing coalition in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Laschet is governor. Their coalition negotiations following state elections in the state were relatively free of friction. The FDP and Union also match up well when it comes to policy: both parties want to avoid tax hikes and they both have a climate strategy that relies heavily on technological improvements combined with cutting red tape for the construction of wind or solar farms.

The stance of the Green Party will be decisive. Whereas Annalena Baerbock recently made it clear that she sees the greatest policy overlap with the SPD, her party co-chair, Robert Habeck, has been more at pains to keep his options open. When he recently appeared on a primetime talk show with Lindner, their debate was notable for its civility and cordiality. At the same time, it became clear just how different are their ideas when it comes to taxes, debt and investment. Furthermore, as is hardly a secret any longer, both Habeck and Linder are interested in the position of finance minister.

Even if the Greens would have a difficult position in a coalition with the Union and FDP, it could prove advantageous. In the negotiations, they could sell any compromises at a high price – by demanding control of as many ministries as possible, for example, such as the Climate Protection Ministry, the creation of which they are demanding.

At the same time, there is no reason why the professed affinities between the FDP and the Union should be lasting. Given their losses in this election, the Union has been weakened significantly, and the CSU, after the cease-fire forced upon them by the campaign, will soon lose their reluctance to fire off barbs directed at the CDU. Plus, who wants to be part of a coalition with a chancellor whose campaign just produced the poorest results for the Union in their postwar history?

Indeed, some in the FDP have already begun wondering if Laschet even has enough support within the Union to negotiate and implement a coalition agreement. During the campaign, Lindner continually portrayed the Social Democrats as the weakest link, but Scholz’s success may have flipped the script, potentially giving him quite a bit more leeway with his party in the preliminary stages of the search for a coalition.

That, in fact, is precisely what the SPD is counting on. Even before the election, SPD strategists noted that particular attention should be paid on election night to the parties whose support increased – those parties to which more voters were gravitating. The reference, clearly, was to the SPD, the FDP and the Greens.

All Eyes on the FDP

It ultimately doesn’t matter, SPD strategists said, which party emerges as the strongest. The most important factor is momentum. As an example, they chose the 2001 city-state elections in Hamburg. Back then, the SPD emerged with the most votes, fully 10 percentage points ahead of the CDU. But the conservatives where nevertheless able to assemble a coalition together with the FDP and the right-wing populist Roland Schill, making Ole von Beust of the CDU the governor. He proved able to take advantage of an unfortunate situation.

The significant overlap between the SPD and the Greens were on full display late in the campaign at the last televised debate between the three top candidates: a greater redistribution of wealth, fairer wages and more attention to protecting the climate. Were they to form a collation with the FDP, the latter would clearly be the fly in the ointment. With their commitment to sinking taxes, or at least doing anything in their power to prevent them from rising, the party appears to be insurmountably incompatible with the SPD-Green tandem. Members of the SPD, however, insist that finding a compromise would not require anything in the way of black magic. The wealth tax, for example – which both the SPD and Greens are calling for – could be sacrificed in the negotiations. After all, such a tax would require approval by the Bundesrat, Germany’s second chamber of parliament representing the states. And it is considered unlikely that the Bundesrat would give such a tax the thumbs up. As such, it could be acceptable to the SPD to bury the idea during coalition negotiations.

Whether such maneuvers would be enough to soften up FDP head Lindner is questionable. He could ultimately be simply too skeptical of left-leaning SPD leaders like co-chair Saskia Esken and deputy head Kevin Kühnert, concerned that they would make programmatic demands that are not compatible with FDP positions.

“Both parties – though from different starting points – fought against the status quo of the grand coalition.”

Christian Lindner, head of the FDP

Either way, it is clear that Linder is eager to avoid the errors made back in 2017, when the FDP, the Greens and the Union tried but ultimately failed to form a coalition after federal elections that year. The collapse of those talks was largely blamed on the FDP, and Linder took a beating in the press. He is intent on being more prepared this time around and would like to launch talks with the Greens sooner rather than later. Even if they were seen as opponents during the campaign, Lindner now sees the Greens more as potential partners and allies and is eager to find areas of agreement and points on which compromise might be possible.

The growth in support for the Greens, Lindner said on Sunday evening, is remarkable, adding that the two parties are united in the fact that they both ran an independent campaign, rather than aiming for a particular coalition from the get-go. "Both parties – though from different starting points – fought against the status quo of the grand coalition.”

