The era of Chancellor Angela Merkel will come to an end when Germans head to the polls next September after what looks set to become an unusually dramatic run-up to the federal elections. Concerns over climate change ranks much higher on many voters and parties' agendas, yet the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout have added huge uncertainties. This factsheet sketches the road to the 2021 federal elections and will be regularly udpated.
The weight of climate and energy policy on Germany's political landscape has grown at a staggering rate since the country last headed into a general election in 2017. Several droughts and heatwaves at home, the surge of international climate protests, unrelenting news of wildfires and melting ice caps around the world and also the ferocious rejection of climate action by the Trump administration in the US have catapulted the topic to unprecedented heights on the average German citizen's agenda in recent years – and undoubtedly also left its mark on the course of action of leading political parties.
Websites and polling agencies
You can find the latest official information on the elections on the English version of the website of the Federal Returning Officer, including the number of candidates. The site also offers an election glossary, explaining terms like overhang mandates and Sainte-Laguë/Schepers, and proportional representation. After the elections, the website will present the official results.
A group of students established Wahlrecht.de as an independent, non-party, non-commercial website on election topics, electoral systems, the right to vote and opinion polls for federal and state elections. Parts of the site are in English, but most information is available only in German. Here you can find a list of the latest poll results by Germany’s large polling agencies and here Wahlrecht.de’s Twitter feed.
Common hashtags for the German federal elections are #BTW21 and #Bundestagswahl.
pollytix strategic research
pollytix offers a visualisation of trends in Germans’ party preferences in opinion polls.
Check out wahlrecht.de for a compilation of the latest polls.
Parliamentary election (Bundestagswahl): President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will likely announce the exact election date in early 2021. The vote that traditionally takes place on a Sunday will have to be held in the period between 25 August and 24 October.
Election manifestos: Based on the parties' schedule during the previous elections, their manifestos should be published at some point between March and June.
Municipal elections: Local issues normally dominate votes in cities, towns and counties, yet local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on 13 September 2020 got extra attention, as the coal-mining state is home to over one fifth of Germany's population and also the home base for the two main CDU leadership contenders. The election was won by the CDU under state premier Armin Laschet and also brought large gains for the Green Party.
State elections: There will be elections in six out of Germany's 16 federal states in 2021, ranging from the large and affluent southern state Baden-Wurttemberg to the small but prominent city state of Berlin.
Rhineland-Palatinate: 14 March
Baden-Wurttemberg: 14 March
Saxony-Anhalt: 6 June
Berlin: by September
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania: autumn
Notable dates outside of Germany: There is a range of important events in international affairs that are likely to have a palpable impact on the national policy debate in Germany. Here's a selection:
US election: 3 November 2020
Brexit: 31 December 2021 (end of transitional agreements)
Ahead of the election - where Germany stands on…
Greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 fell by 35.7 percent compared to 1990 levels, leaving a gap of about 4 percentage points below the government's original 2020 target of 40 percent. The cuts to energy demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic now look set to leverage emission reductions and push the country much closer to the target than expected. But structural problems with respect to decarbonisation persist, especially in the heating and transport sectors.
The CDU/CSU and SPD government coalition sought to address problems in these sectors with its Climate Action Programme 2030. Amongst other things, the programme launched at the end of last year will introduce a carbon price in the heating and transport sectors from 2021 onwards. The initial price will be 25 euros per tonne of CO2 and subsequently climb to 55 euros per tonne by 2025, a level regarded as much too low by climate activists but which could still become a target for energy transition critics pointing at rising costs, although lower surcharges on electricity are meant to provide financial relief.
Moreover, in order to ensure steady progress on the way to its 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 55 percent, the country also adopted a Climate Action Law, which is meant to provide monitoring mechanisms for metering and, if need be, imposing reduction measures in each sector. The first annual progress review is scheduled for spring 2021, and the results could cause a stir among stakeholders in sectors that are deemed off track and ordered to readjust their carbon footprint. The government also said it was striving for a European Climate Action Law that sets the aim of 2050 greenhouse gas neutrality, although there is still considerable disagreement to what extent Germany needs to contribute to intermediate European goals for 2030.
About 43 percent of Germany's power consumption was covered with renewables in 2019. The share in gross energy consumption, however, was still significantly lower and climbed from just below 15 percent in 2019 to 17.5 percent in the first half of 2020. The government plans to bring the share in power consumption to 65 percent by 2030. While the scheduled end to nuclear power production in 2022 and the gradual phase-out of coal plants are likely to let the share of wind turbines, solar panels, biogas plants and other renewables rise, the expansion of clean power installations has faltered significantly in recent years and as of 2020 was far below the levels needed to stay on track for the target.
