The Next Leader of Europe: The 2021 German Election

Sean Ehmann ’24 


For 16 years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the de facto ruler of Europe. As the leader of the most populous and economically powerful nation in the European Union, Merkel provided direction for the continent through numerous crises including the Great Recession, the Greek debt crisis, and the ongoing migrant crisis.   

However, last year Merkel announced that she would not be leading her party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into the next election. This paved the way for numerous politicians to vie for the Chancellorship in an election that took place on September 26, 2021.  

Germany has a system of mixed-member proportional representation in which the amount of votes a party receives directly correlates to the percentage of seats they earn. Parties must form coalitions to garner a majority in the lower house (the Bundestag) to form government. Parties almost never gain a majority on their own. The Merkel-led CDU has formed coalitions with various other parties to govern since they rose to power in 2005. After the last election in 2017, they partnered with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to form government.   

Throughout the campaign, three different parties had spent time in the lead, with the CDU, the SPD, and the Green Party all taking turns. Other parties such as the classical liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP), the left-wing Left Party, and the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) polled notably behind; however, they all surpassed the 5% threshold for gaining seats. While they may be smaller in size, these three parties punch far above their weight as they can play the role of kingmaker, deciding which major party will lead the government.   

The new leader of the CDU is Armin Laschet, the Minister-President (the German equivalent of a Premier) of the most populous German state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Laschet was initially regarded as an average leader, maintaining the CDU’s substantial polling lead. However, after several scandals and crises in his home state, his popularity, and the CDU’s, diminished.  

The SPD candidacy went to Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. Just like his selection as Chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz himself is a very cut-and-dry candidate. Even though they are of different parties, his steady demeanour was often compared to the outgoing Chancellor Merkel.   

The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, contrasted with the candidacies of Scholz and Laschet. Only 40 years old, compared to Scholz and Laschet, both in their 60s, her youthfulness initially struck a chord with the German public. However, being youthful and energetic always runs the risk of being viewed as inexperienced. Additionally, as Greens have never led a government, questions were raised regarding their preparedness should they take up that role.  

On September 26, 2021, the German electorate went to the polls and returned a less than decisive result. Olaf Scholz’s SPD came in first place, netting 28% of the 736 seats in Bundestag. This was their first time finishing with the most seats in 19 years. The CDU achieved a tight second with 26.5%. The Greens improved by 7% seats from their 2017 result, netting 16%. Results for the FDP and AfD saw marginal differences with them finishing with 12.5% (+1.3% from 2017) and 11.3% (-1.5%) respectively. Finally, the Left Party saw their seat count nearly cut in half, dropping from 9.4% to 5.3%.   

Since no party amassed the required 368 seats necessary for an outright majority in the Bundestag, negotiations have already begun to determine which of the two largest parties can gain the support of the smaller parties to take power.   

Whatever the outcome may be, whoever leads the next government will inherit a country that has spent much of the last few decades having to guide Europe through tumultuous times. They will have to hold together a continent that looks for guidance in returning to normalcy after COVID-19 and continued leadership to solve problems throughout the region and the world.  

  Left to right: The Left: 39 seats   SPD: 206 seats   The Greens: 118 seats   SSW: 1 seat   FDP: 92 seats   CDU: 152 seats   CSU: 45 seats   AfD: 83 seats

Photo Credit: RyanW1995, via Wikimedia Commons

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