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German election: Why many voters are still undecided

September 21, 2021

Not only is the German election race wide open — many voters say they're yet to decide whom they will support. Complex coalition numbers, a lackluster campaign and the Angela Merkel vacuum help explain why.

An unmarked German election ballot paper with a pen resting on it.
Polls disagree on quite how many, but a significant number of German voters are yet to decide which boxes to check, days before the voteImage: C. Ohde/blickwinkel/McPHOTO/picture alliance

According to a survey published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, four in 10 people planning to vote on Sunday were yet to pick a party.

Politics professor Thomas Gschwend at the University of Mannheim is not surprised. He is involved in the zweitstimme.org polling project tracking the election for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and puts the high number of undecideds down to the "new situation" as Angela Merkel leaves office. 

"We don't have an incumbent running. We have three instead of two parties trying to get the chancellorship. And it's not very clear — or rather it is far from clear — which coalition government we might get. So therefore I could understand that it's harder to make up your mind," he says, noting that he only filled in his own postal ballot this past weekend.

For historian Katja Hoyer, this mathematically more-open race and additional lead persona has been further complicated by a less-than-compelling campaign.  

"I think the main problem is that none of the parties offer creative or new solutions to old problems. Merkel's tenure has left many key issues untouched, such as quality of life, affordability of social care, or social mobility. It has also introduced additional tension with the refugee crisis in 2015. Yet none of the parties seem to offer feasible and new ideas," Hoyer says. "In addition, the candidates themselves are not particularly inspiring, leading to many voters being undecided as they want none of them."

German politics: Elections & voting in Germany

A nonbinary vote in the post-Merkel vacuum 

The German vote looks set to be spread thinner and wider than it has for decades this year. 

In the past, despite a multiparty system and partly proportional representation, national election races were still fundamentally binary: A more conservative candidate for chancellor from the CDU/CSU would square off against a more social democratic SPD challenger. A moderate conservative, pro-free market Free Democrat voter would understand that their ballot would likely benefit the CDU in future coalition talks. At the same time a Green voter would know they were probably propping up the center-left SPD, the Greens' favorite coalition partner. Supporters of the socialist Left party or later those of the far-right populist AfD, meanwhile, knew that they were merely casting protest votes to put their cause into parliamentary opposition. 

Pens with the logos of the five main German political parties.
With five big and dozens of small parties to chose from, possible coalition combinations become clear once the votes have been countedImage: Christian Ohde/chromorange/picture alliance

But, in 2021, three would-be candidates for chancellor have had to be taken seriously as the Greens joined the fray, at one point taking the lead in polls in May at 26%.

It's entirely possible that any functioning coalition will require one more party (let's treat the Christian Democratic Union and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, as one single entity for simplicity's sake) than has been necessary since the 1960s.  

Political analyst Gschwend also thinks that voters' dissatisfaction with and uncertainty about the campaign and the candidates can be tracked in the polls themselves.  

"People are not happy with the substance of the campaign. Because, when you look at the development of the polls since spring, it's like a roller coaster. Each of the three parties was first at some point, and this is unusual," he says.  

Remind us: Who is standing for continuity and who for change?  

Voter indecision could also rest in uncertainty about what each candidate really stands for. After all: the CDU/CSU and the SPD have been in government together for the past eight years.

Gschwend says it was "really a mistake" on the part of the CDU to assume that Armin Laschet would automatically emerge as a kind of continuity candidate once he was picked as the CDU's post-Merkel man. While Laschet's politics largely tally with those of the four-term chancellor, his personality is more of a contrast.

"You need to know that the set of the voters that supported the CDU is potentially only a subset of those who support Angela Merkel," Gschwend argues. "Angela Merkel got many more votes, especially from female voters. I call them the Merkel voters or the Merkel Christian Democrats, a little bit like the Reagan Democrats [in the US]." 

The restless republic: Germany before the election

Gschwend's polling institute had speculated about who might be able to win over these perhaps traditionally less-conservative voters, at first thinking that Annalena Baerbock of the Greens might be in the best position to capitalize. 

However, he says, Baerbock's campaign struggles opened the door for Olaf Scholz of the SPD, and the CDU seemed to have no campaign answers once their familiar old foe rose from the ashes as a serious rival.  

Scholz has spent several years in coalition with Merkel as a minister, and has served as her deputy since 2018. So Katja Hoyer notes that he gained ground partly by usurping the mantle of continuity from the CDU.  

"I think Olaf Scholz will be able to benefit from the dissatisfaction," she says. "Styling himself as the safe continuity candidate, he seems the least abrasive. He may not be exciting, but at least he won't be radically different from a status quo that seems stable, if not ideal. But he is unlikely to rise much beyond where he is now in the polls because his party is still so deeply unpopular."  

Who could still benefit?  

The last area of uncertainty for the undecided is the question of what coalition alliances could emerge once Sunday's votes are counted.  

"Coalitions are so unpredictable. At the moment, it looks likely that there will be a three-way coalition, which might well be led by the candidate of the party that came second," Hoyer says. "If people feel strongly that a certain party should be kept out of government, this might affect their vote. This is what Armin Laschet is trying to exploit with this 'Red Socks' campaign [warning about what he says is a possible left-wing coalition of the SPD and Greens with additional support from the Left Party]. Only he forgets that the Left Party doesn't strike fear in the hearts of people as the communists of old once did. I think it more likely that left-wingers might pool their votes behind the SPD to perhaps keep the CDU/CSU out."  

For Gschwend, the coalition situation is so opaque — "I wouldn't bet money on anything actually!" — that tactical voting is hardly possible this year. At least one member of a future coalition could end up with an unnatural or unexpected ally, unless the Greens and the SPD manage to beat the odds and win enough seats to govern in tandem. 

He notes that, in the previous two elections, CDU support was overestimated by a few percentage points in almost all opinion polls, "but this might have been a function of them being seen as the incumbent, so I'm not sure if it will happen this time." 

Gschwend says he has been surprised by how many affluent people in his neighborhood whom he would typically peg as conservative voters have voiced support for the Greens, prompting him to wonder if their support is being underestimated. 

At the week's end, the undecided will be forced to pick and polls will morph into results, but the future shape of a coalition government could remain uncertain for a little longer. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam