< After Election Gains, German's Social Democrats Aim to Form a Government
By Susan Shand
27 September 2021

Germany's center-left Social Democrats won the biggest share of the vote in the country's election Sunday. The party narrowly beat outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Union bloc. The closely fought race decides who succeeds the long-time leader of Europe's biggest economy.

Election officials said early Monday that a count of all 299 constituencies showed the Social Democrats received 25.9 percent of the vote, ahead of 24.1 percent for the Union bloc. No winning party in a German national election has ever taken such a small share of the vote.

Now, it is up to party leaders to decide who will follow Merkel after her 16 years in office.

Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Olaf Scholz, top candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

The first-placed party usually leads German governments, but that is not always the case. The first-placed party can find itself in opposition if other parties form a coalition without it. That happened in 1976 and 1980, when then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stayed in office even though his party finished second.

There is no system for forming a new government, and no time limit. Parties hold talks to find out who and what they have in common, and a combination of parties can move on to official coalition talks.

Those negotiations usually create a coalition agreement that sets out the new government's plans. The plans need approval from congresses of the parties involved.

Once a coalition is ready, Germany's president nominates to the Bundestag a candidate for chancellor. To become chancellor, the candidate needs support from a majority of all members.

Sometimes the first two attempts to elect a chancellor with a majority fail. If this happens, the German constitution permits the president to appoint the candidate who wins the most votes in a third vote. The constitution also permits the president to dissolve the Bundestag and hold a new national election. That has never happened.

When Will Merkel Step Down?

Merkel and her outgoing government will remain in office as a caretaker until the Bundestag elects a new chancellor.

The outgoing coalition holds the record for the longest time taken to form a government. The Bundestag elected Merkel for her fourth term on March 14, 2018. That was nearly six months after Germany held its election on September 24, 2017.

What Parties are Involved?

Four parties can possibly form a new government. The result will be a coalition that has a majority of seats in parliament. Germany has no tradition of minority governments, which are usually seen as unstable.

The Social Democrats are the biggest party. Even they, however, failed to get a majority. They won 206 of the 735 seats in parliament. The Social Democrats want to build a coalition with the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Union party could also form a government with those two parties.

The possible Social Democrats coalition is known in Germany as a "traffic light" coalition. That is because the three parties' colors are red, green and yellow. The possible Union-led coalition is known the "Jamaica" coalition because the parties' colors of black, green and yellow are the colors of the Jamaican flag.

It may not be easy to form either coalition, however. The Greens in the past have mostly allied themselves with the Social Democrats. The Free Democrats have usually allied with the Union.

The Free Democrats and Union are against raising taxes and want Germany to loosen its rules on debt. The Social Democrats and Greens want to raise taxes for top earners and increase the minimum wage.

There is one other possible resulting coalition. There could be a repeat of Merkel's outgoing "grand coalition" of the Union and Social Democrats, but this time under the Social Democrats' leadership. This group of politicians has run Germany for 12 years of Merkel's 16-year leadership. This year's voters, however, do not appear to want that result.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

dissolve - v. to officially end

unstable adj. not held in a secure position

minimum wage - n. the legal minimum an employee can pay an employee

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