The need for faster expansion becomes even more urgent when considering the likely growth in electricity consumption in the country as millions of e-cars are expected to hit the road over the course of the next decade and Germany plans to steer a lot of its renewable power output into the production of green hydrogen, which the government has identified as a sort of panacea for accomplishing emission reductions in the most stubbornly fossil-intensive sectors.
Several policy initiatives have been launched in recent months to overcome the impasse in renewables expansion, such as a review of minimum distance and licensing rules for new wind turbines, a removal of support limits to solar power installations and measures to speed up Germany's lagging power grid expansion, a technical prerequisite for making renewable power available throughout the whole country.
In spite of the government's decision to leave out premium payments for the purchase of combustion engine-powered cars from its coronavirus recovery programme, which was widely considered an unprecedented estrangement of policymakers from the powerful German automotive industry, the sector inevitably looms large in any German election due to its sheer size and importance for the country's industrial basis.
Transport emissions remain the "problem child" in Germany's climate action activities – bar the pandemic's effect on mobility behaviour, the greenhouse gas output of cars, lorries, airplanes and other means of transportation has not shrunk at all since 1990.
The new pricing scheme for carbon emissions in the transport sector and the promised roll-out of dozens of new electric vehicle models by all major car companies are poised to bring about a change in trend regarding the sector's climate impact. But major question marks remain over the survival of many jobs relying on combustion engines and the abolishment of a technology many Germans regard as one of their country's greatest engineering achievements.
While plummeting passenger numbers caused by the pandemic are putting a strain on plans to quickly ramp up urban public transport systems and long-distance train connections, setting up a nation- or even Europe-wide charging system for e-cars could also throw a spanner in the works of a transition in the transport sector.
Christian Democratic Union (CDU)
Christlich Demokratische Union
The conservative, centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been in government under Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2005 and regularly polls as the strongest political force in the country. The party is led by defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is expected to make room for a successor at the end of 2020. Together with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – which only operates in the federal state of Bavaria – the CDU forms the CDU/CSU “Union”. They have a joint parliamentary group in the German Bundestag and a joint election programme.
Christian Social Union (CSU)
Christlich Soziale Union in Bayern
The Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) is a conservative political party that only operates in the state of Bavaria. Together with its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - which operates in the remaining 15 federal states – the CDU/CSU, also known as the “Union,” form a joint parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. The CSU is led by Bavarian state premier Markus Söder. Although he has not yet officially announced ambitions, Söder is seen as a possible successor to Merkel who could lead the conservative CDU/CSU alliance as chancellor of the next government.
Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), traditionally the leading party of the centre-left in Germany, has been the CDU/CSU’s junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition" three times since 2005. Party leaders are leftwingers Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who beat the more centrist vice chancellor and finance minister Olaf Scholz in an internal contest at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, the popular Scholz has been nominated as the SPD's candidate for chancellor. The party already began wrangling heavily over a continuation of the grand coalition at the last election and is expected to favour a partnership with the Greens and the Left Party for the next government coalition.
Free Democratic Party (FDP)
Freie Demokratische Partei
The Free Democratic Party led by Christian Lindner is Germany's economic liberal and market-oriented party. Although the party failed to enter federal parliament in 2013 for the first time in post-war history, it re-entered parliament in 2017 and also sits in government in several states (e.g. North Rhine-Westphalia). It has formed coalitions with both the CDU/CSU and the SPD in the past and prevented the formation of the first Conservative-Green-FDP government after the last election by pulling out of coalition talks shortly before they were expected to come to a positive conclusion.
Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen
The centre-left Green Party grew out of the environmental, peace and anti-nuclear movements in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as GDR citizens’ movements. It participated in a national government between 1998 and 2005 with the SPD and today sits as coalition partner in several state governments. The Greens have made significant gains in national polls since 2017, shortly even overtaking the CDU/CSU in popularity in 2019, before stabilising as the second strongest political force for most of 2020. Party leaders are Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck and one of the two will likely be made the party's candidate for chancellor.
The Left Party is the country’s most leftwing political force. It was founded in 2007 from the successor party to the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party together with the SPD leftist carve-out WASG. Hardline positions on issues such as foreign and security policy have so far hampered a coalition with the SPD and the Greens, but the party has signalled its readiness to adapt certain positions and pave the way for a leftwing coalition after the next election. The Left already forms a coalition with the SPD and Greens at the state level under its own leadership in Thuringia. Party chairs are Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, who are expected to make room for new leadership in the coming months.
Alternative for Germany (AfD)
Alternative für Deutschland
Germany’s newest major party, the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded in 2013, was originally based mainly on anti-eurozone policies and entered the federal parliament for the first time in 2017. Since its foundation, the party has constantly shifted to the right, focusing on issues such as migration and Islam and resistance to Germany's climate and energy transition policy. All other major parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the AfD. The party is led by Jörg Meuthen and Tino Chrupalla.