Germans head to the polls in historic election marking the end of Merkel's era

On September 26, 2021, voters cast their ballots at a Berlin polling station to vote for Germany's Parliamentary (Bundestag). Abdulhamid Hosbas | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
On Sunday, millions of Germans will vote in an election that will transform Germany and Europe. This is as Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, prepares to step down after 16 years of power. While voting at polling stations in Germany will take place between 8 and 6 p.m., many voters have already cast their ballots via postal ballots. Shortly after the polls close, exit polls will give an indication of the election results. Merkel's reelection was almost always guaranteed in recent German elections. The election race for the next leader has been open since Merkel announced her resignation. Public and pundits alike have been fascinated by the results of the voter polls leading up to Sept. 26. The Green Party saw a surge in popularity, and at one point took the lead in polls in April. However, the Social Democratic Party took over the lead in polls in May. This was followed by a slight loss of ground for the Social Democratic Party in recent weeks. Merkel's conservative coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU-CSU) and Christian Social Union, which is Merkel's ruling party, has not been able to separate from the pack. Recent opinion polls show that the party trails the SPD in second place. The vote is still close. Polls over the past week showed that the SPD had 25% of the vote, followed by the CDU-CSU at around 22%. While the Green Party has around 16%, polls show that the SPD has around 25%. The pro-business, liberal Free Democratic Party is next with 11% and the right-wing Alternative for Germany with the same vote share. With 6% of votes, the far-left Die Linke party is viewed.

The competitors

German voters favor stability over charismatic leadership. Merkel has been in power for 16 year and has presided over what many Germans consider the country's "golden era." This preference for stability is evident in Olaf Scholz (the SPD's candidate to be chancellor), who has served as Germany's finance minister, vice chancellor and president of the current government, due to his role in the coalition with the CDU-CSU.

Other candidates for chancellor, the CDU-CSU's Armin Leschet and Annalena Bock of the Green Party, have had less success during their campaigns. Both were hit with controversies as well as questions about their leadership abilities. Particularly, the ratings of Laschet from CDU have plummeted due to his disappointing campaign trail, and poor performance on the public stage. His public image was not helped by being caught laughing while he visited a German town that had been devastated by floods. He later apologized. Despite outgoing Merkel trying desperately to revive Laschet’s chances of success, three TV debates between the top candidates have not resulted in a reversal in the popularity of the CDU-CSU.

Since 1949, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU have dominated German politics. They formed a parliamentary bloc and ran in the first federal election after World War II. The party has been losing popularity with younger German voters, who value green policies and want to see Germany modernize and invest in its failing industries and infrastructure. The CDU-CSU had its worst election result since 1949 in 2017. Despite the fact that the bloc received 33% of votes, this was still a decrease from the 41.5% achieved in the 2013 election.

Coalition ahead

For a number of reasons, the 2021 election is more uncertain than ever. These include the split in votes that indicates no clear winner and the expected amount of mail-in ballots. Deutsche Welle reported that mail-in voting was a common practice in Germany prior to the pandemic. However, organizers are expecting as high as 50% of the vote to be sent by mail this year, up from 28.6% for 2017. It is certain that the next government will consist of a coalition. No one party expects to win enough seats to govern on its own. Analysts spent months deliberating about the form of a coalition government and whether or not the CDU-CSU might find itself in opposition after so many years at power. In any case, coalition talks are likely to take weeks and possibly months.

In a Wednesday note, Carsten Nickel, Teneo Intelligence's deputy director of research, stated that each of the major parties (the SPD or CDU/CSU), could form a coalition together with the Greens or the center-right Liberals. "A left-of center government consisting of SPD, Greens, and post-communist Left, Die Linke, as well as possibly another grand coalition of SPD/CSU, might be possible numerically. However, it will not be the first option." "Party leaders will evaluate the official results in meetings Monday morning and offer exploratory talks to potential partners. Due to the potential need to forge a three-way coalition that is not tested, these talks and subsequent coalition negotiations could take several weeks. Nickel said that coalition negotiations could still fall at a later stage as in 2017. This will force the search for other combinations."

Angela Merkel has been the face for the CDU and Germany for 16 years. Getty Images News

Nickel stated that Nickel will be watching to see if the slight improvement in CDU-CSU's polls turns into momentum on election day. Nickel also said that it will be important to monitor how the Greens do. "Annalena Baerbock has risen to third place since then, and she has given solid performances in TV debates. She is presenting herself as an alternative candidate to the male candidates. This, combined with the expected high turnout via postal ballot, could make the Greens' results surprise."

The economy

The economy is Europe's biggest, and whoever becomes the chancellery's head will face challenges, Barclays Macro Research Analyst Mark Cus Babic said Thursday. We believe there is a strong economic recovery underway. However, the short-term outlook remains solid regardless of the outcome of the election. Key risks include the drawdown pandemic savings, supply disruptions, and the potential for a collapse of global trade. There are still many challenges. He said that the medium-term outlook would depend on how new government addresses them.

As they watch the election TV debate in Berlin, September 12, journalists and party members look on from the media centre (L-R: Olaf Scholz (German Finance Minister, Vice-Chancellor, and the Social Democrats candidate for Chancellor, and Armin Laschet (North Rhine-Westphalia’s State Premier, and the Christian Democratic Union candidate for the Chancellor), AFP

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