The election in Germany held on 26 September 2021, and the outcome of the election was awaited with anticipation in Europe. This was primarily for two reasons – first, was the retirement of Chancellor Angela Merkel after being in office for 16 years, and second, the expectation of policy orientation of the new government. The German voters delivered a fragmented political landscape, making coalition-building necessary yet difficult. The paper looks at the key takeaways from the elections and also analyses the Indo-German relations.
German Elections – Key Takeaways
The German elections were unprecedented for two reasons – first, it was the first time in the history of post-war Germany, that incumbent Chancellor was not running for re-election and second, prospective Chancellors were fielded by three parties - Christian Democrats/the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), the German Social Democrats (SPD), and the Greens. The elections yielded a close finish between the two leading parties CDU/CSU and SPD.
Following are the key takeaways from the elections
First, the centre-left SPD received the maximum share of the vote and emerged as the largest party in the new Bundestag, narrowly beating the centre-right CDU/CSU into second place. The SPD won 25.7% of the vote i.e. 206 of 735 seats in the Bundestag, a five-percentage point increase on their 2017 result (20.5% of the total vote). This is the first time in over fifteen years that SPD has surpassed the CDU/CSU in the number of votes. The SPD was founded in 1875, making it Germany's oldest political party. The party has been part of the government for 34 of the 67 years of the Federal Republic’s existence.SPD, led by Olof Scholz, in their manifesto emphasised on helping the small and medium-income families and hiking taxes for the rich. They also viewed the EU recovery package as the basis for building new trust in Europe and talked about taking steps towards a fiscal union. In terms of climate change, the party is focussing on achieving greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045[i].
Second, CDU under the leadership of Armin Laschet performed at its historic low in the 2021 elections with its votes dropping below 31% for first time. The party received 24.1% of the votes as compared to 32.9% in 2017, ranking second after the SPD. The party was founded in West Germany in 1950 and became the most dominant political force in the post-war period, leading the government for 47 of those 67 years, alongside the Christian Social Union (CSU). Their election manifesto titled ‘The Program for Stability and Renewal — Together for a Modern Germany’[ii] focussed on combining climate protection with economic strength and social security with a robust foreign policy anchored in framework of the EU, NATO, the United Nations, and other organisations. Like the SPD, the conservatives also aimed for achieving greenhouse gas neutrality by2045.
Third, in these elections the Greens (led by AnnalenaBaerbock) and the Free DemocraticParty (FDP led by Christian Lindner) have emerged as the kingmakers. While the Greens won 14.8% of the votes as compared to 8.9% in 2017, FDP received 11.5% of votes as compared to 10.7% in 2017. The Greens gained prominence in German politics between 1998 and 2005. Their support has increased since the 2019 European election, especially among young voters driven by concerns about climate change and the environment. On the other hand, the FDP has become a permanent presence in the German parliament since their establishment in 1948. Although they have never led a German government, they have been an important coalition partner to both the CDU and the SPD. In its election Manifesto titled “There’s Never Been More to Do”, FDP focussed on a Germany that is fit for the future and emphasis was laid on providing relief for businesses, high educational standards and tackling climate change with technical innovations.[iii] On the other hands, the Greens pushed for making Germany carbon neutral as quickly as possible through government spending and higher taxes.[iv]
Fourth, the future of the far-right parties in the German electoral space appears to have normalised. While Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) lost votes as compared to its all-time high performance in the 2017 when it gained the status as the biggest opposition, it will still be represented in the new parliament. The AfD got 10.3% votes, i.e. 83 seats in the parliament as compared to 92 (12.6%) in 2017 elections. Established in 2013, it was primarily created as a protest party against the single European currency, however, it has enhanced its mandate to include issues such as immigration, primacy of “traditional” German culture etc. The AfD was the first far-right party in post-war Germany to cross the five percent threshold to enter the Bundestag in 2017. In these elections, the party tried to tap into the public opinion on the government’s pandemic handling as well as the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Fifth, is the changing German political landscape. The traditional parties have gradually lost voters, the formation of the right-wing AfD, the re-election of the FDP to the Bundestag, and the rise of the Greens have diversified politics in the German parliament. In the past eight years, the two biggest parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, have governed together. The electoral share of the two parties have reduced as compared to the last two elections, in 2013 CDU/CSU-SPD the collective vote share was 67.2% which reduced to 53.4% in 2017 elections, in 2021 they received 49.8% of the vote[v]. The fall in their vote share has helped other parties to emerge and play critical role in the coalition negotiations. The Greens have increased their vote share to 14.8% as compared to 8.9% in 2017, and FDP share increased to 11.5% of votes as compared to 10.7% in 2017.The election has highlighted the decline in support of the traditional mainstream parties – CDU and SPD.
Sixth is the coalition talks. As no party has gained majority, both CDU/CSU and SPD have claimed the mandate to try to form a government and a readiness for a three-party coalition. The SPD has already declared its intentions for “social-ecological-liberal coalition”[vi], however, these parties had initially kept the option of an alternative tie-up with the conservatives open. As the Greens scored their best result, their influence in coalition negotiations is almost matched by the FDP. Taking cue from the 2017 coalition talks, where FDP and the Greens had disagreed on range of issues – this time, leaders of both the parties have decided to launch preliminary negotiations between themselves before launching the coalition talks with the leading party. In all, the process is expected to take weeks. The last coalition negotiations of 2017 were the longest in German history, taking six months for the formation of the government. This was primarily because the FDP had walked out of talks with CDU/CSU and the Greens. The Greens, on 6 October 2021, proposed that the two parties go into three-way coalition talks with the SPD. However, it remains to be seen how the parties are going to overcome the differences –the FDP with its pro-business leanings and emphasis on not raising the taxes and, the SPD and the Greens aiming to boost spending and tax the wealthy. If successful, this will be a first three-party coalition in Germany since the 1940s[vii].
