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German election: who is standing, what are the issues and who will win?

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

When is the election?

On 26 September, Germany will vote for the 20th parliament of the postwar era, after which Angela Merkel will stand down as chancellor after 16 years.

Voting booths in the country’s 299 electoral districts will open at 8am and close at 6pm. Holders of a German passport who have lived in the country for at least three months are eligible to vote – German citizens living abroad can apply to participate in the election remotely and are allowed to vote under certain conditions.

Due to the pandemic, more people are expected to cast their vote by letter than ever before. At Germany’s last federal elections in 2017, 28.6% of votes were postal votes – this year, as many as 50% of eligible voters in some regions have already applied for a postal vote, though by mid-September fewer had been posted than in previous years.

As soon as voting booths close at 6pm, broadcasters will publish an exit poll, followed by projected outcomes based on public counts in representative voting districts.

Who is standing?

There will be 47 parties listed on the ballot sheet, which enables each voter to cast two votes: one for a candidate standing in their constituency, and one for a party list of candidates in their federal state.

A 5% threshold limits the number of parties who can send a delegate into the Bundestag after the vote. Six parties are expected to clear the hurdle: the two traditional Volksparteien who have governed in a “grand coalition” for the last eight years, namely the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green party, the pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP), the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and the leftwing Die Linke, which has been polling precipitously close to the 5% hurdle.

One politician who won’t be standing for election is the outgoing chancellor, for the first time in German history: Merkel won’t be in the running to represent the Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I constituency, which she has held continuously since it was created after reunification in 1990.

Three parties have nominated official candidates to replace her, though their names won’t be signalled as such on ballot papers: the CDU has put forward its party leader, Armin Laschet, the SPD the current finance minister and deputy chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the Greens its co-leader Annalena Baerbock.

Related: German election poll tracker: who will be the next chancellor?

What are the big issues?

With the outgoing government having committed Germany to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2045, one of the dominant questions has been how Europe’s largest economy will go about curbing the carbon emissions of its industry.

The Greens and Die Linke want to meet the same target earlier, partly by phasing out coal power stations by the year 2030, eight years earlier than currently planned. The FDP wants to reach climate neutrality by 2050, while the AfD rejects the scientific consensus on man-made climate change and has not put forward a climate policy.

Whether environmental targets will have an impact on day-to-day behaviour has been one of the flashpoints of the campaign. While the CDU and FDP place an emphasis on emissions trading, SPD, Greens and Die Linke want to introduce speed limits on German motorways and make short-distance flights unattractive or even illegal.

The economic consequences of the pandemic are another dominant theme. Even though Germany has taken on large amounts of debt to shoulder the effect of two prolonged lockdowns, CDU and the FDP reject future tax rises, with the later promising far-reaching cuts. The SPD and the Greens, on the other hand, say they want to offer tax relief to small businesses but also re-introduce a wealth tax of about 1% for high earners.

Some issues have been notable by their absence. While all the large parties apart from the AfD express their commitment to the European project, their manifestos in this respect have been short on specifics.

Who will win?

This election race has been one of the most open in recent memory, with three parties having at various stages taken leads in opinion polls. After the CDU and the Greens unveiled their candidates in the spring, the ecological party briefly leapfrogged the conservatives into the top spot. When Baerbock’s star faded, following allegations she had plagiarised passages in a book and inflated her CV, the CDU reestablished the pole position it had enjoyed for the first year of the pandemic. But the CDU candidate Laschet has looked gaffe-prone and weak within his own party, and in recent weeks the SPD has crept ahead to become the new surprise frontrunner.

Related: ‘Time to take sides’: post-Merkel era needs radical new direction, says study

Crucially, none of the parties are forecast to win more than 25-27% of the vote at most, meaning the winning party on the night won’t automatically field the next chancellor unless it can build a coalition that has a governing majority.

With 6-10% of votes this year predicted to go to parties that don’t make it above the parliamentary threshold, that majority may need as little as 46% of the vote.

Even then, current polls indicate the next German government will require a power-sharing deal between three different parties, such as a coalition between SPD, Greens and FDP (nicknamed “traffic light coalition” after the parties’ traditional colours) or CDU, Greens and FDP (nicknamed “Jamaica coalition”).

What happens afterwards?

If no single party has an absolute majority, two or more parties enter exploratory talks to determine their willingness to enter a coalition with one another. If a basic desire to cooperate can be established, the parties enter coalition talks to determine which party holds which ministry, culminating in a coalition treaty. While these talks are ongoing, the old government remains in power in a caretaker role, potentially for months: there is no time limit on government formation, though parliament needs to convene for the first time at least 30 days after the vote, to elect the new president. The new chancellor is voted in only after the coalition government has reached an agreement.

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