The Bundestag elections 2021 stand out in a number of respects. For the first time (with the exception of the first Bundestag election in 1949) there was no Chancellor seeking re-election. Furthermore, three parties were fielding a candidate for Chancellor. On top of that, the election took place during a pandemic, which, on one hand, had direct effects on the conduct of the campaign, and on the other, brought into focus people’s crisis management capabilities.
These special features, coupled with Angela Merkel bowing out after 16 years in the Chancellor’s office, the global challenges of climate change and the resulting need for a social and ecological transformation of the economic system made the 2021 Bundestag election into something of a choice of direction.
Who will be entrusted with the leadership of the government in these uncertain times? Who will lead Germany out of the Covid-19 pandemic and take the necessary steps to ensure prosperity and social cohesion in the country going forward?
A red comeback: The SPD is back and looks set to be the strongest party in the Bundestag. Its success, gaining 25.7 per cent of second votes, is clearly driven by SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz. For the Union, however, the era of Angela Merkel has ended with historically its worst ever result of 24.2 per cent. The CDU/CSU lost 8.7 percentage points in comparison with the 2017 elections. Although the Greens, with 14.6 per cent, have achieved their best ever result, they have failed in their stated aim of winning the chancellorship, coming in third. The FDP take fourth place, slightly increasing their vote (by 0.7 percentage points) with 11.5 per cent of second votes.
But the SPD was the strongest party not just at federal level, but also in the regional elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the elections to the House of Representatives in Berlin. With a sensational 39.6 per cent (+9) Manuela Schwesig will be returned as state premier and in the capital city Franziska Giffey, with 21.4 per cent (–0.2), will probably become the new mayor.
As a result of the overhang and so-called ‘compensatory’ mandates the Bundestag will be enlarged to 735 seats (previously 709 – the number of regular seats is 598). The CDU/CSU (Union) parliamentary group has suffered the biggest losses. They have lost 50 seats, and now have only 196 MPs. The SPD group has managed the most gains (+53), giving them 206 MPs. The Green Party has done almost as well, with +51, giving them 118 seats. The FDP has gained 12 and now has 92 MPs. Die Linke, by contrast, has lost 30 mandates and now has 39 seats. The AfD has had to swallow the loss of 11 mandates and has 83 MPs. In addition, the South Schlesian Voter’s Union (Südschleswigsche Wählerverband) has one MP in the Bundestag.
SPD – equally strong in both east and west: Only the SPD (western Germany: 26.1 per cent / eastern Germany: 24.2 per cent) and the FDP (western Germany: 11.9 per cent / eastern Germany: 9.6 per cent) are more or less equally strong in both parts of the country, while the other parties have their strongholds mainly in the east, the west or the south. A glance at the direct mandates it won shows that the SPD can win in both the east and the west. For example, all direct mandates in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg went to the SPD, along with those in, for example, Bremen or Saarland. Baden-Württemberg, Saxony and Bavaria remain difficult terrain for the SPD, but they also managed to win direct mandates and in the case of second votes they were close to the national trend. In Saxony the SPD even increased its vote by 8.7 percentage points. They improved on that only in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (+14.0), Brandenburg (+11.9), Saxony-Anhalt (+10.2), Thuringia (+10.2) and Saarland (+10.1).
While there were only marginal differences in voting behavior with regard to gender, voting differed strongly by age group. The youngest voters (18–24 years of age) were most inclined to vote Green, at 23 per cent. This is closely followed by the FDP, at 21 per cent, which scored a 9 percentage point increase in this age group. Then comes the SPD with 15 per cent. Support for the CDU/CSU plummeted in this age group (–14 percentage points, falling to 10 per cent). Then follow Die Linke with 8 per cent and the AfD with 7 per cent.
Among voters 60 years of age or above the picture is completely different. The SPD rose by 10 percentage points to 34 per cent of second votes, putting them in first place. The CDU comes next, on 33 per cent, but as with other age groups they lost support here, too. The other parties follow a considerable distance behind. Although the Greens gained somewhat (3 percentage points), they still managed only 8 per cent. The FDP and the AfD also tallied 8 per cent, both losing 2 percentage points on 2017. Die Linke lost half their votes in this age group, which now stand at 4 per cent. They have lost out in all age groups, although they did somewhat better among younger voters.
