‘Let the poker game begin’: who will lead Germany?

Social Democrats claim narrow election victory over Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union

Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz, leader of the centre-left SPD, is hoping to become the next chancellor
(Image credit: Carstensen - Pool / Getty Images)

Germany’s main political parties are vying to form a new coalition government as the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) claimed a narrow victory over the party of outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel in Sunday’s federal election.

Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate to replace Merkel, said he won a clear mandate, but rival Armin Laschet of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is “determined to fight on”, reported the BBC. The vote was the “tightest race in years, bringing an end to the post-war domination of the two big parties”, the broadcaster added.

According to preliminary results, the SPD won 25.7% of the vote to the CDU’s 24.1% – a “historic low” for Merkel’s party, which suffered defeat even in the outgoing chancellor’s “traditionally safe” home district of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, reported EUobserver.

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Battle ahead

Both parties have claimed the right to try to form a coalition government, with Laschet arguing that the vote was not about getting “an arithmetic majority” and pointing out that in the past, the party in first place has not always provided the chancellor.

“In other words,” said the BBC, “winner doesn’t take all.” Or, as Germany’s Bild newspaper website declared this morning: “Let the poker game begin!”

The question of who will be Germany’s next leader will remain unresolved until after a government has been successfully formed. And with no political party winning an outright majority, both Scholz and Laschet are now facing weeks of talks to form a majority coalition with two smaller rival parties, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens.

The chancellor will then be chosen through a vote in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, with Merkel staying on as caretaker leader in the meantime.

Unlike in most parliamentary systems where the head of state nominates a party to form a government – usually, the party that has won the largest share of the vote – in Germany all parties can enter into “exploratory talks”, explained The Guardian.

The initial phase of talks “has no time limit” and there is nothing to stop Germany’s political parties “from all holding coalition talks in parallel”, although normally the biggest parties will invite the smaller parties for discussions.

Building a coalition government that will hold can take months. In 2017, it took Merkel six months to build a coalition that successfully saw her back into power, despite her party winning 33% of available seats.

Germany has been ruled by a so-called “grand coalition” of the two major centre-left and centre-right parties for much of the 2000s. One such coalition governed under Merkel between 2005 and 2009, and another came into power in 2013 and has been in office ever since.

But with the SPD and the CDU/CSU (the alliance between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) having “haemorrhaged votes over several decades”, it is likely that this time around a three-party coalition will be needed to achieve a majority, explained Alim Baluch, a lecturer in German politics and society at the University of Bath, in The Conversation.

The kingmakers

While a repeat of a “grand coalition” of the SPD and the CDU/CSU is “still mathematically possible”, both parties have “effectively ruled it out”, reported Bloomberg.

At the time of writing, a so-called “traffic light coalition” – a reference to the parties’ colours – made up of the SPD, FDP and Greens appeared the most likely to come together, although it is still possible that Laschet’s CDU/CSU may be able to form a government.

“What we can clearly see right now is that we have two potential kingmakers in this party landscape, one is the Green Party, and the other are the liberal Free Democrats (FDP),” reported Melinda Crane, Deutsche Welle’s chief political correspondent.

That’s because the two parties make up over a quarter of the votes between them, meaning the Green Party and the free-market supporting FDP are likely to be essential to carrying Scholz – or possibly Laschet – over the line in forming a majority coalition government.

“The question will be what can either Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats, or Armin Laschet, if he in fact does have the numbers that work mathematically, offer to those two other parties?” said Crane.

She added: “The SPD and the Greens have a lot of commonality. But there are quite a few big gaps between the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats. The one thing to keep your eye on now in the coming days is how do they position themselves vis a vis each other.”

Sky News noted that a pact between the centre-left SPD and the FDP has “no precedent” and may prove to be “tricky considering the pro-business stance of the FDP puts them at odds with many Greens”.

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