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After early German election results showed them neck-and-neck on Sunday, the two main rivals vying to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor both said they would try to head the next government — kick-starting a scramble for potential coalition partners.

Official figures published soon after by the country’s election commission showed the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) had won the general election with 25.7%, with them beating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc — a political alliance between the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) — which came in at 24.1%. The result is the worst yet for Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc.

Both groups believe they could lead the next government.

“It is an encouraging message and a clear mandate to make sure that we get a good, pragmatic government for Germany,” said the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, after earlier addressing jubilant SPD supporters.

Scholz’s conservative rival, Armin Laschet, signaled his bloc was not ready yet to concede, though his supporters were subdued.

“It hasn’t always been the first-placed party that provided the chancellor,” Laschet, 60, told the roundtable. “I want a government where every partner is involved, where everyone is visible — not one where only the chancellor gets to shine,” he said in an early attempt to woo smaller parties.

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet speaks at the party's headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet speaks at the party’s headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

The role of chancellor is not directly elected, but chosen through a vote in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, after a government has been formed. Merkel could remain in her post for weeks, if not months, while parties try to cobble together a coalition.

Exploratory talks

After years of two-party coalitions, three parties will likely be needed this time to achieve a majority. That’s common in Germany’s regional parliaments but has not seen at the national level since the 1950s.

In most parliamentary systems, the head of state nominates a party to form a government — usually the party that has won the biggest share of the vote.

But in Germany, all parties can embark on what are known as “exploratory talks.”

In this initial phase, which has no time limit, there is nothing to stop the parties from all holding coalition talks in parallel, though tradition dictates that the biggest party will invite smaller ones for discussions.

But Laschet said Sunday that the conservatives would “do everything we can” to lead the next government, even after preliminary results put them a touch behind the center-left SPD.

Scholz, on the other hand, said voters wanted a change and for “the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz.”

The Greens have already called a party congress for Oct. 2, during which they could decide with whom they would take up exploratory talks.

Thrashing out details

Discussions will begin as soon as the results are in, with the parties looking to discover each other’s red lines and establish whether they can work together.

On Monday, the day after the election, the parties will hold leadership meetings. Newly elected MPs from each party will also hold their first meetings this week, with the SPD and CDU/CSU planning to convene Tuesday.

The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which like the Greens could play a kingmaker role, has said it has a preference for a coalition with the conservatives and the Greens, but a three-way alliance with the SPD and Greens remains on the table too.

The newly elected parliament must hold its inaugural session no later than 30 days after the election, on Oct. 26.

If two or three parties agree in principle that they would like to form an alliance, they must then begin formal coalition negotiations, with various working groups meeting to thrash out policy issues.

At the end of these negotiations, the parties decide who will be in charge of which ministry and sign a coalition contract — a thick document setting out the terms of the agreement. This phase also has no time limit, with the outgoing government holding the fort in the meantime.

The parties then nominate who they would like to be chancellor before the official vote in the Bundestag.

After Germany’s last election, on Sept. 24, 2017, Merkel was formally confirmed chancellor in a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD only on March 14, 2018.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. | REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. | REUTERS

Keeping allies waiting

Merkel plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe’s largest economy.

She has stood large on the European stage almost since taking office in 2005 — when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin’s allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like.

A row between Washington and Paris over a deal for Australia to buy U.S. instead of French submarines has put Germany in an awkward spot between allies, but also gives Berlin the chance to help heal relations and rethink their common stance on China.

Whatever coalition ends up in power, Germany’s friends can at least take heart that moderate centrism has prevailed, and that the populism that has taken hold in other European countries failed to break through.

The election commission figures published online Monday showed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had secured only 10.3% of the vote, worse than four years ago when they stormed into the national parliament with 12.6%, and with all mainstream groupings ruling out a coalition with the party.

The Greens placed third at 14.8%, followed by the liberal FDP at 11.5%. The preliminary results were based on ballots counted in all constituencies.

Worst-case scenario

According to Article 63 of the German Constitution, the head of state must propose a potential chancellor to the Bundestag.

If no cross-party alliance emerges, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD may still nominate a potential chancellor, most likely from whichever party won the biggest share of the vote.

The parliament will then vote in a secret ballot, with the candidate needing an absolute majority.

If this is not achieved, a second vote will be held two weeks later. If there is still no absolute majority, there is then an immediate third vote in which a relative majority is enough.

The president then decides whether to appoint the chancellor as head of a minority government, or to dissolve the Bundestag and call new elections.

This worst-case scenario was narrowly avoided in 2017: Faced with an impasse in negotiations Steinmeier urged the parties to meet again, pushing for the renewal of the so-called grand coalition.

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