Should it ultimately come down to coalition negotiations between the Union, the FDP and the Greens, says Lindner, it will be important "to prevent the Greens from feeling left out. That is the lesson from 2017.” It sounds like the beginnings of a new relationship of convenience. The question is who the new allies will choose as their king.

The Rise of Scholz

Olaf Scholz has a remarkable journey behind him, one that began in defeat. He had wanted to become the new chair of the SPD, but in November 2019, members instead opted to install Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans as co-chairs. Scholz was deeply disappointed, briefly regrouped and then set his sights on the next, and more important goal: that of becoming his party’s candidate for chancellor, and winning the election.

It helped that the SPD was unable to offer up a serious challenger for the role, and Scholz was chosen essentially by default to be the candidate in August 2020. It was an important moment in finally bringing a bit of calm to a party that had been beset by a series of crises – personnel and otherwise – for years. The SPD united behind him.

That allowed him to focus on the real task of convincing voters of his suitability. And it looked for quite some time as though he would be unable to do so. At the beginning of this year, the SPD was only polling at 15 percent, but the candidate was unconcerned. Scholz always insisted that the campaign was "a marathon,” and would only be decided at the very end. He and his team felt the turnaround would come in August at the latest, and they assumed that many people would want the successor to Merkel to be someone a lot like her: experienced, calm and professional. Scholz shamelessly played that card , even emulating Merkel’s famous hand gesture, the "Raute.”

Meanwhile, the competition made plenty of blunders on the campaign trail, but Scholz did not. He may not have been super charismatic, but he was in control during his campaign events and television appearances. Similar to Merkel, he followed a strategy of not demanding the spotlight and not stirring up too many emotions. He focused on making everyone feel good about him and avoiding mistakes.

It worked. Scholz largely avoided undue attention, neither positive nor – more importantly – negative.

On three separate occasions during his campaign, financial scandals cropped up to which either he or his people were linked. But nothing stuck. The SPD continued climbing up the polls until they finally reached first place in late August, just as he had predicted. And they remained at the top until the end.

It is the victory of a career politician, a professional in the stormy waters of Berlin. That, too, came as something of a surprise after all the talk of the national yearning for a different style of politics. But the case of Donald Trump showed that a different kind of politics isn’t necessarily better. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic made it clear to the voters that catastrophe can strike at any moment. Experience and reliability in the Chancellery is a comfort. That provided a boost to the Scholz campaign.

CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet at CDU headquarters on Sunday evening

CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet at CDU headquarters on Sunday evening

Foto: Gordon Welters / DER SPIEGEL

Waiting It Out

Armin Laschet, for his part, also benefited from a fundamental political lesson similar to the one learned by Scholz: Sometimes, it’s best to just wait your turn. In 1998, he lost his seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, after just a single term, returning to North Rhine-Westphalia as a minister in the state’s government. His bid to become head of the CDU’s state chapter failed, but ultimately claimed the position later. In the 2017 race to become governor of the state, he appeared initially to be hopelessly outclassed by the incumbent, Hannelore Kraft of the SPD, but won anyway.

Laschet’s supporters say that is his recipe for success. His rivals say he is merely lucky.

Ultimately, though, Laschet’s narrative that everything will turn out alright in the end proved to be a bit too facile for the pretension of leading Europe’s largest industrial power. Laschet staked his fortune on that narrative for far too long, making it appear at times as though it was the only plank in his platform. Now, though, it really could be his greatest strength. The next several weeks are likely to see an extended tug-o’-war for political power, and not even Laschet’s most bitter opponents would deny that his greatest asset will be needed: simply sticking around.

Laschet’s team like to point to an additional strength of his. He is, they have insisted over and over, a master at reconciliation and a bridgebuilder. Those talents were largely kept under wraps during the campaign, but on Sunday night, he said the time had come for "a huge effort from all democrats.” What he meant: If anyone can bring together the Union, the FDP and the Greens, it is me. If only it would be so easy.

The scenarios that unfolded on Sunday night reveal the true dimensions of this election: Germany is entering into uncharted territory. What used to be a two- or three-party system has morphed into a six- or even seven-party system. The parties gathered in the democratic center continue to converge in terms of their share of the vote, although clear differences still exist. After a long period of infirmity, the era of big-tent political parties is drawing to a close. Government coalitions with at least three partners will become the new normal.

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel of the Berlin Social Science Center describes it as the "Europeanization” of the political system in Germany, noting that other European countries saw their party landscapes fragment years ago. "What we are experiencing is a catch-up process,” Merkel says.

