The Race to the German Chancellorship

Three Top Candidates in Europe’s Most Critical Elections
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference, to announce that she will run again for the chancellorship in the next year general elections, at the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) headquarters in Berlin, Germany, November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke T/File Photo

Germany will be going to the polls on September 26, 2021. After 16 years at the helm of the German government, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel is not running for another term. Who will succeed her?  

According to the political system, every German in each of the 299 constituencies gets two votes – one to elect a local MP and one to elect a political party.  50% of the 598 seatsthe German Parliament “Bundestag” are directly elected from 299 districts and the remaining 50% are elected based on party vote share.

But as a measure to prevent small, often radical, parties from gaining power, a party has to win at least 5% of the second vote to enter the Bundestag. The second vote therefore determines the percentage of seats each party will get in the Bundestag and its chances of forming a government. In 2017 the parties that crossed the 5% threshold were the CDU/CSU, SPD, the Greens, FDP, The Left and the AfD parties.

Of the 83.1 million people living in Germany, those over the age of 18 who entitled to vote make up 60.4 million in number. German citizens who are living abroad have to make a formal application to be included in the electoral register. All other entitled citizens are automatically eligible to vote in their constituency without having to register or make an application. Postal votes are always possible.

The race for the Bundestag is proving dramatic. Since May, three parties have led the polls: Mrs. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (with their Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union), the Greens and, most recently, the center-left Social Democrats, who surged to the front as the conservatives stumbled. But with its landscape fragmented, Germany is likely to end up with a three-way coalition-a rarity at national level.

Until Germany’s election on September 26, 2021, the three largest parties are in a virtual dead heat. Just a few weeks ago, the only question on most election watchers’ minds was whether the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU-who led the polls with as much as 29 percent in mid-July- would form a two-way coalition with the Greens or if they would need to bring in the conservative Free Democrats (FDP) to build a stable majority. 

Since then, the Christian Democrats have suffered a spectacular collapse in the polls as their candidate, party leader Armin Laschet, has been plagued by a series of gaffes, strategic errors and plain old bad luck. As a result, pollsters say, the CDU appears to have lost around one-third of its voters, who supported the party because of Angela Merkel. 

The race for the Bundestag

Germany’s upcoming election will be critical for the stability of the country and the European Union, experts at the European House Ambrosetti Forum told CNBC. It comes as polls point to a number of different possible outcomes. “It is not a normal election,” Lars Feld, director of the Walter Eucken Institut, a German think tank, told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick. “We don’t have the incumbent, we don’t have someone defending office and therefore everybody has a good chance to become chancellor.” The election on Sept. 26 will mark the end of Angela Merkel’s tenure as German chancellor after more than 15 years in power.

A composite image shows file portraits of the main German chancellor candidates (L-R) Green party (Die Gruenen) co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock, in Cologne, 02 September 2021; German Minister of Finance and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), in Berlin, 01 September 2021; and Armin Laschet, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman, in Berlin, 10 September 2021. EPA/SASCHA STEINBACH/FILIP SINGER

The candidates

Armin Laschet 60, is the leader of Chancellor Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and premier of heavily industrial North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state.

In early September 2021, he appeared at the Christian Social Union (CSU) party conference in Nuremberg in early September 2021 desperate to convince his Bavarian allies that he and not their much-loved leader Markus Söde, was the better choice of candidate despite much evidence to the contrary. In a demonstrative show of unity, Laschet and Söder appeared side by side on stage, fist-bumping to a rousing string anthem and a several-minute standing ovation, before Söder introduced his erstwhile rival.

Olaf Scholz, 62, (SPD) has had a succession of senior posts in German politics. He is currently German finance minister and Chancellor Merkel's deputy.

Ms Baerbock, 40, studied law and politics in Hamburg and London and worked for the Greens in the European Parliament.

One poll on 2 September indicated the CDU/CSU had slipped to a record low of 20%, overtaken by the SPD on 25%. Another, on August 31, 2021, suggested just 10% of voters would prefer Mr Laschet as chancellor over his rivals.  The son of a miner, and a lawyer by training, for years Mr Laschet defended Germany's powerful coal industry. He has stood by the decision not to bring forward the end of using coal for energy from 2038.

Parties Program


Climate: The Christian Union wants to maintain Germany as an industrial location when it comes to climate protection.

Immigration: The Christian Union seems more conservative. According to its electoral program, immigration must take place in an orderly manner and according to clear rules.

Foreign Trade: The Christian Union relies heavily on "multilateralism" in foreign trade, because one in four jobs in Germany are based on exports.

Security and Defense: The party supports NATO's goal of each member spending two percent of its economic output on defense Christian Democrats advocate the development of joint European armed forces - but not at NATO's expense.

Socialist Party SPD

Climate: It seeks "climate neutrality" by 2045. According to the party's plan, electricity should be generated only from clean energy sources – mainly solar energy - by 2040.

Immigration: The party is more open on the issue of immigration. The party supports the multi-nationality of German citizens.

Trade: The party emphasizes sustainability, relying on partners who have small, environmentally friendly agricultural facilities. The party wants greater regulation of German arms exports.

Security and Defense: The Social Democratic Party criticizes NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of economic output to defense. The party supports the gas pipeline "Nord Stream 2" from Russia to Germany.