Voting behaviour also varies considerably in relation to formal education and occupational status. The SPD‘s strongest support, accounting for 35 per cent, was among pensioners (+7 percentage points). The CDU/CSU comes next, at 34 per cent, losing 7 percentage points. The Greens come third, by some distance, with 10 per cent.
The SPD also enjoys above-average support among blue-collar workers, at 26 per cent (+3). It is clearly the strongest party, in front of the AfD on 21 per cent (+/–0) and the CDU/CSU on 20 per cent (–5). Die Linke managed only 5 per cent (–5) and lies behind the FDP on 9 per cent (+1) and the Greens on 8 per cent (+3)
Among the self-employed 26 per cent backed the CDU/CSU, although that represents a decline of 10 percentage points. In second place among the self-employed come the FDP with 19 per cent of their second votes. The SPD and the Greens both gained 16 per cent, gaining support in this occupational group.
Civil servants mainly favour the CDU/CSU, at 29 per cent, although that represents a fall of 7 percentage points. On the other hand, 24 per cent of this group backed the Greens (+8 percentage points). The SPD managed 19 per cent, a 1 per cent increase.
Concerning possible reasons for voting it is clear that the SPD has emerged from the election campaign as the strongest party on the basis of both its candidate for chancellor and their policy programme. If the Bundestag election was a direct election of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz would have been the clear victor.
This also becomes evident when considering the issues that people saw as most important in the 2021 Bundestag election campaign, as well as the competence attributed to the various parties. For example, a survey conducted by the Civey Institute in the run up to the election asked people what three issues were likely to influence their voting the most. The main issues, cited by 56.3 per cent of respondents, was pensions and social security, followed by environmental and climate policy, on 46.2 per cent, and the economy and jobs, on 39.1 per cent.
When it comes to party competence, it is evident that the SPD is well ahead on these issues, with the exception of environmental and climate policy and, to a lesser extent the economy as distinct from jobs. On the issue of old age provision (SPD 36 per cent, CDU/CSU 20 per cent, Greens 4 per cent), health care (SPD 33 per cent, CDU/CSU 24 per cent, Greens 9 per cent), family policy and child care (SPD 32 per cent, CDU/CSU 18 per cent, Greens 19 per cent), as well as social justice (SPD 40 per cent, CDU/CSU 15 per cent, Greens 7 per cent) substantially more people have confidence that the SPD will be able to tackle the upcoming tasks. On the topic of environmental and climate policy, by contrast, just under half of those asked (48 per cent) stated that the Greens are best able to cope with the challenges ahead, while the SPD (13 per cent) and the CDU/CSU (12 per cent) score much lower on this issue. By contrast, 44 per cent of respondents trust the SPD to ensure decent wages, with as few as 16 per cent feeling the same way about the CDU/CSU and a mere 5 per cent the Greens. On the three main issues the CDU/CSU were ahead only on the economy, with 32 per cent, while the SPD wasn’t too far behind, on 25 per cent, while the Greens received a lowly 6 per cent. The FDP receives it best rating on this issue, at 16 per cent, enabling it to score points even beyond its own constituency.
In comparison with 2017 the SPD gains 2.2 million votes. The bulk of them – 1.53 million – comes from the CDU/CSU. But it is not only former Merkel voters who have opted for Olaf Scholz and the SPD. Some 640,000 votes come from former Die Linke supporters. The third largest group are former non-voters, with 520,000 votes. Former AfD voters account for just over 10 per cent of the gains, at 260,000. Another 180,000 votes come from the FDP camp and 60,000 from population movements. Some 380,000 SPD voters have pass away since the previous election, while 260,000 votes went to the Greens and 120,000 to other parties.
In the ranking of votes gained, the Greens similarly take first place: 920,000 votes from the CDU/CSU, 480,000 from Die Linke and 300,000 from non-voters. The number of first-time voters opting for the Greens has been estimated at 300,000. Overall, the Greens gained over 2.5 million additional votes.
