Pictured: Olaf Scholz. Photo by Oboneo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Setting the scene

On September 26, Germans elected a new Bundestag. The stage for this election was set in October 2018, when Angela Merkel announced her resignation as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her decision not to run again as federal Chancellor. Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known by her initials AKK, was able to secure a narrow 52 per cent majority in the December 2018 party convention, but resigned a little over a year later, her fate sealed by the regional CDU branch in the state of Thuringia. In government formation following the 2019 election for the Landtag (state assembly), the state CDU cooperated in February 2020 with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in electing Thomas Kemmerich of the small centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) as Minister-President. The collaboration of the CDU and FDP with the AfD provoked loud protests since it was considered a first breach in the firewall that the democratic parties had agreed to construct around the far-right grouping. Along with other federal politicians, AKK asked the regional party to agree to new elections. However, Christian Democrats in Thuringia refused to dissolve the Landtag, and AKK resigned.

So with an election due in 16 months, another leader for the party Merkel had led for more than 18 years had to be found. What made the situation worse was that because of the COVID outbreak and subsequent lockdowns, the party could not hold a national convention until January 2021. In the interim, the party endured a year of infighting that finally brought Armin Laschet to the party leadership. It was hardly a resounding triumph: Laschet finished second in the first round and needed a runoff election to secure his victory. With only eight months left until the Bundestag election, this poor start in his new office also meant that Laschet was off to a poor start in the emerging election campaign. Moreover, there was uncertainty over whether he would emerge as the party’s candidate for Chancellor. Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria and head of the CDU’s sister party in that state, the Christian Social Union (CSU), made it clear that he wanted to run as the joint CDU-CSU candidate. But while Söder was supported by of a majority of party members and was more popular than Laschet in the polls, Laschet prevailed with the backing of the CDU’s national council.

Despite its ragged start in 2021, Laschet’s CDU looked like the sure winner of the Bundestag election – not because of its own performance but mostly because of the unpopularity of its main competitor, the Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD’s historic defeat in the European Parliament election in May 2019 had left it with less than 16 per cent of the vote, and it remained at that level of support in the polls. It faced internal divisions over its participation in the third Grand Coalition led by Merkel. Following the European election debacle, its leader, Andrea Nahles, a supporter of the coalition with the Christian Democrats, resigned after only 13 months in office.

The party then decided to switch to a dual presidency and, for the first time in its history, organized an internal primary to replace Nahles. The primary, held in October 2019, resulted in the selection of the widely unknown Saskia Esken and former North Rhine–Westphalia Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans. Most observers interpreted this team’s victory as a humiliation of the SPD’s most prominent figure, federal Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was part of the team that Esken and Walter-Borjans defeated in the primary. Rather than encourage internal opposition against the new leaders, Scholz stepped back and accepted the decision. In return, in August 2020, a now united SPD nominated Scholz as its candidate for Chancellor for the 2021 federal election.

Still, entering the campaign, the SPD consistently remained low in the polls. The SPD’s weak position and the unpopularity of the CDU under Laschet created an opening for the Greens. The Greens secured close to 20 per cent in the 2018 Hesse state election, increased their vote by nearly 10 per cent in the 2019 European Parliament election and, in March 2021, improved on their already impressive result in Baden-Württemberg, reelecting Green Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann. At the federal level, the polls at one point had the Greens in first place in the leadup to the Bundestag election. These positive trends motivated the Greens to nominate, for the first time, their own candidate for the federal Chancellor’s office. Even though there were two potential candidates for the job, the Greens managed to come together and, in April 2021, nominated Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for the Chancellery. This decision reflected a shift in public opinion: Germans were now telling pollsters that the most important election issue was the climate crisis.

Climate change becomes the campaign’s focal point

Global warming had become a major concern since the 2017 Bundestag election, with the environment replacing immigration as a key issue (see figure 1). In May 2019, polls for the first time identified climate change as the most important problem Germans faced. Overshadowed by the pandemic for two years, the environment made it back to first place in August 2021, just in time for the election campaign. During this period, the movement fighting climate change, Fridays for Future (FFF), which had originated with the actions of Greta Thunberg in Sweden in the summer of 2018, quickly gained ground in Germany as well as internationally. In December 2018, the first school strikes were organized in northern Germany. By February 2019, FFF counted more than 155 local groups in the country. Participation in Germany in the first global strike on March 15, 2019, was estimated at 300,000 people.¹

In the context of rising concern over environmental issues and the climate crisis, the German Constitutional Court rather unexpectedly added a legal argument to the severe criticism of German climate politics advanced by FFF. In March 2021 the Court ruled that the federal law on climate protection, passed in late 2019, potentially breached the constitutionally guaranteed rights of future generations. The court stated that the law, which sets out specific carbon dioxide reductions and expenditures for each branch of the economy until 2030, lacks a clear plan for subsequent years. This, the judges said, could lead to excessive carbon dioxide pollution until 2030 which then will have to be compensated for by rigorous measures in the following years, measures which could severely restrict civil liberties protected by the constitution.

