What Will Happen in Germany After the European Elections?

Political Berlin has been brimming with rumors about what will happen to the German federal government after the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, the Bremen state legislature and municipal elections in nine German states this coming Sunday, May 26. In this post, I will outline some of the conditions under which parties in Germany are currently operating. Connecting these conditions, I will then come up with some thoughts about what will happen next.

The CDU is facing a problem ever since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (aka AKK) took over from Angela Merkel as the party leader, but not as the chancellor, in December 2018. Historically, the two roles have mostly been held by the same person whenever the CDU was in power. Dividing party leadership and chancellorship diminishes the role of either, especially in a political system where parties matter as much as in the German case. This is condition number 1 – the CDU has a strong incentive to unify the roles of party leader and chancellor, which right now means electing AKK chancellor. The CDU also has a strong incentive to unify party leadership and chancellorship quickly because AKK is trailing in the polls – her party leadership is viewed less enthusiastically than the party had hoped back in December.

The SPD is in abysmal shape electorally and their plight is likely to become only harder. In the latest poll for the European Elections, the SPD, at 17 percent, is trailing the CDU by 13 percentage points, coming in third after the Greens (19 percent). This predicted 10 percentage point loss compared to the last EP elections would be a disastrous result for the Social Democrats, especially after they have been campaigning hard and with the prominent and popular German Minister of Justice, Katarina Barley, as their lead candidate.

Maybe more importantly, and even worse for the SPD, recent polls have the party now lose their plurality in the state legislature of Bremen to the CDU. The SPD has ruled Bremen ever since 1945 and regards the state as their home turf. A loss there would likely send shock waves through the party. This is condition 2 – the SPD is likely to face defeat in the elections to the EP, the Bremen state legislature, or both.

Such a situation with an extremely nervous SPD would present the CDU with an excellent opportunity to solve their problem outlined in condition 1. Either the SPD pulls out of the federal government and there is a new coalition without new elections that brings AKK into the chancellery. This would require CDU, Greens and FDP to overcome their differences that has precluded them from forming a coalition back in 2017. The FDP has signaled that this time around they might be willing to become part of the federal government.

Alternatively, the CDU could use the situation to force the hand of the SPD. This is how it would work: Angela Merkel could step down as the Chancellor, suggesting AKK as her successor to the Federal President. The President would then suggest AKK as the new Chancellor to the federal parliament, in accordance with Art. 63 of the Federal Constitution. The SPD has frequently said that they would not vote for AKK and rather leave the government. The CDU could then either form a new coalition, form a minority government or call for new elections, following the procedures outlined in Art. 63, 4 of the constitution.

But it all comes down to how nervous the SPD really gets. Because here is the tricky part: Any new chancellor that is elected by the Bundestag would likely call early elections to add legitimacy to the change in chancellorship. Given their polling results for elections to the Bundestag, a rational SPD cannot want federal elections any time soon. Rather, the rational course of action for the Social Democrats would be to wait out their term and hope for the best in the 2021 elections. But judging by the many dissenting voices in a party that is known for its unruly functionaries and membership, rationality may not be the virtue to prevail after a devastating showing in the upcoming state and EP elections.

This is why my prediction is that Germany will hold federal elections before the regularly scheduled date in the fall of 2021, possibly as soon as September this year. The outcome of such early elections would then probably see a renewal of a CDU-led government.