"In the future, we will have to live with a much more fragmented party system,” agrees Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist and professor at Berlin’s Free University. He also rules out the possibility of the mainstream parties returning to their former glory. "Social conditions have changed too much for that.” The big-tent parties were able to unite different groups under one roof – office workers and company bosses, Catholics and atheists. Much of the political compromising necessary took place within the parties. Such compromise becomes more difficult, Niedermeyer says, in a political landscape involving a greater number of political parties. "If we have many small- or medium-sized parties that are increasingly focused only a certain segment of society, the search for compromise shifts to competition between the parties.”

From the point of view of democratic theory, the prospect of more parties and more coalition possibilities is exciting, and perhaps even progress when it comes to ensuring political balance and preventing a single party from growing too powerful.

"I suspect that coalition agreements will become exorbitantly longer, with lots of bullet points."

Ursula Münch, political scientist

In practical terms, though, it means that protracted negotiations to form government coalitions will become the norm, which could come that governments will become less stable. Ursula Münch, a political scientist and the director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Germany, fears that negotiating coalition governments will become more time consuming and complex, not least because the coalition leaders will have to seek the backing of their party members and, in some cases, will face votes on issues within their party. "I suspect that coalition agreements will become exorbitantly longer, with lots of bullet points,” says Münch.

Politics in Germany, in other words, risks becoming overly bureaucratic, and this comes at a time when quick and courageous decisions are needed.

Political scientist Merkel sees this as a "mini-EU effect.” The compromises that have to be forged in these coalitions may not be adequate for handling major problems. "The amount of time this consumes runs counter to the acceleration of time in the business world, in society and, perhaps, in the accumulation of problems,” Merkel says. It’s a system that may not quite fit the modern demands of politics.

The process of fragmentation didn’t just begin on Sunday – it has been going on for years. The current grand coalition government, which has been in place since 2017, was nobody’s favored model, and only came to pass after Merkel’s preferred coalition with the Greens and FDP proved unworkable.

But now even the Union – which has been a dominant player on Germany’s political scene since 1949 – has seen its strength crumble with astonishing speed. Never before have the conservatives received less than 31 percent of the vote. Indeed, in the previous 19 federal elections held since World War II, the union won more than 40 percent of the vote – and often significantly more – on 13 occasions.

Parties Are Fading Further into the Background

Now, though, the CDU has sunk to the same level as the – slightly recovered – SPD, marking a double erosion: That of the Union itself, which is no longer the self-declared dominant party, but merely one competitor among many, and that of the big-tent parties overall.

Indeed, the SPD’s great comeback in this election isn’t really a comeback at all, but the product of the performance of its chancellor candidate. Germany is shifting to the kind of personality-based elections seen in many other countries, a trend that was reinforced during the Merkel era. The parties are fading into the background and the candidates themselves are being pushed to the fore. Because the CDU fielded a weak candidate – indeed, he didn’t even manage to fold his own voting ballot correctly on election day – the party also lost badly.

Now that Merkel is gone, the CDU and CSU are beginning to see how many voters, and above all women voters, the chancellor ultimately attracted, regardless of how hated she might have been by some. Markus Söder has grasped this trend, and has sought to put himself squarely in the spotlight. An even more obvious example is Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Austria, where he took over a conservative party that had been languishing badly and turned it into a stage for himself and his one-man show.

Political scientist Münch believes that "strong leader personalities” can also help to restore the strength of the respective parties in Germany. There have already been examples of this in the German states. In Rhineland-Palatinate and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, strong female governors Malu Dreyer and Manuela Schwesig delivered dream results for the SPD in state elections on Sunday. And in Baden-Württemberg, Governor Winfried Kretschmann has established the Green Party as the equivalent of a big-tent party, at least in the state.

Green Party co-chairs Annalena Baerbock, who was also the party's candidate for chancellor, and Robert Habeck on Sunday evening

Green Party co-chairs Annalena Baerbock, who was also the party's candidate for chancellor, and Robert Habeck on Sunday evening

Foto: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

But such personalization also harbors a danger: If fewer policies eminate from within the parties and their committees and branches, then an important mechanism would be lost – the feedback loop with society. Because there are people within the parties who also engage with other people at sports clubs or at work – both talking to them and listening. If policies no longer originate there, but rather at the top, in the Chancellery, with one person and his or her trusted team, then that bond will disappear over time. Politics then becomes estranged, and the alienation between politics and society could grow even deeper.

This autumn will provide a preview of what the shifting party landscape might mean. In addition, the Bundestag will have even more seats than ever before, the result of a peculiarity of German electoral law. Parliament will grow to 735 eats, up from 709 in the 2017 election and significantly more than the originally envisioned 598 seats.