The Merkel government’s immediate reaction was to amend the law. Germany is now supposed to be climate neutral in 2045 instead of 2050 and the law stipulates carbon dioxide reductions for the period after 2030. However, the government did not propose practical measures that would help the country reach the new reduction goals, an obvious lacuna that was essentially blamed on the Christian Democrats, who had always opposed stricter measures in the past. So not only the Greens but also Olaf Scholz’s SPD campaigned on climate issues, both calling for a historic economic transformation to rapidly attain climate neutrality.

COVID and its ramifications

As figure 1 shows, COVID quickly dominated the public debate after March 2020. While overall the German health system responded relatively effectively, lockdowns led to concerns that the economy would suffer. Olaf Scholz, as Finance Minister in the coalition government, was in a good position to demonstrate his abilities as a crisis manager in responding. He flooded the economy with subsidies, suspended the constitutionally mandated debt limit and allowed the European Union to issue COVID bonds that were guaranteed by all member states. All this would have provoked outrage in normal times but passed without significant criticism during the pandemic.

For their part, Laschet and Baerbock had a harder time during the crisis. For one thing, the crisis shifted the focus of attention to the executive, leaving Baerbock out of the limelight. On the other hand Laschet, as Minister-President of North Rhine–Westphalia, the most populous German state, participated in all the pandemic crisis meetings among the 16 state governments and the federal government to coordinate the fight against the pandemic. This placed him at eye level with Scholz, but he was undermined by the rivalry with Bavarian Minister-President Söder. Compared to Söder’s tendency to take authoritative decisions and his determination to resolutely fight against the virus, Laschet’s deliberative approach appeared weak in this moment of crisis.

Another campaign issue that emerged as a result of the pandemic was social justice. While many white-collar workers worked at home, with any reduction in income generously compensated by the finance and labour ministers (both Social Democrats), many workers – often badly paid – serving the public in health care, geriatric care and public transport as well as in retail were regularly taking risks. This experience in large parts of the working population resulted in Scholz’s campaign theme of a “respectful society.” His promise to increase the minimum wage to €12 proved
especially effective.

Scholz’s deft campaign and his opponents’ missteps

In addition to thematic issues, election campaigns are also decided by candidates’ (perceived) personal attributes. Scholz, though still seen as somewhat colourless, ran a well-planned campaign. Baerbock gave the impression of not being well prepared. For his part, Laschet committed one faux pas after another. Following a disastrous flood in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine–Westphalia, he was filmed laughing behind the back of federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who offered his sympathies to those who had lost family members, homes and possessions. When a reporter asked Laschet to tell her about the three most important projects he would undertake as Chancellor, he spontaneously named digitalization of public administration and the fight against climate change, but was unable to name a third issue that he would tackle immediately after taking office. This led to a perception of his being maladroit if not incompetent, a public image reinforced in many of his public appearances, especially on social media channels.

Map of Germany
Map of Germany, via Traveler100, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Annalena Baerbock, who was the youngest candidate for Chancellor since the FDP’s Guido Westerwelle in 2002, was quickly confronted with her lack of experience. A member of the Bundestag since 2013, she had never served in government at any level. Pointing this out was criticized as misogynist by many observers, but her mistakes during the campaign confirmed that she was unprepared for the office she sought. For example, while she was campaigning for transparency in Bundestag members’ incomes, it turned out that she had failed to declare part of her salary as president of the Green Party to the Bundestag administration. Also, press reports on questionable entries in her official CV forced her to issue amended versions. And finally, when a lack of references in a book that she published in June 2021 led to suggestions of plagiarism, she agreed to add references in a second edition, and was then criticized for not justifying her initial approach as a way of making the book more accessible.

His opponents’ mistakes opened a path for Olaf Scholz. He had never been enthusiastically welcomed by either the public or the party, and his calm and disciplined manner had earned him the nickname “Scholz-o-mat.” But his style was widely perceived as close to Merkel’s, which the public had become used to – and for the most part liked. By late July 2021, two months before the election, Scholz for the first time outperformed Laschet as most popular Chancellor candidate in Forschungsgruppe Wahlen’s regular polls.²

By election time Scholz had an impressive lead in the popularity poll (48 per cent vs. 22 per cent for Laschet and 15 per cent for Baerbock), but when it came to support for their parties the polls’ message was less clearcut. In the end, the SPD won the election with 25.7 per cent, against 24.1 per cent for the CDU-CSU. The Greens finished third with 14.8 per cent, followed by the FDP (11.5 per cent) and the AfD (10.3 per cent). The Left, with 4.9 per cent, only secured entry into the new Bundestag via its performance in three single-member districts that allowed it to circumvent the 5 per cent threshold. Scholz and his SPD negotiated a three-party coalition with the Greens and the FDP, and Scholz was sworn in as federal Chancellor
on December 8.

This article was published as part of a larger elections feature for Inroads 50. To check out the rest, go to Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).


¹ School Strike for Climate, Wikipedia.

² Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, Am liebesten als Bundeskanzler/in, Politbarometer, September 17, 2021.