Two Crucial Votes in Germany’s Länder Mean
Merkel’s Succession is up for Grabs

Mach 19, 2021 | Germany

Executive Summary

A Weak Showing of the Conservatives Re-opens the Race for Chancellorship

  1. 2021 is a ‘super election year’ in Germany as ballots in important federal states (‘Länder’) and the ongoing pandemic can decisively impact the federal election in September.

  2. The christian-democrat’s (CDU) tanking in Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s economic power-houses, and the social-democrat’s (SPD) rebound in Rhineland-Palatinate open national policy debates.

  3. A realistic perspective for a federal government without Merkel’s party, the CDU, arises, with a probable participation of the Greens bringing about significant shifts in German economic and foreign policies.

Watch out for

  • Coalition formation in the two states as possible blueprints for the next federal government.

  • Speeding up of decision-making among the conservative sister parties (CDU and CSU) to nominate their candidate for chancellor.

  • Citizens’ mood regarding the government’s ability to organize vaccine rollout, re-open the economy, and clear-up a kickback scandal involving conservative MPs.

Key Figures

  • Baden-Württemberg: Alliance 90/Greens 32,6 %, CDU 24,1 %, SPD 11,0 %, (liberal) FDP 10,5 %, (populist) AfD 9,7 %

  • Possible coalitions: Alliance 90/Greens and CDU; Alliance 90/Greens, SPD and FDP (‘traffic light coalition’)

  • Rhineland-Palatinate: SPD 35,7 %, CDU 27,7 %, Alliance 90/Greens 9,3 %, AfD 8,3 %, FDP 5,5 %, Free Voters 5,4 %

  • Likely coalition: SPD, FDP and Alliance 90/Greens.

State of Play

An Historic Election Year has Begun, Promising Change in German Politics 

2021 will be a ‘super election year’ for Germany with ballots in six states scheduled before or during the federal election in September. Thus, beyond the management of the ongoing health crisis, the country’s political environment is shaped by strategic considerations and voting campaigns. State and federal elections mutually influence each other given Germany’s federal structure, consisting of the federal government and 16 ‘Länder’ sharing much legislative authority between them. Just as national issues dominated the election campaigns in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, party coalitions formed at the state level shape federal policy through the Bundesrat or Upper House. Moreover, state elections’ results do not only depict political trends but can also have direct impact on federal policy, possibly tipping the scales in the carefully choreographed working of the ‘grand coalition’ in Berlin. This particularly concerns the choice of who might succeed the incumbent federal chancellor, Angela Merkel, who will not run again after 16 years in office. Only the social democrats have so far fielded a candidate, Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz. The state elections in southwest Germany have now given a first signal of what the situation in the federal government could look like soon and which parties are going to have a tailwind.

Key Issues

State Elections Provide a Glimpse into Possible National Government Coalitions

The power of the Länder is crucial in the German political landscape. They play an important role when it comes to shaping federal legislation and EU affairs, even though the power distribution between them differs. Baden-Württemberg, one of the largest states in terms of size and population, holds six out of 69 seats in the German Bundesrat. It has one of Germany’s highest export and, like Rhineland-Palatinate, one of the lowest unemployment rates, putting the two among the wealthiest regions in Europe. Both states also benefit from economically important cross-border trade with neighboring countries Switzerland, France, and Luxembourg. Therefore, the election results deserve (inter-)national attention.


Baden-Württemberg underwent considerable political changes in recent years that are likely to shed a light on election results at the federal level. The state government and parliament had been dominated by the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) since the early 1950s. The CDU fielded successive governors (Minister-Presidents) and was able to govern alone for two decades – a rarity in coalition-based German politics. The trend shifted in 2011 with an unlikely majority for Alliance 90/Greens in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Since then, the Green party has held the position of Minister-President, its first-ever governorship of a federal state.


The recent elections confirmed Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann for a third term, while the parties of the incumbent federal government, the CDU and the Social-Democrats (SPD), made considerable losses. Two coalitions are now possible: Either the Greens continue to govern with the CDU, or they change partners to join forces with the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). This center-left ‘traffic light coalition’ (for the respective parties’ colors) indeed received a confirmation in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the SPD of Minister-President Malu Dreyer came out strongest and the CDU lost significantly. Both elections thus weakened the CDU, with repercussions at the federal level via the selection of the candidate for chancellor.

Power Play for the Christian Democrats and Beyond

Party headquarters in Berlin are agitated in light of these state election results. The SPD suddenly sees an option to remain in power outside the loathed ‘grand coalition’ with the conservatives, i.e. by forming a ‘traffic light coalition’ at the federal level after September 2021. The FDP, in turn, is benefiting from ongoing debates on pandemic containment measures and the resulting restrictions of civil liberties. The liberals have immediately offered to work with the Greens in Baden-Württemberg. Yet, it was the divergence of those two parties, which resulted in the breakdown of Merkel’s coalition talks back in 2017. Crucially, the question will be if the Green party can build its momentum over the coming months and perform strongly in the federal election in September, which, after facing historic defeats in former home states, the CDU is now anxiously anticipating.


The election in Baden-Württemberg is thus reinforcing the Green’s standing as kingmaker at federal level. The party has a credible record to promote issues of increased importance such as climate protection but also sustainable business development. In government, it would likely reshape German foreign policy. Climate policies will become a priority, also at international level, with the introduction of a carbon tax as one likely tool. In the field of security and defense, the Greens are relying on a European security union, prioritizing civilian crisis prevention, disarmament, and restrictive arms exports.


Unexpectedly, a federal government without the CDU is now conceivable. All the more so since some deputies from the CDU and its Bavarian sister-party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are implicated in a corruption scandal on the procurement of health masks. In this context, competition has increased between the CDU and CSU over which of the respective party leaders, Armin Laschet, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, or Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria should run for chancellor in September. Since Sunday, both have to take into account: Whoever becomes the two parties’ joint candidate will not automatically succeed Angela Merkel as the leader of Germany.