What will happen in the 2021 German Federal Elections?

, by Henry Bugg

What will happen in the 2021 German Federal Elections?
Federal German elections 2021 vote label and envelopes for postal voting. Credit: Marco Verch, Flickr

On September 26 the German public will go to the polls to vote for a new chancellor after almost 16 years of Angela Merkel. The post-Merkel era promises to be a key period, with the incoming leadership set to define the post-pandemic recovery and key issues such as the environment and foreign policy challenges.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) occupies a difficult space in the current electoral situation. The 2017 elections were a success for the party. However, the nature of the party and German politics has changed. Party issues and controversies have damaged the AfD while political competition in Germany has shifted toward the centre, with the Greens led by Annalena Baerbock competing for the Chancellery against the centrist Union conservative bloc candidate Armin Laschet.

Outline and Development of the AfD

Founded in 2013 by a group of experienced politicians disillusioned with the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), including key figures such as Bernd Lucke and Alexander Gauland, the AfD has shifted from its original position heavily focused upon economic critique and the Eurozone crisis. The key developmental change came in 2015, with right-wing radicalism moving to the fore as the refugee crisis reached its peak in Germany. Shifting leadership, demographics, and messaging substantiated this movement toward right-wing extremism under then-leader Frauke Petry.

This change generated results, with the 2017 elections heralding federal-level success for the party for the first time. With 12.6% of the vote, a +7.9% swing relative to the previous federal election, the AfD not only entered the Bundestag, but also became the largest opposition party. The AfD has continued to move to the right since 2017, with Petry leaving to form a splinter organisation and the party embracing radical right wing politics under the new leadership of Alexander Gauland, Jörg Meuthen, and later Tino Chrupalla.

Recent Influence

In contrast, the AfD is now a declining force relative to 2017. Though they remain a secure 6th party in the German system, with a huge electorate in some federal states such as Saxony, where the party polled 27% in 2017 and remain strong, the party is struggling for momentum.

Success at recent regional elections has been limited. The party struggled in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, moving from 15% to below 10% of the vote in both federal states. Furthermore, there is currently no major crisis which is amenable to AfD policy and messaging. Though the party attempted to claim an alternative position regarding the Coronavirus pandemic, this has been of limited success and does not have the same traction as the Eurozone Crisis of 2012 or the Refugee Crisis of 2015.

Recent political scandals have also damaged the status of the AfD. The expulsion of two prominent party members, one with Neo-Nazi links and another who suggested killing migrants, has not helped develop wider voter appeal, while the widely reported decision by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to place the entire party under surveillance has further harmed their image.

2021 Federal elections

The post-Merkel era promises programmatic change in German politics, with parties sensing an opportunity, and the nation itself reckoning with a change away from a chancellor whose name has become synonymous with stability.

CDU candidate Armin Laschet is a Merkel ally and is largely committed to continuity rather than change. His candidacy presents a focus upon the centre rather than a shift for the right - crucially leaving space open for the AfD on the right of the Union. In contrast, in her first speech as the official Green party candidate for the chancellery, Annalena Baerbock clearly positioned herself as the progressive candidate, setting out an alternative vision for Germany offered by her surging Green party.

The Coronavirus pandemic is a key contextual factor in these elections. The CDU handling of Covid-19 has been the subject of serious criticism and has been damaging for the party, leading to conflict not only between the government and its critics, but also between Laschet and Merkel. Issues such as the slow vaccine rollout in the early period, the handling of later waves and restrictions, and political strife between federal and state governments have all dulled the appeal of the CDU and their projected brand of sensible, steady governance. However, the rapidly developing vaccination programme and consequent ending of restrictions could engineer a vaccine boost in the polls for the conservative bloc through the summer, in time for elections on September 26th.

The AfD recently announced party co-leader Tino Chrupalla and parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel as its candidates, both from the relatively moderate faction of the party. The retention of around 10% in the polls illustrates the party’s enduring strength as an established part of German politics. As space remains for the AfD on the right of the political system, the party should be able to hold disaffected voters who may otherwise have strayed to a Marcus Söder or Friedrich Merz Union candidate due to their further rightward political profiles in the event of their successful candidacy bid.

Throughout the pandemic, the AfD became associated with anti restriction advocacy, including rejecting mask-wearing, lockdowns and other pandemic measures. This has damaged the respectability of the party, however, it has also allowed them to capitalise on resentment concerning the government’s handling of the pandemic and engage with voters who have little trust in government - bolstering their claim to be the ‘alternative’.

As things stand, the AfD seems unlikely to make a surge which would result in significantly increased representation in the new Bundestag. Chaotic management and party organisation remain a key limitation. The party remains riven with factional infighting, with the extreme right Der Flügel (The Wing) faction in bitter competition with more moderate leadership that is struggling to contain their influence.

Alongside this, the saliency of the AfD’s key issues is in decline. Formerly the Eurozone Crisis and later the Refugee Crisis were significant generators of votes and publicity, however, the Refugee Crisis is now over five years past its peak. Despite developing their focus upon anti-immigration and associated policy positions such as culture war issues around gender politics and the environment, the party lacks a clear crisis to engage with and overall is struggling for momentum.

The 2021 elections and the EU

Germany holds the position of one of the EU’s key states, and this election is arguably one of the most significant in the EU. The AfD is unlikely to lose its position as an established part of the German party system, but what does this mean for Germany and the EU?

A failed attempt by Laschet to hold the centre could shift the CDU to the right and closer to the AfD. Alongside this, some elements of the CDU have already broken the cordon sanitaire that formerly existed around the AfD, leading to the Thuringia crisis of February 2020. These factions, or the CDU as a whole, could be tempted to develop connections between the two parties if they are both in opposition.

In this event, an empowered and legitimised AfD is unlikely to seriously damage Germany’s commitment to the EU. However, the development of the AfD could limit other parties’ political agency on key European issues and serve to strengthen similar movements and parties in other states, for example through established links with the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). The party’s engagement with EU collaboration and its position on key issues could influence the development of EU wide initiatives to tackle serious issues faced by the EU over the course of the next Bundestag such as the environment, migration and security.

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