Whether you’ve got the golden ticket to vote or not, we bring you the basics on Germany’s 2021 Bundestagswahl.
HOW VOTING WORKS
German elections are a hybrid of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. That means every citizen gets two votes: one for their local Bundestag member (first vote), and another for the federal party as a whole (second vote). So the parliament is made up of 299 “direct candidates” (the ones who won their seats directly) and “list candidates” nominated by the parties. The number of list candidates changes from election to election – at the moment, there are over 400 of them.
September 26 is a specially bewildering election day for eligi- ble Berliners, because they have six votes in total: two federal votes, two votes for the Berlin parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus), a vote for their local district council (Bezirksverordnetenversammlung, or BVV), and a vote in the referendum on expropriating Deutsche Wohnen. You need to be a German citizen over 18 years old to vote in all but one of these.
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Armin Laschet | Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU)
The absence of Angela Merkel was always going to make this election the most interesting since 2005, when she was first elected. But in April, the conservative CDU/CSU bloc made it even more exciting by deciding to field Laschet, the least popular of the three men contending to be chancellor candidate (Markus Söder and Friedrich Merz were his short-lived, bitter rivals).
The fact that Laschet, the 60-year-old premier of German mega-state North Rhine-Westphalia, feels entitled to leadership hasn’t exactly gone down well with the electorate so far (laughing on TV in a flood disaster zone was not a great look). A recent poll found that only 35 percent of Germans think he’d make a good chancellor. But as things stand, he’s most likely to win.
Annalena Baerbock | The Greens
In early June this year, the 40-year-old Baerbock – considered a level-headed, pragmatic politician – was the most popular in the race for the Chancellery. Back then, some happy dreamers believed that the Greens might even beat the CDU/CSU. Then, as all candidates do, she published a book, Jetzt: Wie wir unser Land erneuern (‘Now: How we renew our country’), and the conservative press saw its chance to pounce.
The plagiarism accusations were thin, but the headlines were damaging, and only stopped when western Germany was hit by horrific floods almost certainly caused by climate change. There was even some brief talk of swapping her for the other (arguably more competent) party leader, Robert Habeck, but the Greens have stuck to their guns, come what may.
Olaf Scholz | Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Scholz should be a safe bet for the chancellorship: he’s a 63-year-old man, he used to be the head of a state government (Hamburg), he already holds the second-most important office in the land (finance minister) and he’s as close to the dead centre of German politics as is possible without actually being Merkel.
Since both Laschet and Baerbock have taken a beating in the polls, a majority of Germans think that Scholz is the most chancellor-ready of the candidates. The only trouble is his party. The Social Democrats have been part of three out of four Merkel governments – despite (or maybe because of ) that fact, no one can remember what the point of them is any more.
Christian Lindner | Free Democratic Party (FDP)
Lindner has been leader of the FDP since 2013, when the party dropped former Deputy Chancellor Philipp Rösler after he was hounded out of the Bundestag altogether in that year’s election. That was also the last year the FDP was in power and Lindner, 43, seems to have acquired a taste for opposition. He has a nice haircut, knows how to make a cutting speech at the Bundestag podium and does not shy away from populist moves (like pandering to anti-lockdown sentiment).
But his credibility was damaged in 2017 when he walked out on the chance to join a coalition with the CDU and the Greens. Whether he gets a second chance this time around remains to be seen.
Janine Wissler, Dietmar Bartsch | Die Linke
Die Linke has lost the knack of being a radical opposition party over the years, which has left it trailing in the polls.
The Saxony-Anhalt state election dealt a further blow to momentum in June, when Germany’s only mainstream socialist party lost a third of its vote share in one of its eastern heartlands. Its choice of leading candidates probably looked good on paper: Bartsch, 63, is the well-liked, solid veteran; 40-year-old Wissler is the dynamic young one. The problem is both of them are less famous (and arguably less popular) than Die Linke’s eternal troublemaker, Sahra Wagenknecht who is topping the party’s ballot in NRW.
But Wissler, the party’s parliamentary leader in the state of Hesse, knows how to cause a bit of trouble herself. In remarks that riled the conservative media, she once described capitalism as “an inhumane, cruel system” and said that system change could not be achieved through parliament or government. Revolution!
Alice Weidel, Tino Chrupalla | Alternative for Germany (AfD)
The two leading candidates of Germany’s most successful far-right party since… well, you know… have decided that the muddy, brown path into deeper, darker nationalism is still the AfD’s best chance. About 12 percent of Germans seem to agree. Weidel, 42, is the more senior of the two figures, having al- ready stood as leading candidate in the last election in 2017. Despite her opposition to immigration, the former freelance business consultant lives between southern Germany and Switzerland, raising two children with a Swiss woman of Sri Lankan heritage.
Chrupalla, meanwhile, is a classic disgruntled ex-CDU voter. Having joined the AfD in 2015 because of Merkel’s refugee policy, the 46-year-old tweeted last year that the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement only showed what a “dead end” multiculturalism is. Alarmingly, this makes him a moderate in the AfD.
Sure, vaccines have become widely available. But with incidence rates rising and the dreaded autumn season approaching, the coronavirus isn’t leaving the agenda any time soon. We’ve moved past debating the handling of the health crisis itself and onto agonising over the Impfquote. Driving the debate are the FDP and the AfD, who have been making a big deal out of the right to remain unvaccinated and doubling down on their opposition to Covid restrictions.
Meanwhile, the Greens are all about running a digital update on Germany’s all-too-analogue health system to cope with future pandemics, and the CDU, infamously divided on how strict lockdowns should be, wants to boost financing for public health authorities like the Robert Koch Institute.
This is obviously where the Greens can make the most noise, but they’re being cautious about it. Unlike her SPD and CDU rivals, would-be Klimakanzlerin Annalena Baerbock did not bring a press contingent when she visited western Germany’s flood disaster regions this summer. That was probably wise – the Greens are wary of looking too preachy.
Either way, their aim of creating a “climate-neutral” Germany in 20 years won’t be possible without some fundamental social changes and Big Government interventions. While the Greens are determined to shut down coal power stations by 2030, the CDU and the FDP are still talking about carbon trade-off schemes. The AfD, on the other hand, doesn’t believe climate change is man-made at all.
Probably only a major issue in urban centres, this caused the biggest rupture among the parties following Berlin’s rent cap fiasco earlier this year. The CDU is still convinced that building new homes (1.5 million in the next five years) will somehow help ease the housing crisis and the party rejects any rent caps.
The SPD has promised to create 100,000 affordable homes per year. Die Linke is in favour of a nationwide rent cap, a cap on property prices in general, and making major property developers publicly owned. The Greens don’t want a nationwide rent cap, but they would allow states to bring in their own rent caps if they want to. The Greens also want to force all new buildings and new renovations to be climate-neutral.
The digital economy
Germany’s internet is notoriously bad, which means Digitalisierung is still a campaign issue. Every single party is promising all kinds of new stuff. The CDU says we’ll have blanket 5G coverage by 2025. The SPD says every schoolchild should get a laptop or a tablet, and wants to make internet access cheaper for low-income earners, students and families.
The FDP wants to create a Ministry for Digital Transformation and foster more competition to create better internet coverage. The Greens want to invest in IT solutions to make the power grid more energy-efficient. Die Linke says everyone should have the right to fast internet. And finally, the AfD wants 5G to be scientifically studied for possible health hazards.