BERLIN – On the day after Germany's election, whichever party has won the most votes typically takes charge of enticing other parties with smaller shares of the vote to form a new government. But Sunday's election results were far from typical.
The top two vote-getters, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), received less than half of all votes, at 25.7% and 24.1%, respectively. The other half of the votes went to a hodgepodge of parties, starting with the Greens, Germany's libertarian FDP Party, the country's far-right AfD Party, and several others.
This rare scenario was batted about in the "Berliner Runde," Germany's televised round-table discussion among the major parties' chancellor candidates that took place two hours after the exit polls showed a dead heat among the SPD and the CDU/CSU Sunday evening.
The chancellor candidate for the FDP, Christian Lindner, turned Germany's political tradition on its head by suggesting that his party, which received just 11.5% of the vote, planned to meet with the Green Party first to jointly decide which of the top two parties they would like to partner with. "It goes without saying that talks among smaller parties can already begin to take place," agreed Annalena Baerbock, chancellor candidate of the Green Party, which received 14.8% of the vote.
The Greens and the FDP are banding together
"The smaller parties are in the driver's seat," says Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund. Angela Merkel "has left a very fragmented political landscape in Germany, so it looks like it's going to take three parties to form a majority for the next government. So the small parties, the Greens and the FDP, are sort of banding together to call the shots for the next government."
The big question is whether these two parties will be able to agree on a third partner in a coalition government given how little they have in common themselves.
The Greens are an environmentalist, progressive party that want to make Germany carbon neutral as quickly as possible through government spending and higher taxes. They've had a profound impact on this election: They've channeled a growing frustration among Germans about climate change into a movement that's forced Germany's two largest parties to change their own platforms on this issue.
On the other side, the FDP is a liberal-minded libertarian party whose platform is tightly focused on fiscal responsibility and battling high taxes.
The two parties both appeal to young, first-time voters
The one thing these two parties share in common are the type of voters they appeal to. According to exit polls, the FDP and the Greens received the most support from young, first-time voters. And alongside the SPD, the two parties were the only ones that saw gains in voter support since the last German election in 2017.
SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz acknowledged as much in a speech after the official results were released. "The voters have made it clear," he told supporters. "They have said who should form the next government. They strengthened three parties - the SDP, the Greens, and the FDP- and that is the clear mandate from the citizens of this country that these parties should lead the next government."
But it won't be easy for the FDP – a party that campaigns on lower taxes – to come to an agreement with the Greens and the SPD, both of which want to raise the minimum wage and tax the richest Germans. David-Wilp says Lindner, the FDP's candidate, will likely demand to become finance minister – one of the most powerful positions inside the German government – in return for entering into a coalition with the Greens and the Social Democrats.
"If push comes to shove, Olaf Shultz is ready to give Christian Lindner the Finance Ministry," says David-Wilp, "because, in a sense, he also probably is keen to have Christian Lindner on his team since Olaf Scholz, at the end of the day, is a centrist, and Christian Lindner and the FDP, with its stress on fiscal discipline, would almost help Olaf Scholz tame the firebrands within his party and within the Greens in terms of taxing and spending more."
But David-Wilp says three-party talks could take a long time, and it might be weeks — if not months — before Germany has its next government.