Germany votes: What to look out for on election night

All you need to know to follow the German election unfold on Sunday night

It’s Sunday evening and you curl up on the sofa to watch the German election unfold (as one does) but what do you look for if you’re interested in European politics? Not to worry, here is ECFR’s list of things to watch when the exit polls start coming in.

When will we know?

The first estimates based on exit polls are published at 6:00 pm CET, when a gong announces that the polling stations have closed. These exit polls are usually close to the mark, but the fun doesn’t end there. This year, four smaller parties (in addition to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) are certain to make it into the Bundestag, meaning much suspense over the possible governing coalitions. A CDU-FDP or a CDU-Green coalition, if possible at all, would only have a very small majority. This means that exact numbers may be needed to determine whether these coalitions are possible or not. Sometime during the night, the preliminary official results will be published, marking the beginning of coalition negotiations start. These may well drag out into November or December, meaning that several months may pass before Germany has a new government.

Key numbers to look out for






SPD below 23%? If the polls are right, SPD may get its worst result since 1949. The magic number is 23%, the SPD’s result in 2009. For comparison, in 1980, the party won 42.9% of the votes

How much under 41.5% for CDU? The CDU’s result four years ago was exceptionally good and no one expect the party to repeat this. Yet, the CDU result will be seen as a vote on Angela Merkel, so it is important how much the vote drops. Votes for the CDU in the last 18 elections have ranged from 31% in 1949 to 50.2% in 1957

Voter turnout below 71.5% ? Voter turnout has decreased in recent years. Four years ago, 71.5% of Germans voted. A much lower turnout would be a sign of increasing disinterest in political life.

Who will come third?

With Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) all but guaranteed first and second place, his election is effectively a competition for third place. Four parties – the liberal FDP, the Greens, the leftist Die Linke and the populist right-wing AFD will compete for this spot. Third place is not only an important signal for how the German public feels, it also determines the possible coalitions (see below). In case of a continuation of a Grand Coalition between the CDU and the SPD, the third party would have a particularly important role, being the first to answer the government in parliament.

How will the AfD fare?

For the first time since 1949, a party to the right of the CDU is set to enter parliament. Four years ago, the EU-sceptic, anti-immigration AFD fell below the 5% vote share threshold required to enter the Bundestag by just 0.3%. This year the question is not whether they will make it into parliament, but with how many votes. Polls now suggest that the party could collect between 8-12% of the votes – most likely it will be more, meaning that AFD well may come third.

Because AfD had polled even higher in late 2016, and because – compared to other countries – the situation in Germany appears benign, a relative acceptance accompanies these numbers. But this indifference makes the AFD’s success all the more shocking. 72 years after the end of WWII, up to 6 million Germans are willing to give their vote to a party whose front runner has argued that “Islam as a cultural and religious entity has no place in Germany” and called for a German minister to be “disposed of” in Turkey. Particularly concerning in this context is the expected low voter turnout – between one fourth and one third of Germans can’t even be bothered to vote, despite these high stakes.

To be clear, the AfD will not be part of any government – all other parties have ruled out forming a coalition with them. But the number of AfD votes is still important. First, much in the same way as we have seen in the UK and the US, the presence of a populist party in Parliament will influence public and private discourse. And a strong AfD would also exert influence on policy – particularly with regards to Europe.

The party was founded on its opposition to the government’s policy on the Euro. It has over time transformed in a much nastier, anti-immigration party, but retains its scepticism of the EU and rejection of the Euro. It can therefore be expected that any government faced with this opposition – and the fact that up to 15% of the German population supports these policies – will look to take a stronger stance against any Euro-reform proposals that appear not to directly benefit Germany.

This could well influence Germany’s negotiations with France. President Emmanuel Macron has laid out ambitious proposals to reform the Euro, including a Eurozone budget, a finance ministry and a European Monetary Fund, for which he needs Germany’s support. He will unveil a more detailed reform proposal on 26 September – two days after the election. A German government threatened by a strong AfD will struggle to agree to a deal that appears to benefit France and other EU members more than Germany.

