This year’s German federal election will bring about substantial change not just for Germany, but for Europe and the transatlantic relationship, as well. Come September, voters will choose between the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Armin Laschet, and the Social Democrats’ (SPD) Olaf Scholz to replace Angela Merkel and become the next chancellor. Along with a new chancellor, voters may be selecting a new direction for the country’s foreign policy—and all during a global pandemic.  

On May 11, 2021, GMF’s Berlin office hosted a virtual event with Melanie Amman, Thorsten Faas, and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff to set the scene of the upcoming race. GMF Fellow Sudha David-Wilp moderated the event, GMF President Karen Donfried provided introductory remarks, and ASD Fellow Bret Schafer gave a special presentation of the new German Elections Dashboard. 

Setting the Political Scene

“There is a tremendous amount of volatility in German politics these days. The pandemic has really changed German politics,” Faas, a professor for political sociology of Germany at Freie Universität Berlin, said.

Current polls put Baerbock and the Greens in the lead for the chancellorship, ahead of Laschet’s CDU and far ahead of Scholz’s SPD. 

Prior to the pandemic, the ruling CDU/CSU coalition was very unpopular, Faas explained, but its popularity rose during the pandemic. Now, however, “the pandemic effect has evaporated,” and the CDU is again in decline, while the Greens are rising in the polls. Polls can change in five months, but they do tell us something about the parties and their candidates in the meantime.

The three chancellor candidates have very different profiles and experience, which don’t necessarily translate to the polls in the way you would expect, Der Spiegel Berlin Bureau Chief Melanie Amann explained. Baerbock is a newcomer to the political stage, but her policy positions seem clear, and people are curious about her. Laschet is perhaps the most like Merkel, which might make him attractive to some voters, but he has many stances that differ from Merkel and has not received her explicit support. Finance Minister Scholz has the most government experience, but he has not been able to capture voters’ attention, and his foreign policy positions are unclear, according to Amann. 

But even if personalities are playing a role in the poll numbers, in Germany’s parliamentary system, people don’t vote for a candidate; they vote for a party with a main candidate. “Even though the person gets more and more important, it’s still the party platform that is important and how many people can identify with the party’s ideas and concepts,” Amann said. 

And it’s the party platforms that will have a direct impact on German foreign policy. Whichever party platform voters choose may be key to working with the EU and the new administration in the United States to reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship and outcompete autocracies. 

“Foreign policy doesn’t decide elections, and that probably will be true here too, but there are certainly distinctions between the parties, and people have different foreign policy conceptions to choose from,” said Kleine-Brockhoff, GMF vice president and director of the Berlin office. “It [Germany] hasn’t decided yet on how to adapt to the changing global environment, and the election will give us a clue as to where we will go with it.”

Baerbock and Laschet have the clearest foreign policy positions, he explained. Baerbock and the Green party accept the idea of a systemic competition with China and Russia based on human rights, democracy, and values—leading some people to label her a “Cold Warrior.” Laschet, on the other hand, seems to step “back behind Angela Merkel” in his European vision, and he is inheriting Merkel’s legacy of attempting not to “choose between China and America.” 

One thing is clear, though: it is in Germany’s interest to reform its strained relationship with the United States, Kleine-Brockhoff said. One way to do this is to take Nord Stream 2 off the table. 

The Greens have been staunch opponents of the pipeline for years, and Baerbock has said she would withdraw political support for the project; although, it is not clear what that means. Laschet, on the other hand, has said that Germany must “secure our energy supply through this private-sector project,” while still supporting Ukraine’s geopolitical interests, backing EU sanctions on Russia, and criticizing Russia’s treatment of Navalny. 

Building Democratic Resilience

While the main issues of the election are still up in the air, voters must choose between diverse candidates and party platforms whose impact will be felt far beyond Germany’s borders. 

“This fall’s elections in Germany will definitely not be boring, and Germany, Europe, and the entire world are already preparing for that post-Merkel future,” GMF President Karen Donfried explained in her opening remarks. But that same status makes these elections a prime target for foreign and domestic actors who aim to influence the vote and undermine democracy. 

In response to the threats facing Germany’s elections, ASD and GMF have launched the 2021 German Elections Project, an initiative that seeks to build resilience to autocratic efforts to interfere in Germany’s democracy by identifying and analyzing information manipulation targeting the upcoming elections. As part of this project, ASD, in collaboration with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has created a real-time, open-source dashboard to track foreign and domestic narratives targeting German audiences, which ASD Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer presented during the event.

“What the 2020 U.S. elections made clear is that it is impossible to study foreign information manipulation without understanding the domestic information space,” Schafer previously said. “The German Elections Dashboard attempts to solve that issue by allowing users to track the ways in which foreign narratives intersect or diverge from the key topics and themes being promoted by domestic audiences in Germany, allowing for more insightful comparative analysis.”

Watch the full event here. Try out the German Elections Dashboard here, and learn more about ASD’s work on the 2021 German elections here.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.