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Post-Merkel, a muddle: 9 German election takeaways

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Negotiations among Germany’s parties have just begun. But one election outcome seems clear: The next government will be a centrist one once again — there’s just the small outstanding question of who will lead it.

That question will take weeks or months to answer. But what’s now evident is that the poor results of The Left party — which could have opened the door to a leftist alliance with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens — mean that the SPD’s Olaf Scholz has diminished leverage.

Here are nine takeaways from election day in Germany.

1. Small is powerful​


Both would-be chancellors, Scholz and Armin Laschet of the center-right Union alliance, claim they got a mandate to lead a new government. But their potential partners say that’s not their call. Instead, it’s the night of the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) — who both see one clear outcome. The Union and SPD “haven’t made any gains overall compared with the last election,” FDP leader Christian Lindner said. That’s why there can be no business as usual in Germany, he concluded, but rather a “time for a new beginning.”

2. United they stand​


The leaders of both the Greens and FDP can see there’s a huge chance for them, even though the FDP posted only marginal gains over the last election and the Greens are deflated after coming down from their polling highs of earlier this year. “It could make sense for FDP and Greens to talk to one another first, to structure what comes next,” said Lindner in a round-table debate of leading candidates. The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, agreed.

3. Never say never​


The Greens’ co-leader, Robert Habeck, observed that a “traffic light” coalition with the SPD and FDP is actually a complicated deal, given that the SPD and Greens are a closer ideological fit while the FDP is further to the right. But it could nonetheless succeed, he added, as could a grouping of the Union, Greens and FDP — the so-called “Jamaica” option. In short, the possibilities are wide open, in his view. “A new era has begun,” he said. “And whichever of the two understands this better has a very good chance of becoming chancellor.”

4. Competing narratives​


Neither FDP nor Greens said the mandate to start talks should go to the biggest party. That’s not their problem to sort out — but the SPD and the Union have already begun arguing over who has the strongest claim to lead the next government. Scholz pointed to the Union’s slide since the last election as a rationale for his chancellorship, while Laschet charged that “a vote for the Union is a vote against a left-led government.”

5. A government for everybody​


“We will do everything possible to form a government under the leadership of the Union,” said Laschet, speaking on stage at the headquarters of his CDU party. “Germany now needs a coalition for the future that will modernize our country,” he added. He promised the Greens and FDP that he would support a coalition in which “each partner must find itself” — a way of saying their signature policies would be prominent in any deal. Or, as Laschet also put it, a government in which “everyone can implement what they have promised their voters.”

6. Fixing Merkel’s failure​


That last comment by Laschet referenced the CDU’s first attempt to form a coalition with Greens and FDP four years ago, when the latter walked away in a pique against Chancellor Angela Merkel. This time around, he said, he’d form “a coalition that one likes to make” — playing off of his personal reputation as an easy-going and jovial man. Scholz, meanwhile, said that his priority is “to bring about a good pragmatic government for Germany.”

7. Beware of the Bavarians​


Before pursuing his big ambitions, Laschet has to avert a possible putsch. He has been badly damaged after posting the worst result ever for his camp in a national election, while Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has made it clear he thinks he would have done better. So it wasn’t a given that Laschet would survive the immediate aftermath of the first exit polls.

But Laschet projected some strength when he went on stage at the CDU headquarters together with his campaign team, the party leadership and, most importantly, Merkel, on Sunday evening as he announced his plans to pursue talks no matter from which position.

Söder, meanwhile, looks like he’s back in line. Just ahead of the election, he had ruled out joining a government in the event of the conservatives coming in second. On Sunday, however, he changed course, saying that the SPD had claimed victory prematurely and that there was just one conclusion to be drawn from the election. “There has been a rejection for a left-wing alliance … rather a mandate for a center-right alliance,” he said. “That’s what we will now negotiate.”

8. Far right posts mixed results​


The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lost votes compared to 2017, and with that, its status as the biggest opposition party. It tried to tap into public unhappiness with the government’s pandemic management, but most voters weren’t looking for a protest outlet — at least in the far more populous West.

In the post-communist eastern states, the AfD remains a major force. But imitating them didn’t seem to be a winning strategy for the nominal center: Hans-Georg Maaßen, the former domestic intelligence chief turned ultra-conservative CDU candidate, was fighting for second place in his district in southern Thuringia with the AfD candidate — both far behind SPD candidate Frank Ullrich.

9. Germany goes Dutch​


It would almost seem as if Germans looked for Merkel’s best next incarnation and couldn’t see it in any single candidate. The result means we’re likely to have more parties in national government than Germans are used to — something more akin to Dutch coalitions. But that government may be one in which things largely stay the same… and that might have been just what voters were looking for.
 
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