Elections for the German Federal Parliament, the Bundestag, took place on September 26, 2021, given Chancellor Angela Merkel’s early announcement that she would not run for elections nor seek to remain chancellor, a position which she had occupied since 2005. Undoubtedly, the departure of Merkel, who remained in power for nearly 16 years, will leave a big hole in Berlin, and her successor will have much to do, amid numerous domestic challenges and complex international equations. Merkel’s influence was not limited to Germany, she was an indispensable leader in Europe at large, which led many observers to dub her as the ‘Iron Lady.’
The Bundestag elections resulted in the Social Democratic Party, led by Olaf Scholz, winning the majority with 25.7% of the votes. It won narrowly over Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union Party, led by Armin Laschet, which got 24.1% of the vote—the worst showing in its history. Meanwhile, the Green Party, led by Annalena Baerbock, came in third with 14.8%, followed by the Federal Democratic Party with 11.5%. Alternative for Germany (a radical right party) got 10.3%, less than the 12.6% share it obtained in the 2017 elections when it was the third-largest party in Germany at the time. The radical Left Party (DIE LINKE) got about 4.9% of the votes, significantly down from its 9% share in the 2017 elections.
In order to explore the potential effects of these election results on Germany’s Middle Eastern foreign policy, we must understand the German election system, which is based primarily on a parliamentary system where the German chancellor is chosen from the party that gained the electoral majority. If the party does not gain the majority, it must form alliances with other parties to ensure the formation of a government, which means negotiations and compromises with parties of varying political orientations and painful concessions from each party to ensure that it reaches the majority required to form the government. It takes a long time to form such an alliance. It suffices to point out that, in the past, this period has lasted six months, while emphasizing that the German chancellor does not necessarily have to come from the party that won the electoral majority. Alliances may be formed that could enable a party that did not obtain the majority, but was able to reach an alliance with other parties, to appoint the chancellor from among its members.
From the German election results, we can distill four major indicators that will have a pivotal role in defining the features of German foreign policy vis-à-vis Middle East issues. The first indicator is the fact that the election results showed that both candidates, Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet, lack the charismatic personality of Angela Merkel. Thus, whichever of them is the next chancellor, neither Scholz nor Laschet is capable of providing the European Union with Merkel’s type of powerful leadership. Consequently, it can be said that the coalition government that will be formed will be unable to make important decisions, a phenomenon known in parliamentary systems as "immobilism."
The second indicator is that Germans did not vote in these elections for individuals so much as for parties. Accordingly, it could be said that Scholz has a greater chance of succeeding Merkel as chancellor because the vote was a vote on the performance of political parties, and German opinion polls showed that Laschet was not wanted as the successor to Merkel. The German street wants to see a change in Germany, and Scholz is more inclined to ally with small parties. Thus, the alliance that may ultimately lead to the formation of a government may take no little time. However, if Scholz attains the chancellorship, Germany will see a shift to a domestic agenda more focused on social justice and climate and a foreign policy that emphasizes multilateralism and strengthening of the European alliance.
The third indicator shows that the central issues that Germans voted for in the elections were mainly domestic issues consisting of social justice, environmental protection, climate, the economy, and employment. For example, the economy was the priority for Christian Union voters, while the environment and climate were less important to them. For the overwhelming majority of Green voters (more than 80%), environmental protection and climate change issues were most important. Voters for the Social Democrat Party voted primarily on the issue of social justice, while immigration was the overriding concern of supporters of Alternative for Germany. Thus, it can be said that if Scholz becomes chancellor, he will work to create a measure of balance in the open-door policy that Merkel pursued toward refugees. The Social Democratic Party is inclined to protect human, immigrant, and workers’ rights. Several trends indicate that the Green Party, if it participates in the next governing coalition, will adopt a harsher policy vis-à-vis China, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries, particularly with regard to human rights issues.
The fourth indicator suggests that German foreign policy toward the Middle East will not see a fundamental change so much as put a greater focus on human rights and environmental issues in the Arab world. Since 2014, German foreign policy had already begun to move more effectively and actively after expanding its goals within the vision of the so-called "Munich Consensus," which aims for Berlin to assume greater responsibility and a more active role in international politics. This followed the indirect effects on Germany and other European countries of the lack of security and stability at the doorstep of the European Union and the gradual withdrawal of the United States from Middle Eastern issues.
It can be said that regardless of who becomes the next German chancellor he or she will have to be very active vis-à-vis Middle Eastern issues because these issues create instability and a direct threat to German and European security, including immigration, asylum, and human rights issues. The next German chancellor’s priorities in the Middle East will focus on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, achieving as much stability as possible to prevent the influx of more refugees, in addition to fighting terrorism and respecting human rights.
Ultimately, the inevitable result of these close elections between two major parties (center right and center left) is that the small parties will have a decisive role in determining the name of the next German chancellor and the priorities of his or her domestic and foreign policy, which will not represent a radical change in German policy from the legacy of the Iron Lady.