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

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.

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)

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.

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.

READ ALSO: ‘Disaster avoided’ – How Bavaria voted n Germany’s key federal election

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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Germany’s ‘traffic light’ parties sign coalition agreement in Berlin

Two and a half months after the federal elections on September 26th, the three parties of the incoming 'traffic light' coalition - the SPD, Greens and FDP - have formally signed their coalition agreement at a public ceremony in Berlin.

Traffic light coalition
Germany's next Chancellor Olaf Scholz (front, left) on stage in Berlin with other members of the new coalition government, and their signed agreement. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The move marks the final stage of a 10-week week process that saw the three unlikely bedfellows forming a first-of-its-kind partnership in German federal government. 

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is now due to be elected Chancellor of Germany on Wednesday and his newly finalised cabinet will be sworn in on the same day. This will mark the end of the 16-year Angela Merkel era following the veteran leader’s decision to retire from politics this year. 

Speaking at the ceremony in Berlin on Tuesday morning, Scholz declared it “a morning when we set out for a new government.”

He praised the speed at which the three parties had concluded their talks and said the fight against the Covid crisis would first require the full strength of the new coalition.

Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck, who is set to head up a newly formed environment and energy ministry, said the goal was “a government for the people of Germany”.

He stressed that the new government would face the joint challenge of bringing climate neutrality and prosperity together in Europe’s largest industrial nation and the world’s fourth largest economy.

Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock spoke of a coalition agreement “on the level of reality, on the level of social reality”.

FDP leader Christian Lindner, who managed to secure the coveted role of Finance Minister in the talks, declared that now was the “time for action”.

“We are not under any illusions,” he told people gathered at the ceremony. “These are great challenges we face.”

Scholz, Habeck and Lindner are scheduled to hold  a press conference before midday to answer questions on the goals of the new government.

‘New beginnings’

Together with the Greens and the FDP, Scholz’s SPD managed in a far shorter time than expected to forge a coalition that aspires to make Germany greener and fairer.

The Greens became the last of the three parties to agree on the contents of the 177-page coalition agreement an in internal vote on Monday, following approval from the SPD and FDP’s inner ranks over the weekend.

“I want the 20s to be a time of new beginnings,” Scholz told Die Zeit weekly, declaring an ambition to push forward “the biggest industrial modernisation which will be capable of stopping climate change caused by mankind”.

Putting equality rhetoric into practice, he unveiled the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet on Monday, with women in key security portfolios.

“That corresponds to the society we live in – half of the power belongs to women,” said Scholz, who describes himself as a “feminist”.

READ ALSO: Scholz names Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet

The centre-left’s return to power in Europe’s biggest economy could shift the balance on a continent still reeling from Brexit and with the other major player, France, heading into presidential elections in 2022.

But even before it took office, Scholz’s “traffic-light” coalition – named after the three parties’ colours – was already given a baptism of fire in the form of a fierce fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Balancing act
Dubbed “the discreet” by left-leaning daily TAZ, Scholz, 63, is often described as austere or robotic.
But he also has a reputation for being a meticulous workhorse.
An experienced hand in government, Scholz was labour minister in Merkel’s first coalition from 2007 to 2009 before taking over as vice chancellor and finance minister in 2015.
Yet his three-party-alliance is the first such mix at the federal level, as the FDP is not a natural partner for the SPD or the Greens.

Keeping the trio together will require a delicate balancing act taking into account the FDP’s business-friendly leanings, the SPD’s social equality instincts and the Greens’ demands for sustainability.

Under their coalition deal, the parties have agreed to secure Germany’s path to carbon neutrality, including through huge investments in sustainable energy.

They also aim to return to a constitutional no-new-debt rule – suspended during the pandemic – by 2023.

FDP cabinets
Volker Wissing (l-r), FDP General Secretary und designated Transport Minister, walks alongside Christian Lindner, FDP leader and designated Finance Minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP), the incoming Education Minister, and Marco Buschmann, the incoming Justice Minister. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler


Incoming foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens has vowed to put human rights at the centre of German diplomacy.

She has signalled a more assertive stance towards authoritarian regimes like China and Russia after the commerce-driven pragmatism of Merkel’s 16 years in power.

Critics have accused Merkel of putting Germany’s export-dependent economy first in international dealings.

Nevertheless she is still so popular at home that she would probably have won a fifth term had she sought one.

The veteran politician is also widely admired abroad for her steady hand guiding Germany through a myriad of crises.