Green Party

Climate: The Green Party wants the country to be climate neutral by 2038. The party manifesto declared that its program would put Germany in line with the Paris climate agreement’s ambitious goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to only 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times.

Immigration: They are calling for an immigration law with new access methods for work and education immigration.

Trade: Directing trade more towards climate protection and sustainability and encouraging the growth of industries that are friendly to environmental and living conditions.

Security and Defense: At some points, the Green Party's program is going in a different direction from that of the Christian Union, demanding that Germany become free of nuclear weapons. The Greens also reject NATO's goal of allocating 2 percent of economic output to defense, and are against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.


2021 is finally the year Europe will have to learn to live without Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor is stepping down in the fall after nearly 16 years in office and at least a decade as Europe’s unquestioned leader. It’s a transition that’s not without risk. The danger here isn’t linked to who will replace her. Instead, it results from the vacuum she’ll leave in Europe.

More importantly, the coalition that will emerge from September’s election will likely be “Black-Green”- comprising the “Union parties” of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in an alliance with the Greens.

Her successor, whoever he or she will be, may not be so lucky. “The preconditions for his or her European policy will be different,” warns Jana Puglierin in our Summer 2021 issue. “What’s more, the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light how much Germany has neglected its infrastructure and how little it has invested in digitalization. The crisis has also shown that Germans, too, are not immune to growing euroskepticism and that further support for EU integration should not be taken for granted.”

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman and top candidate for the upcoming federal elections Armin Laschet (L) and Green party (Buendnis90/Die Gruenen, Alliance 90/The Greens) co-chairwoman and top candidate for the upcoming federal elections Annalena Baerbock (R) share a light moment next to Green party member Reinhard Buetikofer (C) after the ARD/ZDF TV station live recording of the TV debate 'The Truel in Berlin, Germany, 12 September 2021. EPA/CLEMENS BILAN

Implications for Berlin’s policy towards Beijing

The German election on September 26 has significant implications for Berlin’s policy towards Beijing and the broader international effort to address the geopolitical challenges presented by China’s rise. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose pro-engagement policy towards China has shaped Europe’s approach for more than a decade and a half, will step aside, opening the door to what could be a shift in Germany’s stance. While we do not expect radical change in how Germany approaches the relationship with its biggest trading partner, we consider a meaningful evolution towards a firmer line likely. How significant this shift turns out to be will depend in part on the election result, the coalition government that emerges and who ends up running it.

Relation with Russia

“The base of relations between Germany and Russia is more economic than political,” Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said: “It’s more about trade and deals and technologies and investment than about who is more important in the world.”

In the ongoing Bundestag election campaign, there are astonishing overlaps between rival opposition parties when it comes to Nord Stream 2. It is expected that interaction between Germany and Russia based on pragmatism will continue. Looking back at the trajectory of Germany-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, there has been practical cooperation. Russia has never stopped dialogues since the era of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. All this transpired despite a series of events that had some negative impacts on bilateral relations.

Two questions will remain after Merkel leaves office: Will the interaction between Germany and Russia continue to be a regulator of EU-Russia relations? Will Germany still play the role of a special window for dialogue between Russia and the West? The answers to these questions depend on how Merkel's successor will inherit and develop her diplomatic legacy. They will also rely on how the next German chancellor will deal with the geopolitical differences, structural contradictions, as well as the influence of domestic politics on diplomacy in both countries. 

A new European Union policy

The chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD) party, Olaf Scholz, called for a new European Union policy toward the east during a recent interview with DW. He wanted to upgrade the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which was co-founded by Helmut Schmidt, a former German Social Democrat chancellor. Scholz wanted to strengthen the EU as a whole, not just individual member states. "We don't want to return to the political world of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries when powers like Russia, Germany, France, and England shaped policy among themselves. If we want to ensure joint security in Europe, then it's about the European Union and Russia."


Overall, there are many shared views between the CDU/CSU, FDP, Greens, and the SPD, most importantly in their European and transatlantic approaches to different foreign policy challenges. However, there is also a fair amount of divergence in the details. The FDP and the Greens position themselves as the most assertive parties both on Russia and China, while the conservatives and social democrats present more cautious programs. The Linke’s foreign policy primarily relies on calls for global disarmament and a relaxation of policies towards Russia and China. The AfD is equally reserved about Russia but presents some contradictory views on China, aiming to cooperate on the BRI while demanding fairer trade conditions.

The different party programs only superficially cover information manipulation. Nonetheless, the fact that this topic receives attention from four out of the six parties that are currently part of the Bundestag highlights the growing importance of the topic.

More than fifteen years ago, for the first time, the Social Democratic Party led the intentions of voters, ahead of the conservative Christian bloc led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Green Party. It seems without a doubt that the German Socialists' candidate is the biggest rival to Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats. His candidacy is supported by the fact that Schulz holds the position of Finance Minister and Deputy Chancellor to Merkel in the ruling coalition in Berlin. Schulz, a socialist, is distinguished by his calmness and silence, and his lack of mistakes during debates and election campaigns. What increases Schulz's progress is that the Socialist Party this time, has maintained its cohesion and unity, unlike the Christian Democratic Union, which is still witnessing many internal disputes, and this makes the chancellery door open to Schulz, the socialist candidate more than his other competitors.


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