From three to one – Setting the scene for one of the most exciting federal elections in recent German history

by RPP Berlin


On 18 September 2005, the German citizens elected a new parliament. After the counting was completed, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder‘s Social-Democrats (SPD) achieved 34.2%, the Union parties (CDU/CSU), with their candidate for Chancellor Angela Merkel, came in at 35.2%. The CDU/CSU had won the election, Angela Merkel became the new chancellor. She was to remain so for a total of 16 years. Only Helmut Kohl was Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for longer. In addition, she was the first woman to hold this office and shaped an entire generation of adolescents who had never experienced another person in the chancellorship before. The 16 years under Angela Merkel were to bring lasting change not only to the country but also to the party landscape.


Merkel will not run again in the Bundestag elections in September 2021. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, a chancellor will not stand for re-election. This has far-reaching implications for the election campaigns and the formation of public opinion. For the first time, a candidate for chancellor cannot act from the position of the incumbent. Instead, all candidates must present themselves from the position of contender and emphasise their suitability for the office.

In addition, alongside the Social-Democrats (SPD) and the Union parties (CDU/CSU), which historically have been the people‘s parties, a third party has legitimate prospects of being able to provide the next chancellor. This is the party Bündnis90/die Grünen (Greens). The Greens have been represented in the Bundestag since the 1980s. They have been able to increase their poll ratings in recent months and years due to the rising focus of society on the issue of climate change and how to combat it. A few weeks before the Bundestag elections, the picture now is that all three parties are relatively even in terms of vote share in the polls. While the Greens have been consistently around the 20% mark since Annalena Baerbock, who is also her party‘s candidate for chancellor, and Robert Habeck took over the party chairmanship in 2018, the CDU/CSU continues to slip in the polls. After an internal power struggle within the party over the chancellor candidacy, which the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia and CDU Federal Chairman Armin Laschet was ultimately able to win, and a rather sobering performance for many party sympathisers with a number of slips by Laschet in the subsequent election campaign, the party‘s poll ratings are plummeting towards the 20% mark. The SPD, with its candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, can profit from this in particular, as he has been able to gain ground with his sober, factual and well-founded appearance and has now been able to overtake the CDU/CSU and the Greens in the polls.

The liberals of the FDP, the Left Party and the right-wing populist AfD also have good chances of entering the new Bundestag. However, these parties' candidates have no realistic chance of becoming chancellor in the newly elected Bundestag. For this reason, they do not run a candidate for chancellor, but only top candidates, either the party leader or the leader in the current Bundestag parliamentary group.


The coalition possibilities after the 2021 Bundestag elections

Based on this initial situation, a whole range of possible coalitions emerge. Obviously, some are more likely than others. The following options (A-E) are not that probable or even (mathematically) not possible at this moment. Nonetheless, these are options that have been talked a lot about in recent times:

A) For a long time, a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens was considered the most promising possibility. However, due to the Unions parties' currently declining poll ratings, the vote share of these parties will probably not be sufficient. The same applies to an alliance of SPD and Greens, even though these parties have a relatively large overlap in terms of content.

B) Nor is there likely to be a new Grand Coalition, as there was under Angela Merkel in three of her four terms in office, after the upcoming election. For one thing, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough in purely mathematical terms. On the other hand, many SPD supporters attribute the party‘s poor performance in recent years to the Grand Coalition.

C) A coalition of the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party is mathematically possible (at present), but also unlikely due to disagreements, especially on foreign and security policy. Such a coalition is repeatedly brought into play, especially by the left wings of the SPD and the Greens, as well as by the Left Party. In light of the ever-worsening poll ratings of the CDU and the rise of the SPD, this coalition option is constantly rising in popularity and possibility in order to avoid a CDU/CSU participation in the next government.

D) Another possible coalition option, although not very likely, is the so-called “Germany coalition”. In this, the CDU/CSU (party colour: black), SPD (red) and FDP (yellow) would form an alliance. As with the Grand Coalition, Union parties and Social-Democrats would have to work together here. Such cooperation cannot be ruled out, but it will probably not be the SPD‘s primary goal. Rather, such a coalition could come about if no other alliance is formed.

E) The most stable coalition option in mathematical terms would be a so-called “Kenya coalition”. This is an alliance of CDU/CSU, SPD and Greens. A “Kenya coalition” would probably even achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament. However, a coalition of the three “big” parties does not really seem realistic, rather a coalition of two of these parties with one of the smaller ones.


The most likely options – “traffic light” or “Jamaica coalition”

The (currently) most realistic coalition options after the Bundestag elections seem to be the so-called “traffic light coalition” or the “Jamaica coalition”.

F) In a “traffic light coalition”, the SPD, the Greens and the FDP form an alliance. While there is an extremely large overlap between the SPD and the Greens, especially in their positions on social policy, the FDP is the decisive argument in such a coalition. The core of the party‘s brand is basically made up of rather bourgeois and economically liberal positions. The extent to which these are compatible with the fundamentally more left-wing positions of the SPD and the Greens would be the central point of conflict here. Olaf Scholz as chancellor, who is considered more “conservative” in the social-democratic context, as well as a realpolitical wing in the Greens dominating with Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck taking over the party chairmanship could mitigate this point of conflict. FDP leader Christian Linder has recently repeatedly emphasised that he finds it difficult to imagine a “traffic light coalition” and that it depends heavily on what the SPD and the Greens offer his party, whether the FPD would be available. If it were, only a “red traffic light”, in which the SPD in the person of Olaf Scholz would provide the chancellor, would certainly come into question. A “green traffic light”, led by the Greens, would probably fail due to the rejection of the FDP. For the Greens, a “traffic light coalition” would certainly give a boost to the left wing of the party, as it would tend to be easier to implement more “left-wing” positions with the SPD than in a coalition led by the CDU/CSU.

