When German voters head to the polls on Sunday, a familiar name will be absent from the ballot.
After serving 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel is not running for reelection.
Instead, voters in the European Union‘s strongest economy and most populous country will be deciding what a post-Merkel Germany looks like. And the race for her successor, which is shaping up to be a close contest, may not be decided until days or weeks after Sunday’s contests.
Here are four things to know about the German elections.
It’s the end of an era
Merkel’s departure is no surprise. The chancellor first announced in 2018, after setbacks for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in regional elections, that she wouldn’t seek reelection at the end of her current term.
Merkel grew up in what was then communist East Germany. She earned a doctorate in chemistry and worked as a research scientist until the 1989 revolutions across Eastern Europe that led to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. She entered politics, becoming an official in the first democratically-elected East German government. Following the reunification in 1990 of East and West Germany, she was elected to the country’s parliament, known as the Bundestag.
A protégé of longtime chancellor Helmut Kohl, Merkel rose through the ranks, becoming her party’s first female leader. After serving as lead of the German opposition from 2002 to 2005, Merkel made history after the 2005 elections by being appointed the country’s first female chancellor.
During her tenure steering Germany, Merkel has dealt with four U.S. presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden.
In this July 15, 2021, file photo President Biden meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Under Merkel’s watch, Germany’s become known as the European Union’s de facto leader, and the chancellor will likely be remembered as a pragmatic leader with an ability to keep her job by striking political compromises. And Merkel – in Germany, Europe and around the world – has earned a reputation as an honest broker and a reliable partner.
Who’s running to replace Merkel?
Just as in the U.S., German politics is dominated by two major political parties. They are Merkel’s party, the center right CDU, and the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD). The two parties have steered Germany in a grand coalition the past eight years.
The CDU, which runs on a combined ticket with its Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party, has named Armin Laschet as its candidate for chancellor. Laschet is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state.
The SPD’s candidate is the current federal finance minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is seen as the front runner in the race, amid an uninspiring campaign and gaffes from Laschet.
Unlike the U.S., Germany also has numerous other political parties that have grown in size and influence. Among them is the Green Party, whose leader Annalena Baerbock is also a candidate for chancellor. At age 40, she’s the youngest and only female among the major candidates for chancellor. But the former professional trampolinist is also the only one of the three who lacks any experience in government.
Candidates for the upcoming German election attend a final televised debate in Berlin, Thursday Sept. 23, 2021, ahead of the election on Sunday. From left to 4th left, Alice Weidel, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD); Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP); Markus Soeder, Christian Social Union party leader and Bavarian Prime Minister, and Armin Laschet, chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union. From 3rd right to right, Annalena Baerbock, Green Party co-leader; Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate, and Janine Wissler, co-leader of the left party Die Linke. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool via AP)
What are the major issues?
Climate change has dominated political debate in Germany in recent years, and that’s only been amplified in the wake of the country’s devastating floods this summer. The dominance of the issue has allowed the Green Party to broaden its appeal with voters.
While all the major parties have stressed their credentials in combating climate change, the Green Party has the most aggressive platform in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Economic issues and differences over boosting the minimum wage and pension system are also front and center in the election.
Unlike in the U.S., foreign policy has been an afterthought in the current campaign. Not a single question on that topic was asked during a recent televised debate.
How the election works
Germans don’t actually vote for chancellor.
Instead, they cast a ballot for a local lawmaker and for their preferred party.
German elections to the Bundestag are run on a system of proportional representation, meaning that each party’s vote share relates directly to how many seats they get in parliament. That principle makes it virtually impossible for a party to lead a government alone. Coalitions must instead be formed after the vote, and these often contain more than two groups.
Once the results from Sunday’s election are in, a new race to assemble a governing coalition begins. The leader of that coalition becomes the chancellor.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many German voters have already cast ballots by mail ahead of Sunday’s election.
Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire.