Knut's Logbook: Dispatches on German Politics | Germany's Super Election Year

2021 is a landmark election year in Germany – we call it a ‘super election year’. What makes this election year different, and why does it matter for the United States and Canada?

After the political drama of the 2020 elections, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have begun their work with the new administration in the United States. Their agenda includes building back better alliances all over the world, including in Europe. But their partners in Europe – and in Germany – are about to change in a big way.  2021 is a landmark election year in Germany – we call it a ‘super election year’. What makes this election year different, and why does it matter for the United States and Canada?      

Just as the 2020 elections in the United States were pivotal, the 2021 super election year in Germany will mark the biggest shift in almost two decades.

Germany is a federal republic with sixteen states, and a federal government that runs on a parliamentary system. This means that Germans don’t directly elect the head of Government – our parliamentarians do. Just like in the United States, the constitution requires a federal election every four years – though sometimes, in the right circumstances, early elections can be called. In September 2021, Germany’s lower house of parliament – called the Bundestag – will be elected, and a new government will be formed. After sixteen years as Chancellor, Angela Merkel will be stepping down.

On top of the Bundestag election, six of the sixteen states are electing their state parliaments and state governments this year.

By design, there is lots of political flux in Germany in 2021. But circumstances have made this year especially important and unusually challenging to forecast:

-    After 16 Years, it will be the end of the Merkel Era – with no clear successor.

-    Many fundamental questions about the political future in Germany remain open

-    And of course - the Coronavirus. It continues to impact all areas of life in Germany, and in many ways this election may be a referendum on the government’s crisis management.


1. The End of the Merkel-era

  • Angela Merkel won’t be chancellor again.

After four full legislative terms – sixteen years – as Chancellor, Angela Merkel is retiring from office. Her retirement is the end of an era for German and European politics, but also has thrown her party, the Christian Democrats, into disarray as they attempt to find new party leadership and pick a candidate for Chancellor. Several MPs from her party have recently been entangled in a series of corruption scandals has only contributed to the sense of crisis for the party.

  •  Germans don’t directly elect the Chancellor 

The German electoral system works under the principle of proportional representation, and doesn’t allow voters to directly elect the Chancellor. Instead, voters cast two main votes: a vote for an individual party candidate, and a vote for a political party slate of candidates. With no incumbent Chancellor trying to defend their office, an incumbent advantage does not exist.

  •  Many parties of near-equal strength in current polling

Decades of relative stability in German federal politics appear to be a thing of the past, as the party landscape becomes more complex and competitive. The two historic ‘big tent’ parties – the SPD (social democrats) and the CDU/CSU (Christian democrats) – now have to contend with powerful upstarts from across the political spectrum. This means that a coalition government is a near-certainty.


2. Fundamental questions about the future

  • A new leader in Germany, a new leader in Europe

With Merkel not running for office again this fall, there will be a new head of the German government – a high-profile role in European politics. However the election turns out in September, the next Chancellor will be an influential new leader in Europe, shaping the agenda on the continent and in the European Union. But we don’t know yet who this new leader will be.

  • Unpredictable domestic political dynamics

All of these factors – no incumbent candidate, a competitive party landscape, and volatile domestic political issues – have combined to make this the most unpredictable election year in recent memory.  

  • Opportunity for Social Democrats

The SPD has been a junior coalition partner in three of four of Merkel’s governments – and has achieved some major policy gains, from establishing the first minimum wage in Germany, to marriage for all. In addition, social democrats govern many of Germany’s large cities. People know the social democrats will defend public goods and social security programs during and after the pandemic – just as we did before the pandemic. Current crises require state involvement and competence to protect jobs and workers. The super election year may be an opportunity for social democrats at all levels to showcase their strengths to voters who have a new appreciation for the role of government in the wake of the pandemic.


3. Coronavirus Referendum           

When it comes down to it, this election will also be a referendum on the management of the coronavirus crisis. Voters will reward what they perceive to be as competence and compassion, and punish incompetence. As Germany lags behind other European countries in the vaccination race, voters will be taking note.


Thanks for reading- this is just the first logbook on German politics in this super election year. Until next time, Tschüss from Washington!

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