After Merkel: What do the polls tell us about Germany’s next leader?

After Merkel: What do the polls tell us about Germany's next leader?
The Scholz effect? SPD leader and chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz is increasingly popular with voters, while the favourability ratings of his opponents remains poor. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld
With just five weeks to go until the federal elections, a new poll has shed light on the current mood of voters in Germany. Here's what the next government could look like after voters head to the ballot box on September 26th.

What’s happening?

Wednesday brought with it yet more bad news for the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), as the party continues to slump in the polls in the run up to the September 26th elections.

According to RTL’s Trend Barometer, the ‘Union’ – the name for the political group made up of the CDU and CSU – has lost significant ground to both the Greens and its junior coalition partner, the SPD. 

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Since February this year, the party has lost a total of 13 points in the polls as it struggles to find its identity in the aftermath of Angela Merkel, who is stepping down from politics at the election. 

From highs of 36 points in January and February this year, the party has sunk to a meagre 23 points this Wednesday, with many blaming Merkel’s much less popular replacement Armin Laschet for the poor results.

READ ALSO: German chancellor candidate Laschet loses favour with voters: poll

While the Union continues to lose political ground, the SPD has made big gains over the past three weeks – jumping from 15 points on July 28th to 21 points on August 18th. As of Wednesday, the party was trailing just two points behind the CDU, marking the narrowest margin between the two parties since the SPD elected Martin Schulz as its chancellor candidate in 2017.

Thanks to its recent six-point leap, the junior fraction of the grand coalition (or GroKo) has also overtaken the Greens for the first time since the federal election campaign began. With leader Annalena Baerbock still struggling to win back trust after a series of awkward gaffs early this year, the environmental party are now trailing behind the SPD and CDU on 19 points. 

READ ALSO: Election 2021: Germany’s Greens holding onto hope for change after Merkel

The chart below from RTL/ntv gives a rundown of the latest poll results as of Wednesday August 18th.

How would this this translate into seats in parliament?

If the election was held today, the CDU/CSU would remain the largest party in government – but only by a whisker. Of the 748 seats available in the German Bundestag (parliament), the Union would take 192 seats, while the SPD would take 172, the Greens 155, the FDP 98, the AfD 82 and the Left (Die Linke) 49. 

Despite their recent missteps, the Greens would be the biggest winners overall, gaining 88 seats compared to 2017, while the SPD would gain 19 seats and the FDP would gain 12. Meanwhile, the Union would lose 54 seats, while the Left Party would lose 20 and the AfD would lose 12. 

Okay – so who could form a government? 

With this constellation of seats, a number of the parties would have a shot at forming a government coalition – but it could get very tricky when it comes to thrashing out a deal. 

In order to achieve a majority in parliament, any new coalition would need at least 374 of the 748 parliamentary votes. That means that the current ‘GroKo’ between the SPD and CDU/CSU would no longer be workable – since the two parties together could only secure 364 seats in total.

This is where things get interesting, since the eight-year marriage of convenience between the two parties would have to turn into a ménage a trois as yet another party is brought into the fold.

If the election results were the same as the polls, the clearest path to victory here would be the ‘Germany’ coalition, with the SPD (red), working together with the CDU (black) and FDP (yellow) to pool their seats for a majority of 88 seats in parliament.


If the elections were held on Wednesday, the pro-business Free Democratic Party and its leader Christian Lindner (left) would probably end up as the kingmakers. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Other options are the so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition, which would see the Greens joining forces with the CDU and the FDP for a majority of 71, or a ‘traffic light’ coalition between the Greens, SPD and FDP which would give the ruling coalition a 51-seat majority. 

A final, slightly less convincing option would be a red-black-red coalition in which the SPD teamed up with the Left Party and Greens. In this scenario, the new coalition would have 376 seats in parliament – just two over the threshold to secure a majority.  

What’s behind the latest polls?

As with any election, there are numerous factors that might be impacting the way voters in Germany view the different parties – but leadership is definitely a big issue here.

Asked who they’d most like to see as Chancellor of Germany after Merkel steps down in September, just 12 percent of the poll respondents chose CDU leader Armin Laschet, while 29 percent of people opted for the SPD’s chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz.

READ ALSO: Conservative’s missteps leave race for Merkel job open in Germany

To make matters worse, it seems that a significant segment of voters who helped elect Merkel to the Chancellery in 2017 would now rather see Scholz than Laschet leading the country. Among this group of respondents, just under a quarter (24 percent) said they would elect Laschet if the Chancellor were directly elected, while 27 percent said they would elect Scholz.

What happens next? 

With five weeks still to go until the September 26th elections, the race for all of the parties remains wide open. But the respondents of the RTL poll weren’t particularly positive about the Union’s chances of bouncing back.

In the RTL poll, 80 percent of respondents said they thought the CDU’s performance would remain the same – or get worse – over the next month or so, while only 15 percent thought it would improve in the run-up to the elections.

However, as the old saying goes, five weeks is a very long time in politics – so expect more twists and turns as we hurtle towards the September vote. 


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