Impact of Elections on India-German Relations
The foreign policy orientation of the future German government is yet to be determined as the coalition talks are still in the nascent stage. However, there is an expectation of continuity in Berlin’s outlook towards New Delhi with focus on the expansion of bilateral trade, cooperation in the multilateral forums, and the issues of mutual concerns. This sentiment was also shared by German Ambassador to India Walter Lindner, when he said “there are not many differences among the leading German parties over foreign policy issues and all of them understand the importance of India, and there will be continuity towards the relationship”. He further added that “relations between India and Germany saw a significant upswing, including in areas of trade and investment, in the last over one decade and that the upward trajectory in ties is likely to continue”.[viii]India and Germany have been strategic partners since 2001 and have established strong relations based on robust trade of approximately US$21.7 billion in 2020-21[ix]. Germany is also the 7th largest foreign direct investor in India since April 2000. Germany’s total FDI in India from April 2000 until March 2020 amounted to US$ 12.19 billion.[x] As of now, 1700 German companies are active in India and more than 200 Indian companies have a presence in Germany. Indian investments in Germany have also increased with Indian companies investing over EUR 6.5 billion in Germany, in sectors such as IT, automotive, pharma and biotech.[xi]India and Germany also hold Cabinet-level Inter-Governmental Consultations (IGC) with the discussions in the past five IGC meetings ranging on various economic, political and global issues of mutual concerns. Other areas of cooperation include science and technology, higher education, skill labour movement, sustainable energy, smart cities, and circular economies. With Japan and Brazil, as part of the “G4”, India and Germany are also pushing for reform of the United Nations and the Security Council. Germany has also supported India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC[xii].
The German elections have been called a watershed moment for the country as Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years in office. As the elections have revealed no clear winner, there is a higher possibility that the next Chancellor will come from a different party and the government will likely become a three-party coalition, rather than the current two-party grand coalition. As the parties begin the talks on forming a new coalition government, the support for the SPD-led government has grown. This was highlighted in a recent survey, conducted by the Deutschland trend poll, in which 59% of the respondents said that they were “satisfied or very satisfied” with the SPD Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz as compared to CDU leader Armin Laschet who received 14% of the votes. In terms of “who would be a good Chancellor”, Olaf Scholz received 63% of the approval ratings as compared to 14% received by Armin Laschet. The support is also high for the SPD led coalition government (63%) over CDU-led government.[xiii]So far, it remains to be seen how the negotiations will fare as it is not expected to be an easy process with compromises and concessions expected to be made between the parties. The policy orientation of the new government – on issues like climate change, migration, digital transformation, European security, outlook towards Russia and China also remains to be determined.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]Reuters, 24 June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/what-are-main-issues-germanys-federal-election-2021-06-24/; AusRespektvirDeinerZukunt, Manifesto, SPD, https://www.spd.de/fileadmin/Dokumente/Beschluesse/Parteispitze/20210321_Zukunftsprogramm_Leitantrag.pdf, Accessed on 5 October 2021
[ii]DW, 21 June 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/merkels-conservatives-present-manifesto-together-for-a-modern-germany/a-57978572, Accessed on 5 October 2021
[iii]‘There’s Never Been More to Do’, Manifesto, FDP, https://www.fdp.de/sites/default/files/2021-07/FDP_BTW_Kurzwahlprogramm_EN.pdf, Accessed on 6 October 2021
[iv]Berliner Zeitung, 13 June 2021, https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/en/the-greens-election-manifesto-is-out-li.165048, Accessed on 6 October 2021
[v]The Week, 27 September 2021, https://theweek.com/talking-points/1005348/two-big-takeaways-from-the-german-election, Accessed on 7 October 2021
[vi] The Guardian, 27 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/27/olaf-scholz-intends-three-way-coalition-germany, Accessed on 6 October 2021
[viii]The Hindu, 27 September 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/new-german-govt-expected-to-continue-strong-ties-with-india-german-envoy/article36691516.ece, Accessed on 7 October 2021
[x]Bilateral Brief, Indian Embassy, Berlin, https://www.indianembassyberlin.gov.in/pages?id=eyJpdiI6IlF3Qnd1R3ZBamllNnUrZWI5ckRhYWc9PSIsInZhbHVlIjoiTno3STU5ZWYzS1hma3FJM0N4ZzZxdz09IiwibWFjIjoiNThkNmZhZjZiMDA3NTdjMDhhNWE3ZWFmMWY5MmRjYzZjYjZkYTY4ZTFiMDAxZThhOTI0OWIxZmJlNWJhYWI5ZiJ9&subid=eyJpdiI6ImlGd2xtTmxQSTFhZ05XNmt3RjY4N0E9PSIsInZhbHVlIjoidlc0VUFIcjdGZEdDQ0QxejN0NXFcL1E9PSIsIm1hYyI6IjMyMWU1YTEyNDg2Njk4YzY0ODUxYjQ2MWEwMDQyOTEyMzE4OGE2N2UzNTFlODA2ZDNkZmM4NTE5Y2RmMWI4NGYifQ==, Accessed on 7 October 2021
[xi]India-Germany Relations, German Mission in India, https://india.diplo.de/in-en/themen/wirtschaft/-/2421012, Accessed on 7 October 2021
[xii]The Hindu, 13 September 2011, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/germany-supports-indias-bid-for-permanent-unsc-membership/article2449881.ece, Accessed on 7 October 2021
[xiii]DW, 7 October 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-survey-shows-favor-for-scholz-candidacy-amid-coalition-talks/a-59443254, 12 October 2021