Almost exactly a year ago, the Social Democrats (SPD) were at 15% in the surveys. The chancellorship seemed out of reach. How did the SPD manage to get close to 26% last night and become the biggest party again? It ran a pretty smooth campaign (probably the best since 1998) banking on its top candidate, Olaf Scholz. The fact that all three top candidates for chancellor had similar platforms helped the SPD doing that. Given the absence of political lines of distinction, it was obvious for voters to focus on the qualifications of the candidates and their readiness for the job. It is also fair to say that the competitors of the SPD made big mistakes during the campaign, notably in the selection of their respective candidates. To merely be the last man standing can sometimes be enough in electoral politics.
To ask voters for four more years after sixteen years in power was quite a political challenge for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Armin Laschet, its top candidate, never really made clear whether he owns the sixteen Merkel years, or whether he wants to take Germany into a new direction. A vote share of roughly 24% is the lowest result for CDU ever. Remember that just two election cycles ago, it was close to reaching an absolute majority in parliament. While the losses are dramatic, it is still less brutal than the Christian Democrat’s worst fears. Closing the ranks during the final stretch of the campaign and warning about a so-called red-red-green coalition (a coalition between Social Democrats, the Greens, and the formerly communist party LINKE) worked. I think that if the CDU had launched that attack earlier, more coherently, and more forcefully, it could have further narrowed the gap with the SPD. It is often the best strategy for a vulnerable incumbent to tell voters that no matter how bad things are, it will only get worse if the other side wins.
This being said, it is important to remember that while candidates for chancellor obviously play an important role during the campaign, German voters do not elect the chancellor, but vote for parties instead. After the election, they come together to form a coalition government and then, the Bundestag, the German parliament, elects the chancellor. At first glance, it would seem to make sense that the winning SPD formed a coalition together with two smaller parties, who also won yesterday, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). I would however not write off the Christian Democrats, as the Greens and the FDP could theoretically also form a majority with the CDU and elect Armin Laschet as chancellor. It seemed to me that Christian Lindner, the leader of the free Democrats, rather skillfully maneuvered into that direction last night.
In 2005, surveys indicated that Germans would prefer Gerhard Schröder as their chancellor, yet they got Angela Merkel. Going back further in history, the Christian Democrats came close to winning an absolute majority with its top candidate Helmut Kohl in 1976. Yet the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats coalesced against them and formed a government together.
Given their political positioning, the Greens would prefer to govern with the Social Democrats, while the Free Democrats favor the Christian Democrats. Whichever of the two smaller parties crosses the bridge, can sell it at very high political price. The joker for the Christian Democrats during the negotiations is that as a party, it is more flexible to make a compromise and pay that price than the Social Democrats are. As we have seen four years ago, negotiations for a coalition can take time and produce its own dynamic. In that sense, I am not predicting that Armin Laschet will become chancellor, but it will take a few weeks before we finally know who the successor to Angela Merkel will be.