German elections decoded: Who will succeed Angela Merkel and how?

With Merkel out of the race and no party in Germany looking set to get a clear majority, all bets are off on who could be the next Chancellor of Europe’s largest and world’s fourth-largest economy.

Angela Merkel served as Germany's Chancellor for 16 years (Photo: Reuters).

Once dubbed as Germany’s “eternal” Chancellor, 67-year-old Angela Merkel is set to leave the stage, bringing to end an uninterrupted stint of 16 years in power in which she came to be called “the leader of the free world”.

Despite being in power for so long, Merkel defied anti-incumbency and leaves with her popularity so resilient, she could likely have won a record fifth term if she had decided to stay in the race. A whole generation of Germany hasn’t seen another Chancellor. 

Merkel had, however, announced in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term. With Merkel out of the race and no party in Germany looking set to get a clear majority, all bets are off on who could be the next Chancellor of Europe’s largest and world’s fourth-largest economy.

How Germans elect their Chancellor

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All candidates must be German citizens over the age of 18, and much like India, can contest even as Independents. 

Elected members of the lower house of parliament (Bundestag) decide who the Chancellor will be from among them. Voters get to decide who these members would be.   

Each German voter has two votes. The first vote decides who will represent a region in Parliament. Second vote elects the party and decides the makeup of the parliament. The party with the most votes gets to send more candidates to the parliament.

For instance, if a party gets three seats through the first vote but is eligible for 10 seats overall through the second vote, seven names on the party’s candidate list also get seats. The candidate list published before the elections has candidates for each of the 16 states. Those higher on the list have better chances of securing a parliament seat.

While the second vote determines the proportion of seats a party gets, additional seats may be provided if the party wins more constituency seats in a federal state than they would be entitled to by the second vote.

For example, if a party gets 10 seats through the second vote but had 15 candidates elected through the first vote, then it would get five extra seats in the Bundestag. The Bundestag, unlike Lok Sabha, thus cannot have a fixed number of seats.

At times the direct and party votes can get out of balance because voters “split” their ballot. For instance, a voter decides to vote for a candidate from a particular party but prefers a different party for the second vote. 

This time around, the Bundestag is expected to expand more than its minimum size of 598 seats as more voters are expected to split their votes. 

Who can vote

All German citizens who are above 18 years are eligible to vote. About 60.4 million people of the 83 million population were eligible to vote this year.

German passport holders, who have lived in the country for at least three months, can also vote. German citizens living abroad are allowed to vote under certain conditions. The country allows mail-in votes for Germans living abroad. But people who have not stayed in Germany for over 25 years cannot vote even if they have German passports.

Main contenders

A total of 47 political parties are in the fray in this election. A party needs at least 5 per cent of the second vote or at least three constituency seats to enter the Bundestag. 

Out of the 47 parties listed on the ballot sheet, the three leading parties include the Centre-right Christian Democrats, the Centre-left Social Democrats, and the Greens.

The center-right Union bloc Christian Democratic Union was the biggest group in the outgoing parliament and comprised Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union. The centre-left Social Democratic Party has been in coalition with the conservatives and is the second largest group.

The left-wing Green Party was leading the polls earlier this year but with a series of missteps by the party’s Chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, including a plagiarism scandal, the Green Party is now lagging behind the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

The coalition party with the most seats picks the Chancellor.

Who will be the next Chancellor?

For the first time in the history of Germany, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel won’t be in the running. 

The three leading contenders are: 

Armin Laschet (Christian Democratic Union)

Armin Laschet enjoys support from Angela Merkel to be her predecessor. He is Merkel’s party colleague within Christian Democratic Union. 

Laschet’s approval ratings were high in months leading to the German election but a series of mistakes saw his popularity wane. Laschet was caught on camera laughing while others were paying tributes to the victims of the recent floods in Germany. It took Merkel to enter the campaign fray to drum up support for Laschet.

Olaf Scholz (Social Democratic Party)

Olaf Scholz is the incumbent vice-chancellor and finance minister of Germany. He belongs to the Social Democratic Party. To begin with, Scholz’s ratings were low but picked up after his rivals made embarrassing mistakes.

Annalena Baerbock (Green Party)

Annalena Baerbock is the chancellor candidate from Green Party. At one point, Baerbock took the lead as the most favourite candidate in opinion polls. After a range of mistakes she made in the run up to the elections, chancellery seems out of reach for her.

When will Germany have a new Chancellor?

The newly elected Bundestag must convene within 30 days of vote. Parties then begin talks to form a new government. This can take several months.

Once a coalition is decided, the German President nominates to the Bundestag a candidate for chancellor. The nominee needs a majority of all members to be elected and doesn’t have to be a member of parliament. 

Until Germany finds a new Chancellor, Merkel will continue to serve as caretaker.

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