“Many SPD members from the left wing of the party were dissatisfied with Helmut Schmidt – and voted for him anyway.”

Paul Nolte, historian

For historian Paul Nolte, a professor at Berlin’s Free University, these developments also have some advantages. "Society has become pluralized and individualized – and people want to see that reflected much more accurately in their political preferences,” he says.

Nolte likes to give the example of the SPD at the beginning of the 1980s. "Many SPD members from the left wing of the party were dissatisfied with Helmut Schmidt – and voted for him anyway,” he says. "Now you have the Left Party offering itself as an alternative.”

Nolte has faith in the "consensus approach to politics” in the capital. He notes that, in recent years, the Greens have frequently voted along with Merkel’s grand coalition government, for example on foreign policy issues. For Nolte, the fact that the opposition party is engaged with the federal government through its membership in coalition governments in 10 states is a "taste of the constellation that is now coming.”

He says they will work together pragmatically on the big issues – climate protection, digitalization and pensions. No longer will coalitions see themselves as epoch-defining alliances, like when Willy Brandt formed a coalition with the FDP to push through his Ostpolitik policies of detente with the Eastern Bloc. Or the coalition government between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats and Joschka Fischer of the Greens in 1998, a team, says Nolte, that "was more a matter of identity than of politics.”

Olaf Scholz is a telling example. He is now the most powerful person in his party, but he will not be seeking to become the chair of his party – as he announced during the campaign. Why should he? If Scholz becomes chancellor, the center of power in the party will shift toward the Chancellery, anyway. He would have all the control he needed. Anyone wanting a greater profile in the government or in the party would have to go through him.

A Party at Peace?

And that might ensure party discipline within the SPD, at least at first. With a little luck, Scholz will be able to set the tone in the party in the first few months. Only then will it become clear whether the different wings within the party, notorious for their quarreling, will have enjoyed only a temporary truce or whether they will succeed in permanently uniting the Social Democrats.

The party left, anchored around former youth wing leader Kevin Kühnert, has also been strengthened. He is entering the Bundestag with a large group from the youth wing, known as Jusos. Kühnert has a keen sense of power. Will he now seek to claim his reward for keeping largely quiet on the campaign trail? And if he does, what might he demand?

A coalition featuring the SPD, the Greens and the far-left Left Party that Kühnert preferred is no longer possible based on Sunday’s election results. For him and his followers, the main thing will be trying to keep Scholz from yielding too much to the business-friendly FDP. Kühnert already flexed his political muscles in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper three days before the election. He called for "comprehensive member participation around the question of coalition building,” because the SPD is a "participatory party.”

It was a clear signal that the left will not allow the more conservative wing of the party to do whatever it wants. In tax policy, in particular, the pain threshold is quickly reached for Kühnert and his supporters. That won’t make coalition negotiations with the FDP any easier for Scholz.

FDP head Christian Lindner (right) will likely be part of the new government.

FDP head Christian Lindner (right) will likely be part of the new government.

Foto: Sebastian Kahnert / dpa

The party left will also want to have a say in key political appointments. If Scholz wants to become chancellor, then he needs someone to watch his back. The new party group in parliament will be younger, more left-wing and less experienced. "We need a party group leader like Peter Struck,” says one member of parliament from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "A strong leader.”

But who could that be? Currently, the names of three men from Lower-Saxony are in play. Current Labor Minister Hubertus Heil. He could be trusted to make sure things run smoothly. He already served as the party’s general secretary twice and is considered a loyal soldier for the SPD. For Heil, the chair of the parliamentary group would certainly be more attractive than serving once again as a government minister in a Scholz cabinet.

Heil’s problem is the party left surrounding Kühnert. They would like to see Matthias Miersch, the current head of the party’s left wing in parliament, become the main parliamentary group leader. The politician from Hannover is respected for his work on the environment, but many in the party consider him to be too timid and cautious.

Then there’s Lars Klingbeil. The current SPD general secretary ran a successful campaign and is one of this election’s winners. He can work well with both sides – with the younger party members in Kühnert’s circle and with the Scholz camp. And he has proven that he can keep party leader Saskia Esken – who can be difficult to control – in check.

Left Party leaders Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch on a disappointing election night

Left Party leaders Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch on a disappointing election night

Foto: Dennis Williamson / DER SPIEGEL

If he doesn’t become the head of the parliamentary group or a minister in the government, he could aspire to become the SPD’s party chair. What is clear is that he can claim some kind of reward for the electoral success that he managed. The question is what will become of the party’s current leadership duo? Esken has already announced her intention to continue in the role. Co-chair Walter-Borjans hasn’t made any public statements yet, but leading SPD members claim he is tired of the job.

