ANALYSIS: Who were the real winners and losers of Germany’s race to replace Merkel?

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet addresses the audience after the results of the German federal election.
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet reacts as he addresses the audience on stage at the CDU headquarters. after the estimates were broadcast on television in Berlin on September 26, 2021 after the German general elections. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)
The votes are all counted, but what does it all mean? Brian Melican explains who the winners and losers are in Germany's federal election and what's likely to happen next.

With all the votes counted and most of the hellishly complicated seats clearing process completed, we already have a very clear view of what the next German Bundestag will look like.

In the end, there were no major upsets (if a few minor surprises), and so – as predicted – neither of the leading parties has delivered the other a knock-out blow and both will be trying to form a government. We’ll see just how that works out for the CDU’s Armin Laschet, however, who is clearly the loser of the evening and now faces an uphill struggle to convince both the electorate and, most problematically, some key figures in his own party that the CDU can, having haemorrhaged support and sunk to a historic low, lead a government. 

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Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet reacts on stage as he adresses the audience at the CDU headquarters after the estimates were broadcast on television in Berlin on September 26, 2021 after the German general elections. (Photo by Ina Fassbender / AFP)

Indeed – also, as predicted (sorry, I know, no-one likes a smart Alec…) – the really interesting parts of the evening happened during the television post-mortems. In the Elefantenrunde (literally the elephants’ round) of party leaders, Laschet cut a better figure than expected, managing to keep his notorious bad temper under control even in the face of infuriating friendly fire from his CSU counterpart, Markus Söder, who of course had made a play to be the CDU/CSU Chancellor candidate earlier this summer.

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Bavaria’s State Premier and leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party Markus Söder. Photo by Sebastian Gollnow / POOL / AFP)

Söder, smooth operator that he is, managed to pull off one of the most impressive acts of political double-speak I have heard in recent years: on the surface, he was doggedly loyal to Laschet, agreeing that the Union should be trying to form a government under him despite the losses; reading between the lines, he damned Laschet with faint praise – arguing that he had ran a good campaign, but that “he was unfairly treated” (i.e. a wuss) – and repeated at several points that the main message of the election results was “the desire for change”, stressing the word “change” until it seemed somehow to suggest that Laschet should throw in the towel. This was incredibly successful political hedging from a man who, given his strong standing in Bavaria, has nothing left to lose and every chance of running in 2025 if the Union does end up in opposition.

Similarly, there was Rainer Haseloff, the CDU state premier of Saxony-Anhalt strengthened by a resounding win in his Bundesland in June. Having declared for Söder during the race to be Chancellor candidate, Haseloff was not going to do Laschet any favours following the CDU’s catastrophic result, which saw a drop of eight percent in support compared to 2017.

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Haseloff’s method of putting distance between himself and someone who could very soon prove to have been nothing more than a brief chapter in CDU political history was to wax philosophical on a talk show following the candidates’ debate, talking in the broadest of terms about respect for voters and, with a sphinx-like smile, declining to unambiguously endorse plans for a CDU-led government. The message was unclear to the point of being unmistakeable: Armin Laschet gets a crack at forming a government, but can’t expect much support even from his own party – and will be toast if he fails.

The FDP and Greens as kingmakers

Laschet’s success or failure, of course, now depends on who the FDP and the Greens opt for. On paper, a coalition with Olaf Scholz as SPD chancellor is now the option with the strongest majority and, with the SPD as largest party (by however small a margin) and having upped its share of the vote by 5 percent since 2017, the democratic imperative is clear. However, the FDP now faces the unenviable task of having to explain to its primarily right-of-centre supporters why helping an SPD Chancellor and lots of lefty Greens into power is what they voted for.

And that’s where I was wrong about how the Elephantenrunde would play out (see, I’m also happy to own up to mistakes): Christian Lindner was not smiling like a Cheshire cat. In fact, whenever he wasn’t speaking, he had a mildly petrified look about him on which the cameras frequently lingered. Although theoretically the Greens, too, face a dilemma about whether to back Scholz’ ‘traffic-light’ coalition of Laschet’s ‘Jamaica’ option, they have a convincing narrative for governing in both (the overriding importance of tackling the climate crisis) and, if that’s how the cookie crumbles, can argue to their largely left-leaning supporters that they have no other option than to join the CDU and FDP as long as they have made visible efforts to get Scholz into the Chancellery first.

The leader and top candidate of Germany’s free democratic FDP party Christian Lindner. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz / AFP)

If Lindner can’t get Jamaica, though, he faces a either revolt from his supporters for doing the right thing and going into government with Scholz or political self-destruction by, once again, throwing away a chance to govern and leaving little other option than yet another Grand Coalition. 

This is, by the way, still the eventual outcome that some smart money is still riding on. For all the candidates’ promises yesterday to get a government formed on the double, there is little way, with parallel negotiations going on between two parties and the SDP and Union respectively, that fast progress can be made. If Laschet falls at any point and Lindner does go nuclear, then Frank Walter Steinmeier will once again yoke the two largest parties together for want of a better option. I personally hope that it doesn’t come to that – but if it does, you heard it here first.


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