The voter migration picture for the CDU/CSU, in the context of the party’s worst ever result, looks quite different. There were only slight gains, from the AfD (80,000), population movements (40,000) and Die Linke (20,000). Overall the CDU/CSU received just over 11 million votes, a loss of almost 4.3 million. As already mentioned, the biggest voter migrations were to the SPD (1.53 million) and the Greens (920,000). But deceased voters and a low take-up among first-time voters also took their toll, at 890,000 votes. Further losses benefitted the FDP (490,000) and other parties (490,000).
The number of non-voters fell. By far the largest proportion of former non-voters opted for the SPD, an increase of 520,000. The Greens gained 300,000 and the FDP 40,000 votes. By contrast, the CDU/CSU (–50,000), the AfD (–180,000) and Die Linke (–320,000) all lost votes among non-voters.
Looking back, the election campaign can be divided into three phases, in which a different party was the frontrunner: the hope of the Greens, the dawn of the CDU/CSU and the red comeback. In the first phase, in early summer, the Greens were ahead and even had the chancellor’s office in their sights. It appeared to be a duel between the Greens and the CDU/CSU, at which for many people the SPD were only onlookers. During this period they flatlined – like the whole year of Covid-19 – at 15 per cent on the so-called Sunday Question (who would you vote for if there was an election on Sunday?) By contrast, the Greens were able to launch their election campaign at the level of their 2019 European elections vote (20.5 per cent) and after the nomination of Annalena Baerbock as candidate for chancellor in April they even overtook the CDU/CSU. They were unable to maintain their momentum, however, due to a series of errors, including allegations of ‘CV padding’, failure to declare bonus payments and plagiarism. Instead, the CDU/CSU was able to gain ground. But even when they had their noses in front during this second phase of the election campaign they were unable to make a breakthrough. They became too caught up in the tricky process of selecting a new candidate for chancellor and internal party wrangling. Furthermore, over the summer the voters gradually came to realise that Angela Merkel really wasn’t going to stand again. They could kiss goodbye to incumbent advantage. The catastrophic floods and the inept performance of the prospective CDU chancellor was the turning point, ushering in the third phase of the election campaign with a red comeback. The SPD rose continuously in the polls and managed to overtake both the Greens and the CDU/CSU with a 10 percentage point plus lead. The wind had changed and the final phase of the election campaign was a duel between the SPD and the CDU/CSU. No previous national election had been so volatile.
Choice of candidate was again a prominent factor in this election. In previous Bundestag elections Mrs Merkel had been able to capitalise on her incumbency. With her departure from the stage for many people the question of who could be chancellor apart from Angela Merkel arose for the first time. It must be stressed first of all that just under two-thirds wanted a chancellor able to usher in a new start. At the same time, two-thirds wanted their new chancellor to have had governmental experience. As the Merkel era draws to a close, Germans want a restart, but based on experience. The main qualities Germans seek in a chancellor include strong leadership, clear policies, knowledge and a long-term vision. None of the three candidates could garner majority support on these points. But Olaf Scholz covers the broadest spectrum and scores points on knowledge (38 per cent), strong leadership (28 per cent), willingness to dialogue (28 per cent) and clear policies (26 per cent). Annalena Baerbock’s strengths include a long-term vision (30 per cent), clear policies (30 per cent), assertiveness (21 per cent) and willingness to dialogue (21 per cent). In the case of Armin Laschet his willingness to dialogue stands out (25 per cent). Olaf Scholz was thus the most convincing candidate in the final phase of the election campaign and established himself as the favourite.
The Bundestag election of 2021 represents a historic caesura in terms of German coalition arithmetic. Although there is a mathematical majority that would enable the continuation of the Grand Coalition this has been vehemently rejected by the two party leaderships. Thus the first tripartite coalition will have to be formed. As election winner the SPD has received a clear mandate to form the next government. The first ‘traffic light’ coalition at federal level would be a coalition of election winners, because all three parties have made gains. Armin Laschet, however, despite his obvious defeat, has so far continued to claim that he is entitled to form a government and is trying to cobble together a ‘Jamaica’ coalition. There are dissenting voices even within the Union camp, however.
In the Infratest Dimap voter survey one-third favoured a Grand Coalition, just under a quarter wanted a traffic light coalition and a fifth a Jamaica coalition. In direct contrast to this, however, 50 per cent of voters want an SPD-led government, with only 29 per cent preferring one led by the CDU/CSU.