A complete guide to the German federal election in 2021

A complete guide to the German federal election in 2021

The date is nearly upon us. After 16 years at the helm, Angela Merkel will finally step down as German chancellor after the federal election this weekend. Here’s your complete guide to the elections in Germany

When is the German general election?

The vote for Germany’s 20th parliament of the postwar era will take place on September 26. Poll stations in the 299 electoral districts will open at 8 am and close at 6 pm. 

People have also been voting by post in Germany since mid-August - for instance those who are out of the country or otherwise unable to make it to the voting booth on election day. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, more people are expected to cast their vote by post than ever before - up to a third of the electorate. 

As is standard elsewhere in the world, as soon as voting ends at 6 pm on Sunday, public broadcasters will release the results of an exit poll, which gives an indication of how the election may swing. 

Can expats vote in the election?

Anyone with German citizenship who has lived in the country for at least three months is eligible to vote - and people with a German passport living abroad are allowed to vote under certain conditions. Altogether, some 60,4 million Germans over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. 

Who is standing in the election in Germany?

This time, a total of 47 different parties are vying for selection. Each voter in Germany has two votes: one for a candidate standing in their local constituency (the “candidate vote”), and one for a party (the “party vote”). 

These votes are used to apportion the 598 seats in the German Bundestag: 299 seats are reserved for candidates who win them outright in their constituency via the candidate vote, while the remaining seats are distributed among the parties with the highest share of the party vote. 

However, all parties in Germany have to clear the so-called “5 percent hurdle” in order to send a delegate to the Bundestag. This means they have to secure at least 5 percent of the party vote. 

Six parties are expected to clear this hurdle: 

Christian Democratic Union (CDU)

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), together with its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has long been a dominant force in German politics, having led the government for 47 of the 67 postwar years. Associated with the colour black, the CDU stands for traditional Christian values - for instance, having previously opposed same-sex marriage - and is orientated towards a market economy. Merkel’s liberal stance on immigration in Germany has proved controversial among much of the party’s traditional voter base. 

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Germany’s oldest political party has been the junior partner in government with the CDU / CSU since the 2013 federal election and has served in various governments for 34 of the past 67 years. It is currently the second-largest party in the Bundestag, having won 20,5 percent of votes in the 2017 federal election. Traditionally the party of workers in Germany, the SPD is close to the unions and advocates social justice. Its colour is red. 

Alliance 90 / The Greens

Formed in 1993 from the merging of the West German party “Die Grünen" and the East German party "Bündnis 90", Germany’s Green party is primarily committed to environmental protection and social issues. Having long been a fringe party associated with hippies and activists, the Greens have become more mainstream over the years, balancing environmentalism with a leftist agenda on taxation and social policy. They served in a coalition government between 1998 and 2005 but have been in opposition ever since. As you might expect, the Green party's colour is green. 

Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Despite being a relatively small party, the Free Democrats are often considered a “kingmaker” in German politics, as the bigger parties are often reliant on them to form governing majorities. The FDP has been an ally of the CDU / CSU for many years - having participated in government for a total of 41 years, longer than any other party - although in 2013 it suffered a major defeat, failing for the first time in its history to secure a single seat. It has been in opposition since 2017. Its colour is yellow. 

Alternative for Germany (AfD)

Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland - AfD) was formed in 2013 as a protest party and since 2017 has been the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. As a right-wing populist party, its primary policies are opposition to Germany’s EU membership and the admission of refugees. It is also sceptical of the notion that climate change is man-made and wants to reverse Germany’s transition to renewable energy sources. Its party colour is blue. 

Die Linke

One of Germany’s youngest parties, die Linke (the Left) was only formed in 2007, but is considered a direct descendant of the Social Unity Party (SED) that ruled in East Germany until 1990. For this reason, it is typically more popular in eastern Germany, among former communists and other protest voters. It has never managed to become part of a government, but has managed to secure seats in the Bundestag every election since 2005. The Left stands for social justice and peace, and some of its primary policies are the dissolution of NATO and a drastic raising of Germany’s minimum wage. The party’s colour is red, but it is often shown as magenta, dark red or purple to distinguish it from the SPD. 

