For several decades, Germany’s party landscape has been regarded as one of the most stable in the world, dominated by two large factions, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the other side. The situation changes significantly this year, as a tight race resulted in no party far exceeding 25 percent of the vote.
In Germany's parliamentary democracy, MPs elects the chancellor, the population does not vote directly. A faction has seldom reached the absolute majority needed to form a government by itself, so entering into an alliance with another party has usually been necessary. For most of the second half of the 20th century, only the CDU, the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) took part in federal governments. That changed in 1998, when the SPD formed a coalition government with the Green Party, known as a red-green coalition.
In 2017, talks for a three-faction government failed, but this time such a coalition looks to be the most likely option – albeit with two possible compositions. Election winner SPD has said it aims for a "traffic light" coalition with Greens and FDP, while CDU/CSU court the same two "kingmaker" coalition partners for a so-called "Jamaica" coalition. A two-faction alliance between Social Democrats and Conservatives is very unlikely, as neither camp is interested in renewing the current "grand coalition" government.
The party with the most parliamentary seats in a national government coalition usually gets to name the chancellor and is known as the senior coalition partner, tasked with building the alliance. The smaller party or parties are the junior partners. There are no official rules for the coalition talks, but certain procedures have emerged over the past decades.
This year, party leaders face the difficult task of cobbling together an alliance of parties with very different policy views, as no single camp dominateed the vote on 26 September. More often than not, parties have to compromise on their election programme pledges. [Find an overview of the parties’ key energy and climate policies in this factsheet.] Much will also depend on the chemistry between the party leaders and their bargaining powers.
The process of finding a new government alliance in Germany runs parallel to the transition from the old Bundestag to the new one. The federal parliament’s opening session has to take place at the latest 30 days after Election Day, which would be 26 October.
Chancellor Merkel’s term ends with the inaugural meeting of the Bundestag, but her government will be asked by the German president to continue to carry out the official duties until a new administration is sworn in. Following the election, party leaders said they wanted this process to be done before Christmas. In 2017, a new government was sworn in six months after the election.
1. Internal debates within the parties take place in the first week after the election
Starting on the day of the election, the parties analyse the outcome internally and discuss possible consequences. These discussions take place over night and in party leadership meetings the morning after, when preliminary results give certainty over government options.
In these meetings, the parties also debate other questions, such as the future parliamentary group leadership, and the groups’ schedule until the new Bundestag members convene for the opening session.
In the days following the election, most parties’ parliamentary groups will meet for the first time and elect their leadership.
2. Exploratory talks start about a week after the election, can last for weeks
Before official coalition negotiations take place, the party leaderships enter exploratory talks (‘Sondierungsgespräche’) to sound out whether forming an alliance is feasible, and under what conditions the negotiations would take place. Traditionally, the party with the most seats approaches possible partners, but a coalition of several smaller parties could also be in the cards this year.
If forming a traditional party alliance is possible, for example between the conservatives and the Free Democrats, these talks are painless. After the 2017 election, however, largely unchartered waters had to be sailed as Greens, economic liberals and conservatives sought to find common ground. Exploratory talks had lasted several weeks before the FDP pulled the plug. As there was a close outcome in 2021 as well, exploratory talks could turn out to be extensive, and parties might talk in different compositions.
As both the Green Party and the pro-business FDP can be considered "kingmakers" to a new government coalition this year, they have entered pre-exploratory coalition talks among themselves, to sound out stumbling blocks and common ground before entering talks with one of the leading parties.
Beyond negotiating, exploratory talks also fulfil the important function of gradually building mutual trust after a tough and conflict-ridden election campaign, says political analyst Arne Jungjohann. [Read his full piece on forming a German government coalition here.]
If several rounds of exploratory talks are successful, the parties will agree on a format for the official negotiations, and might present a preliminary policy framework. In the end, all relevant party bodies must agree to formal coalition negotiations. Traditionally, this is the federal leadership, but parties could also decide to ask delegates at a special conference, or even let members vote.
3. Coalition negotiations can last several weeks
The official negotiations between those parties that aim to form a government have taken from two to more than six weeks in the past. Participation is not limited to newly elected national MPs, but includes other party members like state politicians, outgoing ministers and members of the European Parliament.
When the CDU/CSU and SPD negotiated the terms for the grand coalition government in 2018, more than 60 politicians took part in the “big round” meetings. 15 of these formed the core negotiating team, including the heads of the parties and the parliamentary groups as well as the general secretaries.
Details of the agreement were developed in 18 working groups, each consisting of about 15 additional party members. The groups included foreign, defence and development cooperation policy, finance policy, energy policy and transport, building and infrastructure policy.
The discussions initially focus on these policy questions, but tailoring the ministry setup and allocating their leadership to the parties is also part of the negotiations. It is left to each party to name the individual candidates to head the future ministries.
In the end, final contentious points are debated by the core negotiating team.
4. Coalition agreement
The negotiations culminate in the presentation of the coalition agreement that includes general policy messages as well as concrete policy proposals with specific timelines, and the breakdown of ministries. This is not legally binding and there are no sanctions for breaking it.
A last hurdle for an alliance is the final decision by each individual party. Some, such as the grass-roots-oriented Green Party would let its members vote on the final deal. The SPD also did so in 2018. In other parties the leadership has decided in the past.
When all parties agree, the agreement can be officially signed.
5. Election of the chancellor
Once the government coalition stands, the federal parliament will elect the next chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. The cabinet is sworn in by the German president shortly thereafter, ending the long road to the next German government.
What happens if negotiations fail?
Germany will not be left without a government. The current administration will continue to carry out the official duties until a new cabinet is sworn in.
Should efforts to form a government coalition fail during the exploratory talks, the negotiations or when attempting to secure party approval, parties elected to the German Bundestag can try to find a different alliance to form a government.
This happened in 2017, when the FDP pulled the plug on exploratory talks with conservatives and the Greens. German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier then led talks with all parties present in the new parliament to sound out options for forming a new government. Steinmeier said parties must be ready to compromise, making clear he wanted to avoid new elections. After the meeting between Steinmeier and Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, the SPD signalled a willingness to talk, reversing their categorical refusal to enter government made shortly after the elections. Conservatives and SPD later renewed their grand coalition government.
If no alternative for a majority government is in sight, the German Basic Law eventually offers the German president the possibility of either naming a chancellor who reaches less than 50 percent of votes in the Bundestag, or dissolving the parliament and initiating new elections.