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German elections 2021: Four things we learned

As the dust settles after Bundestagswahl 2021, Konrad Werner looks at what the results reveal about German priorities, from the climate crisis to the far right.

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Now we know what Germans really think when they’re alone with their politics in the voting booth. But what did we learn? Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

I love the ritual of voting. I don’t want to send my vote in the post. That is not satisfying. I like the sense of occasion that comes with queuing up in a repurposed primary school, and then being handed the papers and a big pencil. But the main thing I like is the sudden privacy of the voting booth itself, in a little box on a school desk. There’s a pure solitude in there. The only other time you’re so alone is on the toilet – except you’re not supposed to fiddle with your phone in the voting booth.

Suddenly, after so many weeks of public arguing, TV debates, getting unnecessarily emotional about things on Twitter, you’re just left in there alone. It’s just you and your thoughts, and you only have one mark to make. An X in a circle. What do you really think? It’s a moment of purity.

Anyway, now we know what Germans really think when they’re alone with their politics. Here are a few things we learned from Sunday’s elections:

1. Germany is still mainly run by old voters

This was supposed to be the new era, post-Merkel election of young people voting for dynamic politicians to do things differently: The Greens dared to put up a chancellor candidate for the first time ever, and for a moment back in May it looked like they even had the numbers to pull it off.

The neoliberal FDP had their own resurgence, and for the first time in their history defended a double-figure result in consecutive elections. But it wasn’t all that amazing. The FDP barely made any gains in the end, and though the Greens did much better than 2017, they did much worse than they expected to a couple of months ago. All that really happened on Sunday was that the old voters decided Olaf Scholz looked nicer than Armin Laschet.

2. Germans are happy to give up on the Paris climate accord

Since most of Germany’s voters don’t expect to be alive in 2050, they also couldn’t care less about whether or not Germany sticks to the 1.5C degree global warming target agreed by the Paris climate accord. We’re now almost certain to reach 2C within 20-25 years, which the IPCC says is a major risk to ecosystems and food supplies, not to mention making flooding, droughts and forest destruction much more likely. All surveys agreed that the climate was the single most important issue for voters in this election, but the main parties offered some weak, halfway solutions (this’ll do), which means we really are fucked.

3. People want a totally passive government that does not use its power AT ALL

Die Linke was the only major party with realistic plans for dealing with the climate crisis (a study found it would’ve got us slightly closer to 1.5C than any other big party), the housing crisis (only party in favour of a nationwide rent cap), and the poverty crisis (only party calling for a minimum wage of over €12.63 – which the German government’s Labour Ministry said was the minimum to ensure a liveable pension for retirees. And die Linke was almost totally destroyed in this election, though it scraped into the Bundestag thanks to its few direct candidates in Berlin (Gregor Gysi will never die!).

The Greens, meanwhile, won over voters this time around by shifting subtly to the centre in its manifesto – too afraid to be called the party of bans, it quietly slid rightwards, possibly to make itself a better match for a CDU/FDP coalition. Meanwhile in Berlin, though the housing socialisation referendum won, it probably won’t be implemented, as our newly elected mayor has already said she’s against it.

The point is: people want a government that manages crises as and when they happen. They don’t want a government that tries to make life better for its citizens. Stop doing things.. leave us alone.. we like feeling miserable.

4. The far-right has settled in

The best thing that happened in this election: the AfD lost ground across Germany, and especially in Berlin. Even better: Hans-Georg Maaßen failed in his attempt to drag the CDU to the dark side to pick up AfD voters in Thuringia, meaning the CDU won’t be tempted to try that again soon.

BUT: the AfD is now completely entrenched as a major party in eastern Germany, and the main parties have failed to figure out how to win those voters. The AfD will now settle for 10-12% in every election, and hope for a few more when refugee numbers rise. This will be worth it for them.