G) Apart from the “traffic light coalition”, the “Jamaica coalition” currently seems to be the most realistic option. In this case, the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the FDP would form an alliance, whereby the Christian-Democrats would provide the chancellor. Such a coalition was already being negotiated after the last federal election in 2017. At that time, FDP leader Christian Lindner let the coalition fall through with the now famous words “it is better not to govern than to govern wrongly” shortly before it came to fruition. In the meantime, the Greens in particular have moved more to the centre of the political spectrum. The FDP seems willing not to repeat its actions of four years ago. For the CDU/CSU such a coalition would be highly desirable under the given conditions and the supposed best option for retaining power. The Greens were already basically ready for a Jamaica coalition in 2017. This position should not have changed too much in the past four years. The realpolitik wing of the party in particular would certainly have little difficulty agreeing on a government programme in a “Jamaica coalition”.


Chance of a majority

As the Economist has calculated in early September, there are different probabilities for a majority of different coalition options in the newly elected Bundestag. According to these calculations, the so-called “Germany coalition” (option D) has a high chance for a majority (in 19 of 20 cases). The same probability has been calculated for the so-called “traffic light coalition” (option F) as well as the “Jamaika coalition” (option G). A leftist coalition (option C) achieves a majority in 8 out of 9 cases. The currently governing Grand Coalition (option B) reaches a majority in 1 in 3 cases. A coalition of the CDU/CSU and the Greens (option A), which has been seen as the next government-coalition for a long time, only reaches a majority in 1 of 20 cases in the newly elected Bundestag, according to the Economist’s calculations.


Positions and people

Particularly against the background of the substantive priorities, it will be exciting to observe to what extent the parties will succeed in implementing their own goals and being able to reach compromises.

In the health policy section of its election manifesto, the CDU/CSU focuses on the framework conditions to which research-based companies are exposed. Thus, it supports access for research-based companies to pseudonymised health care data, the financial and personnel reinforcement of the Paul Ehrlich Institute and the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices for an acceleration of approval procedures in the field of pharmaceutical research. In addition, the party wants to advance the development of new medicines by creating uniform specifications in the areas of data protection, transnational studies or the introduction of binding model contracts for clinical trials.

For the party, some of the personalities who have already played a prominent role in the field of health policy will probably continue to be of great relevance in the future. One is Prof Dr Claudia Schmidtke, a trained physician and the federal government's patient representative, who is also a member of the health committee. Stephan Pilsinger, also a member of the previous Health Committee, who represents the CSU from Bavaria, will probably remain relevant in this context, as will Tino Sorge, who has been in the Bundestag since 2013 and represents the party from Saxony-Anhalt.

For the SPD it is clear that the state has to play a certain role in the health economy. In addition, the party puts a focus on standardising the development methods of personalised medicine. This should ensure that it is accessible to all people and at affordable prices.

For a long time, a significantly weaker result for the SPD had been expected compared to the 2017 federal election (2017 result: 20.5%). However, with the party's increasingly strong poll results, more also seems possible for the party again. This would accordingly also have an impact on the number of MPs entering the Bundestag. Sabine Dittmar, the party's spokesperson on health policy and fraction-leader of the parliamentary committee on health, is considered to be particularly relevant, not only in the current legislative period but also in the coming one. Dr Edgar Franke, who was already chair of the Health Committee from 2014-2017 and is currently also a member of this committee, will likely play an important role in health policy for the party in the coming legislative period.

The Greens want to strengthen public health care in Germany and therefore create a new Federal Institute for Health. This institute should complement the health offices and the university structures of public health care and coordinate them more closely. Furthermore, the party wants to make the health system more gender-equal. Gender-specific aspects are to be taken more into account in research, especially in drug research, education, and medical practice. European top-level research is to be strengthened through the formation of clusters in order to be able to keep up in the international competition between locations.

Due to the expected significantly better result of the party compared to the last Bundestag election (result 2017: 8.9%), it can be assumed that the Greens will be represented with significantly more MPs in the upcoming Bundestag. Also in the context of these developments, it can be assumed that the current fraction-leader of the Bundestag's Committee on Health, Dr Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, will also play an important role in the context of health policy in the new Bundestag. The same applies to the current spokesperson for health policy and member of the health committee, Maria Klein-Schmeink, as well as the health politician Kordula Schulz-Asche.

It is particularly important to the FDP to bring the production of pharmaceuticals back to Germany or the EU. Another focus is on the digitalisation of the health care system. For this, clear and transparent framework conditions would have to be created in the areas of open standards, interoperability, data security and networking of the actors. In the area of research funding, the focus should be on innovations in medicines, medical technology and digitalisation through the unbureaucratic allocation of funding. Intellectual property should be strictly protected in patent law.

In terms of personnel, the same personalities could play a role in health policy who already appear in the current Bundestag on this issue. This includes, on the one hand, the party's health policy spokesperson, Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus. In addition, the fraction-leader of the parliamentary Committee on Health, Prof Andrew Ullmann, is likely to play a weighty role for the FDP on this complex of issues.


The election date is only a few weeks away. The three major parties are still relatively evenly matched, even though the Social-Democrats seem to slowly win the upper hand in this pre-election phase. But since this development seems to be based on the weakness of Laschet and Baerbock, rather than the strength of Scholz, the tide can turn quickly. Even though a “traffic light” or “Jamaica coalition” are currently the most likely scenarios, discussions on other coalitions such as a left-wing alliance are in full swing. Even after the official final results are available, speculation will not be over. A long phase of coalition negotiations is expected, which may well drag on into next year. There is only one thing that is already certain: It is going to be one of the most exciting federal elections in recent German history.



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