The chancellor candidates

For the first time in German history, the outgoing chancellor will not be standing for election. Angela Merkel’s name will be absent from the ballot sheet in the Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I constituency, which she has held ever since its creation in 1990.

Three parties have fielded candidates to fill Merkel’s boots: 

  • The CDU - Armin Laschet
  • The SPD - Olaf Scholz
  • The Greens - Annalena Baerbock

What are the big issues?

In a year marked by coronavirus and Germany’s worst flooding disaster in decades, two issues have been high up on the agenda on the election trail: the economic consequences of the pandemic, and climate change. 

The outgoing government has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2045, whereas the Greens and the Left both want to meet this target earlier by phasing out coal power by 2030, eight years earlier than currently planned. The FDP has put 2050 as its target date, whereas the AfD rejects the idea of man-made climate change. 

The question of how to rebuild the German economy after the pandemic has also been an important issue. Although the government has taken on an unprecedented amount of debt to help the country weather the crisis, the CDU and the FDP have ruled out future tax increases. The SPD and the Greens, however, want to offer tax relief to small businesses while also introducing a wealth tax of around 1 percent for high earners. 

Digitisation has also been a recurrent theme, with Germany said to be “badly behind” on all aspects digital. 

How can I decide who to vote for?

If you’re eligible to vote but still undecided, you can use the Wahl-O-Mat website (in German) to narrow down your choice of political parties. This election tool asks you a series of questions and compares your answers to the parties’ election manifestos to find your political affiliation. 

Who is expected to win the 2021 federal election? 

Currently, the CDU / CSU union is polling at just over 20 percent of the vote, after falling to historic lows in early September. The SPD is slightly ahead with around 25 percent. The Greens are averaging just over 16 percent, and the FDP is hovering slightly behind on 12 percent. The AfD looks set to bring home around 11 percent of the vote, while the Left will most likely be the smallest party in parliament, garnering around 7 percent of votes. 

If these polling figures translated directly into Bundestag seats, there are five different possibilities for Germany’s next coalition government. The first option, which would have the largest majority, would be a joining-up of the Union, the SPD and the Greens, in a “black-red-green” coalition. 

In the German media, these constellations are often referred to according to their colour patterns, and so to make sense of all of the commentary, you need to know a little bit about flags. 

So, to start with an easy one, the next option would be a so-called “Germany coalition”, with the Union (black), the SPD (red) and the FDP (yellow) coming together. Other possibilities that have been floated are the “traffic light coalition” (the SPD, FDP and Greens), and the Jamaica coalition (the Union, FDP and Greens). A final option, which would just cinch a majority, would be a left-leaning coalition of the Greens, Left and SPD. 

But all of these mash-ups present their own difficulties, since forming a coalition agreement requires the parties to thrash out common policies on a range of issues - no matter how different their ideological positions are. 

Although the AfD is almost certain to win seats in the Bundestag in 2021, every other party has ruled out working with them, and so it is very unlikely that they will be part of the next government. 

What happens after September 26? 

Although the winners and losers of the election will become known quickly on the night of September 26, it will take a lot longer until we know which parties will make up the next German government, and who the new chancellor will be. 

This is because the winner will have to partner up with other parties to form an absolute majority in the Bundestag. This coalition-building takes time, with the parties working to establish common ground, conceding compromises, thrashing out deals, and haggling over ministerial appointments. 

Once a deal has finally been reached (last time it took nearly six months!), the members of the newly-elected Bundestag will vote to approve the new chancellor - who is usually chosen by the coalition party with the most seats. 

In the meantime, the Union and the SPD will form a caretaker government, which will rule as long as it takes to strike a coalition agreement between the parties. 



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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