Could Esken and Klingbeil lead the party, with Klingbeil confidant Kühnert as its new general secretary? That’s one of the many scenarios being discussed in the party.

All are assuming that Olaf Scholz will prevail and become the next chancellor. That he will be able to get the FDP on board for a coalition goverment. But what if Armin Laschet manages to turn the tables anyway?

Green Dreams in the CDU

Laschet’s people are counting on the FDP, particularly given the policy overlap between the two parties and the personal relationships. Union leaders know perfectly well that most within the FDP would prefer to make Laschet chancellor rather than Olaf Scholz. And the bonds, many hope, could form the foundation for an alliance with the Greens.

Assuming, of course, that the Greens play along. In the final days of the election campaign, Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock was quite open about where she views the Union in the future: in the opposition. Nonetheless, the CDU still believes it can draw the Greens into a coalition government with big steps in climate protection, a few important ministries and possibly selecting a Green Party member as the country’s next president, a largely powerless, but highly symbolic position. Could Germany’s first female president be a member of the Green Party?

Laschet’s strategists are calculating that a coalition with the CDU could be more attractive to the Greens than one with the center-left SPD because their role in a government with the conservatives would be more important. They would be the progressive corrective in a conservative government rather than just the environmental conscience of a leftist SPD government.

The first new step toward a new government will be taken on Tuesday, when the CDU/CSU parliamentary group meets. The question of who it will elect as its chair will be the first difficult question of power following the election.

The right-wing AfD party didn't fare nearly as well as it did four years ago.

The right-wing AfD party didn't fare nearly as well as it did four years ago.

Foto: Martin Divisek / EPA

Regardless of who becomes chancellor, there are huge tasks ahead. In the run-up to this election, many spoke of an "end of an era.” Even if that term seems overly dramatic, there is some truth to it. This was the first federal election held in Germany in this new era in which global warming is no longer just an abstract threat. A central question in the vote was how far the electorate was willing to go to address the challenge.

A Green Disappointment

And the clear answer was: Not that far. The electorate has placed powerful guardians at the Greens’ side on the right and the left, who will make sure that nothing comes of the party’s most daring dreams.

Indeed, the tragedy experienced by the Greens was contained in the first sentence uttered by Baerbock as she addressed her supporters on Sunday evening. "First of all, great work Berlin,” she said. It had been the first time that the Greens had ever named a candidate for chancellor, the first time the Party had had aspirations of winning the Chancellery. And she started her speech with a reference to a city-state where the Greens could possibly still emerge victorious?

To be sure, the Greens performed well on Sunday. It won 15 percent of the vote, a six-percentage-point increase over 2017. Certainly a cause for celebration. But the goalposts have shifted for the Greens. The benchmark is now what could have been. The party was polling close to 30 percent in spring – but on Sunday, they were forced to find satisfaction in winning more votes than the FDP. For a party that wanted to get all the way to the top, Sunday night’s results were a huge disappointment. The Germans, the party learned, are not willing to sacrifice prosperity to save the world.

Sunday, though, marked the beginning of a new era all the same. Germany will move forward without Merkel at the helm. It will move forward to achieve the ambitious climate goals that have already been agreed to. Indeed, it must. The country’s highest court has set the bar high, and if Berlin backs away from those goals, it will no longer be taken seriously as a pacesetter for Europe.

There are also two other upcoming tasks that could also prove to be epochal: The new government must digitize the country, secure the pension and healthcare systems, drive forward the transformation of cities and transport and ensure that equal opportunities are created in schools and at work.

These things all require quick decisions – and are largely incompatible with a process of government coalition building in which parties take weeks to compare their policies before rendering the rosiest possible coalition agreement with as much from each party in it as possible. What is needed is a government that doesn’t waste its time in office arguing over ideological preferences and instead concentrates its work on concrete projects that are needed for the future. The government has spent the past 16 years talking about shortcomings in the country’s wireless communications networks and yet nothing has been done. Germany can’t allow for that the happen again. For 30 years, governments have been preaching about shifting freight to cargo trains, while at the same time allowing more and more heavy goods vehicles to take to the roads. We can no longer afford that kind of political sloppiness. Germany needs to finally have a plan. And it needs to get one quickly.

After an election filled with side issues, what the people want now is action. The crisis surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed at times inept management on the part of the federal and state governments, has severely damaged confidence in how well the political system works.

Even before it has begun to govern, the next government is already facing an almost insurmountable task.

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