What two party coalitions are possible?

Most observers expect a continuation of the Grand coalition. But with 40% of voters still undecided, both a CDU-FDP and a CDU-Green coalition are still possibilities. For this to happen, the CDU will need to get close to 40% of the votes, and the smaller party over 10%.


The more likely of these two coalitions is a CDU-FDP coalition, and European politics will be one of the key topics for negotiations between the parties. The FDP is a pro-EU party – Christian Lindner, the party’s head recently proclaimed that “if the European Union didn’t exist already, one would have to found it”. But what kind of EU would the FDP create?

The liberals believe in European unity. The party’s programme proposes common projects, such as the creation of a European Defence Union, a European digital market, and turning Frontex into a European border force under the supervision of the European Parliament. Yet, some have called FDP the “anti-Europe party”. And Emmanuel Macron allegedly said “If [Angela Merkel] goes into an alliance with the liberals, I’m dead”.

The reason for this is that FDP has been  critical of Macron’s EU and Euro reform proposals. It has taken an anti-euro-bailouts, anti-transfer union stance, and opposes European debt mutualisation. These positions enjoy wide support among the German public, and it means that a CDU-FDP government will be a difficult negotiating partner for Emmanuel Macron.


Another possibility is a CDU-Green coalition – a combination never tried before at the federal level. The two parties have slowly moved closer to each other in recent years – during the height of the migration crisis in 2015, the Greens were among Merkel’s strongest supporters – making this a possibility.

The Greens also claim to be Germany’s “Europe-party”. Yet, their vision of Europe is very different from the FDP’s and the CDU’s.  The Greens criticise Germany’s austerity policy and EU free trade agreements, and they support Eurobonds, advocating for an EU that “reins in global capitalism”. The party is rooted in pacifism and rejects the 2% GDP NATO goal (which the CDU supports). Negotiations will be tricky and it is uncertain what kind of agreement could be reached on these issues. Still, despite these disagreements, the possibility of a ‘Black-Green’ coalition is gaining popularity among the Greens’ base, and it is allegedly among Merkel’s favourite options.

Is a ‘Jamaica’ coalition possible?

If there is no majority for a CDU-led government with either the FDP or the Greens, a solution could be to form a three party “Jamaica” coalition (black-yellow-green). The Jamaica coalition is loved by pundits as it is interesting and new. But it’s also unlikely. Getting three parties into one coalition is tricky. It gets trickier when one of the parties (CDU) already consists of two parties (CDU & CSU). It becomes near impossible when the two smaller parties (FDP and Greens) disagree on almost everything – and just generally don’t like each other.

The Greens and the FDP are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. There may be some room for compromise on digitalisation and climate issues, but the FDP is the business party, while the Greens are sceptical of capitalism, banks, and big business. On issues such as migration, the Greens will try to pull the CDU further to the left, opening up more room to the right, while the FDP has been accused of catering to potential AFD voters. For these reasons, Jamaica would be a very uneasy – and unlikely – coalition.

Another grand coalition?

If all the political math fails, Germany may end up with a continuation of the so-called Grand Coalition of the CDU and the SPD; though, given the SPD’s projected result, it would not be so grand, gathering only about 60% of the votes.  

While Angela Merkel is expected to be reasonably happy with this, for the SPD it would be a difficult situation. Almost half of SPD voters (46%) want the party to go into opposition rather than continuing the Grand Coalition. This, somewhat paradoxically, may strengthen the SPD in the negotiations. It may have less votes, but lots of demands. Most importantly, it may ask for the finance ministry (currently Wolfgang Schäuble’s fiefdom), which wields a lot of power including on the European scene. With a continuation of the Grand Coalition, one can expect a continuation of current European politics and good relations with Emmanuel Macron.

So get the popcorn out for Sunday – the show is on! Yes, the next German chancellor will in all likelihood be Angela Merkel, but who the next government will consist of remains unknown.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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