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Angela Merkel’s bloc lost ground in Sunday’s election. So who won?

Here’s what 30 years of data on government formation in Germany tell us

- September 28, 2021

German voters have decided. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) received the most votes in the Sept. 26 election, increasing their vote share from 20.5 percent in 2017 to 25.7 percent. The center-right bloc of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), now led by chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, received 24.1 percent of the vote (compared to 32.9 in 2017), making it unlikely the bloc will extend their control of the government for another four years.

So does this mean that Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate, will succeed Angela Merkel and become Germany’s next chancellor? Is this the end of a 16-year streak of CDU-led government coalitions? The coalition forecasting model we rely on indeed suggests that an SPD-led government is the most likely outcome. But Laschet might yet end up as the next chancellor as we enter the “anarchic” stage of German politics: the coalition-formation process.

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Who are the potential junior partners?

Neither the SPD nor the CDU/CSU has more than 50 percent of the seats in parliament, a “chancellor majority.” This means either party would need junior coalition partners in parliament to achieve the necessary majority to secure the election of Germany’s next chancellor. The parties have left the far-right AfD party out of the coalition mix.

Compared with the rigid laws surrounding the conduction of elections in Germany, the process of coalition-building is “lawless” territory. Germany does not appoint a “formateur” — typically a party leader — to take on the job of bringing together the new government. Basically, every party is free to build a coalition with other parties to reach a majority in parliament.

In this year’s election, it’s two small parties — the liberal-market Free Democratic Party (FDP, with 11.5 percent of the vote) and the Greens (with 14.8 percent) — who will decide who will govern Germany for the next four years. And these parties are well aware of their extraordinary role as kingmakers this year. They are already in talks with each other in order to bridge the policy divide among themselves before entering coalition talks with the SPD or the CDU/CSU.

Whether it’s the SPD or the CDU/CSU that forms a coalition with FDP and Greens, either one would be a premiere for Germany at the national level. But at the state level, the SPD has been leading a government with the Greens and FDP in Rhineland-Palatinate since 2016. Moreover, this coalition was even reelected in March. And a CDU-led coalition with FDP and the Greens has been in power in Schleswig-Holstein since 2017, suggesting that both options are a possibility at the federal level. Both junior parties can successfully work together. And both parties seem to be able to cooperate with the two larger parties, CDU and SPD.

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Four years ago, however, coalition talks broke down when the FDP left the negotiations with the Greens and the Christian Democrats after the 2017 federal elections. The result was another reluctant “Grand Coalition” between CDU/CSU and the SPD. This year, the pressure to find alternatives is even higher since both CDU/CSU and the SPD have publicly stated that a renewal of their coalition was off the table.

So where do the different parties stand?

The FDP and the Greens won’t find it easy to ignore their ideological differences — in many ways, they are political polar opposites. Both their party manifestos, along with a 2021 expert survey, show particular disagreement on socioeconomic issues.

The Greens are willing to increase taxes and deficit spending to fight the climate crisis. In contrast, the FDP opposes tax increases and supports the balanced budget amendment. But it’s not just that the Greens and FDP disagree with each other — they might prefer different coalition partners. Both the survey and manifesto indicate that the Greens are closer to the SPD on socioeconomic policies, while the FDP’s preferences align with the CDU and CSU.

The SPD seems more likely to come out ahead

Based on an analysis of all government-formation processes since 1990, the coalition forecasting model gives an SPD-Greens-FDP government coalition a 64 percent probability of forming, compared with a 29 percent likelihood for a coalition led by the CDU/CSU with the Greens and FDP. The model covers office-seeking and policy-seeking incentives of parties as well as constitutional constraints and contextual information such as the preference of the SPD and CDU/CSU not to form a grand coalition again.

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One major reason for the higher probability of an SPD-led coalition is that the strongest parliamentary party is significantly more likely to become at least a member of a coalition government — not only in Germany but also from a comparative perspective. This same model has correctly predicted 75 percent of all government-formation outcomes in Germany on the state and federal level since 1990, including the 2017 Grand Coalition.

German voters have dealt their hand, and now Germany’s parties will play the cards they were given. The most likely outcome will be a government led by Scholz, a Social Democrat, with the Greens and FDP as junior partners. A coalition led by CDU/CSU candidate Laschet is still a possibility, but in such a constellation the Greens would have to agree on compromises also with the center-right CDU/CSU.

The coalition-formation process could take of couple of weeks — or even months. The first German government in many years without Merkel at the helm will have huge implications for European politics and the world. One large danger remains for the Greens and FDP: Should they make too many demands, the CDU/CSU and SPD could always fall back to the unloved, unwanted Grand Coalition — a scenario that both parties seek to avoid at this point, since CDU/CSU and SPD felt that the Grand Coalition period subsumed their partisan identity and lowered support among voters.

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Marc Debus is professor of political science and comparative government at the University of Mannheim. Find him on Twitter @DebusMarc.

Thorsten Faas is professor of political sociology of the Federal Republic of Germany at the Freie University Berlin. Find him on Twitter @wahlforschung.

Julius Lagodny is a PhD candidate in comparative politics at Cornell University. Find him on Twitter @JuliusLagodny.