The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been one of the most stable parties in Western Europe since World War II. In 47 of the first 67 years in the aftermath of WWII, the CDU led a coalition government in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament (Germany’s Political Parties). Since 2005, CDU leader Angela Merkel has served as the Chancellor of Germany and retained her governing coalition through tumultuous events, including the Greek debt debacle and the 2015-6 refugee crisis. Currently, the CDU is in a coalition with its Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The CDU/CSU coalition earned 33% of the seats in the most recent 2017 parliamentary elections, while the SPD earned 20.5% (Bernard). Germany is one of 9 countries that utilizes a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system. Under MMP, citizens vote twice. First, citizens vote on the district level between party candidates, and the candidate with the most votes wins. The second vote is cast for the party at the national level to ensure proportionality of the result (Reynolds et al. 91). There is an additional 5% national vote threshold for parties to be represented in parliament, which is designed to prevent extremism (Reynolds et. al. 83).
This long-standing stability, however, is changing as the CDU’s strength fades. After a disappointing loss in the central state of Hesse in October 2018, Chancellor Merkel came under increasing pressure to find new party leadership. As a result, Merkel stepped down as party leader and decided to not run again as Chancellor in 2021. While some coalition members were hoping for a new face to lead, Merkel chose her ally and friend, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (Hill). Merkel hoped that her successor would continue the stable rule of the CDU and preserve her legacy. Yet, following a series of mishaps, continued electoral disappointments and failure to unite the party, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer stepped down on February 10th as party leader. This has created a power vacuum within the CDU, with multiple candidates vying to take the party reins. This vacuum has exacerbated the division between traditionalists and centrists, which puts the CDU in a difficult place electorally (Ellyatt). Heading into the 2021 general election, many party leaders fear that the shape of Germany’s parliament will look radically different than the current grand coalition.
These divisions, in turn, are giving strength to other political parties. As Germany elects its legislators via Proportional Representation at the national level, theory suggests there will be multiple political parties representing different ideological factions (Reynolds et. al. 57). The minority parties, especially on the hard right, have recently gained seats at the expense of the CDU. The 2017 parliamentary election was terrible for the CDU/CSU coalition. Their share of seats in parliament declined to 32.9% from 41.5%. The two parties that saw the greatest increase in seat share were the classical-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) (Gehrke et. al.). The upcoming 2021 election does not look much better for the CDU/CSU. Currently, 27% of Germans surveyed by Politico intend to vote for the CDU or CSU, near their all-time low. Meanwhile, support for the Green Party has ballooned to 22% and support for the AfD has steadily risen to about 13%, although they are stronger in certain regions (Gehrke et. al.). Depending on the new leadership, this could affect support for other parties. If the CDU moves toward the center under a new leader, this will likely come at the expense of the Green Party and the FDP. A move to the right, on the other hand, may reduce support for the AfD.
Unfortunately, one main beneficiary of this uncertainty is the far-right AfD. Founded in 2013 as an anti-European Union party, the AfD became the political outlet for anti-immigration and anti-Islam advocates after the refugee crisis (German Election: How Right-Wing Is Nationalist AfD?). Some describe the movement as a right-wing populism, while other scholars see the AfD as a home for neo-fascism. Their party platform states that immigration causes conflict, and they thus encourage tighter border controls and the deportation of current immigrants (Manifesto for Germany). In regional elections, especially in the former East Germany, the AfD has performed particularly well. In 2016, for instance, the AfD won the support of 24.3% of votes in Saxony-Anhalt (Bavarian CSU Takes Tough Migration Stance but Rejects Far-Right). On February 6th in the eastern state of Thuringia, the AfD scored its most significant win. No less than a week after national Holocaust remembrance ceremonies, the AfD formed its first regional coalition. The AfD, FDP and CDU formed a secret coalition and elected FDP member Thomas Kemmerich as their leader (Hill). This sent a political earthquake throughout Germany, as it is taboo for mainstream parties to coalesce with extremists. After CDU leaders in Berlin put pressure on their party members, the coalition broke off (Hill). Nonetheless, the development illustrates that the CDU is becoming even more fractured as the party loses control over its regional branches
After generations of stable leadership from the same few dominant parties, the political scene Germany looks increasingly uncertain. It is still unlikely in future parliaments that the AfD will be included in coalitions as major parties (until recently) have refused to work with extremists. That does not mean that the AfD will not exert any influence. One of the main flaws with Proportional Representation, after all, is that it enables extremist parties to have a platform and win seats in parliament (Reynolds et. al. 59). In fact, their anti-immigrant and racist policies have already influenced the mainstream parties. Already the CDU is divided over immigration policy, with conservative activists like Fredrich Merz advocating for stricter policies (Kuras). This begs the question: after 15 years under Angela Merkel, is Germany ready for a new Chancellor?
“Bavarian CSU Takes Tough Migration Stance but Rejects Far-Right.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 15 Sept. 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-politics-csu/bavarian-csu-takes-tough-migrat ion-stance-but-rejects-far-right-idUSKCN1LV0K2.
Bernard, Steven. “Germany’s Election Results in Charts and Maps.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 25 Sept. 2017, www.ft.com/content/e7c7d918-a17e-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2.
Ellyatt, Holly. “The Race to Be Germany’s next Leader Is Suddenly Wide Open after Merkel’s Successor Steps Down.” CNBC, CNBC, 11 Feb. 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/02/11/germanys-next-leader-after-akk-steps-down.html.
Gehrke, Laurenz, et al. “Germany.” POLITICO, www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/germany/.
“German Election: How Right-Wing Is Nationalist AfD?” BBC News, BBC, 13 Oct. 2017,
“Germany’s Political Parties CDU, CSU, SPD, AfD, FDP, Left Party, Greens – What You Need to Know: DW: 07.06.2019.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/germanys-political-parties-cdu-csu-spd-afd-fdp-left-party-greens-what-you-need-to-know/a-38085900.
“Germany’s Unwelcome Leadership Gap.” Carnegie Europe, 11 Feb. 2020, carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/81036.
Hill, Jenny. “Germany AfD: How Far Right Caused Political Earthquake.” BBC News, BBC, 6 Feb. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51400153.
Hill, Jenny. “Germany’s Merkel Loses Control of Her Own Succession.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Feb. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51458702.
Kuras, Peter. “Friedrich Merz Is Ready to Bury Angela Merkel.” Foreign Policy, 11 Feb. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/11/friedrich-merz-angela-merkel-akk-germany-chancellor/.
“Manifesto for Germany.” Afd.de, Alternative Für Deutschland, https://www.afd.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/111/2017/04/2017-04-12_afd-grundsatzprogramm-englisch_web.pdf.