German federal election, 2005

German federal elections took place on September 18, 2005 to elect the members of the 16th German Bundestag, the federal parliament of Germany. They became necessary after a motion of confidence in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder failed on July 1. Following the defeat of Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in a state election, Schröder asked his supporters to abstain in the Bundestag motion in order that it fail and thus trigger an early federal election.

The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), started the federal election campaign with a 21% lead over the SPD in opinion polls. Many commentators expected the Christian Democrats to win a clear electoral victory and that CDU leader Angela Merkel would become Chancellor, forming a government with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and displacing the governing SPD-Green coalition. However, the CDU/CSU significantly lost momentum during the campaign and ultimately won only 1% more votes and four more seats than the SPD.

Exit polls showed clearly that neither coalition group had won a majority of seats in the Bundestag. Both parties lost seats compared to 2002, as did the Greens, while only the Left Party (a partial successor of the Party of Democratic Socialism led by Gregor Gysi and former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine) made significant gains. Both Schröder and Merkel claimed victory, but the formation of a new government required careful negotiations. On October 10 2005, officials from the SPD and the CDU/CSU indicated that negotiations between the two had concluded successfully and that the participating parties would form a Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel as Chancellor. 397 CDU/CSU and SPD Bundestag members duly voted for Merkel when the Bundestag met on November 22.


Chancellor Schröder orchestrated the loss of the Bundestag motion of confidence with the aim of triggering an early federal election following the defeat of his SPD in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia on May 22, 2005. The victory of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia gave that party, together with the FDP, a working majority in the Bundesrat, the federal legislature's upper house.

Early federal elections in Germany can only take place after the dissolution of the Bundestag by the President of Germany, since the constitution forbids the Bundestag dissolving itself. The President can dissolve it only after the Chancellor loses a vote on a motion of confidence. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in a similar situation in 1983 that Chancellors may not ask the President for the Bundestag's dissolution merely for the sake of their desire for an early election; they have to have a real problem getting a majority for his legislation. Many observers agree that Schröder met this requirement, since a number of left-wing SPD delegates had expressed great reservations about Chancellor Schröder's labour reform and welfare reform programme. However, only days before the vote, the coalition had passed a number of bills with no dissenters, indicating strong support for the Chancellor within the coalition. After urging members to abstain on the vote, Chancellor Schröder purposely lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag on July 1 by 296 to 151. On July 21 President Horst Köhler dissolved the Bundestag and paved the way for the early election on September 18.

The Green member of parliament Werner Schulz - who, in a much-cited speech on the day of the motion of confidence, had criticised the deliberate loss of the motion as "farcical" and likened the Bundestag's obedience to Schröder to behaviour typical of the German Democratic Republic Volkskammer - and the SPD member of parliament Jelena Hoffmann jointly filed a constitutional complaint in the Federal Constitutional Court. The Court rejected the complaint on August 25, ruling as valid the President's decision to dissolve the Bundestag, thereby giving the green light for the early elections on September 18 and ending speculation that Schröder would have to step down or lead a "lame duck" government.

A small number of members of minor political parties filed similar complaints: the Court similarly rejected them during the week before the election.

  • These figures constitute the final results published by the Bundeswahlleiter (Federal election officer).
  • 77.7% of voters cast ballots, down 1.4% from 2002. This included a number of invalid votes as follows: 850,072 (1.8%) in the constituency section, 756,146 (1.6%) in the list section.
  • The CDU and the CSU sit together as one caucus in the Bundestag and do not compete against each other. The CSU runs only in the state of Bavaria while the CDU competes in all other states.
  • These results include nine "overhang mandates" for the SPD and seven for the CDU.
  • These results compare the results for the Left. party with those of the PDS in 2002.
  • These results include the delayed result from the Dresden-I seat (see below).


The CDU/CSU nominated Angela Merkel for Chancellor, the first time in German history that one of the two larger parties has nominated a woman for this position. The CDU presented a platform involving increasing the pace and scope of economic deregulation in Germany and pursuing cuts in income tax and public spending (many commentators have compared Merkel with Margaret Thatcher). The CDU began the campaign with a 21% lead over the SPD and confidence in Merkel's victory led the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, to meet with her ahead of Chancellor Schröder during a visit to Berlin in June.

The SPD had the goal of maintaining the current deregulation agenda. They added to their election program some minor corrections such as broadening the financing base of the healthcare system and the proposal of a 3% additional tax for people with annual incomes above 250,000 euro (after the governing coalition earlier in 2005 cut the highest income tax rate from 48.5% to 42%).

The Greens decided on their program in July 2005. Compared to their previous federal election program, they increased the emphasis on economics and labour-market politics. For the first time this topic came before the classical green topic of environmental politics in the program. In general, the program moved slightly to the left; including stating the necessity for changes to some existing red-green governmental policies.

The FDP announced its election program before any other party, publishing it on July 24. It called for strong saving measures in public spending and more room for local negotiation between employees and employers, as opposed to central control by trade-union officials.

The leaders of the far left Party of Democratic Socialism (the "PDS") agreed to let candidates of the centre left Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (the "WASG") run on their party list, leaving open the possible future option of a merger between the two parties. In agreeing to this the WASG stipulated that the PDS rename itself as the Left Party. The WASG, with its front-runner Oskar Lafontaine (a former SPD leader), formed from breakaway elements within the SPD, angered at that party taking a "neoliberal" direction in economic reforms. The general membership has already approved this measure and awaits to hear from the PDS party convention to agree as well. If successful this could lead to a further erosion of the SPD's strength, as the PDS has never made inroads in the former West Germany (it lineally succeeded the former governing communist party (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) of the former German Democratic Republic), while the WASG has its base in western Germany and could garner substantial votes there.

Two of Germany's small far-right parties, the National Democratic Party (NPD) and the German People's Union (DVU), announced that they would run on a common platform in this election, raising fears in the mainstream German political establishment that together they might succeed in gaining more than 5% of the national vote and thus in entering the Bundestag. Since German electoral law does not permit common lists of two or more parties, in practice the DVU did not enter the election, and members of that party appeared on the NPD list.

Early election polls during summer 2005 from 6 organizations showed a solid lead for the CDU/CSU with a share of the vote ranging between 41% and 43%, and the SPD trailing at between 32% and 34%. The polls further showed the FDP, a possible coalition partner for the conservatives, at between 6.5% and 8%, and the Greens, the current coalition partner for the SPD, between 6% and 8%. Most polls indicated a likely majority for a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition. As for other parties, those polls which explicitly included the PDS-WASG electoral alliance showed it above the 5% hurdle at between 7% and 8.5%. No poll showed any other parties, including far-right parties, near 5%, although far-right parties have in the past sometimes polled below their actual support due to unwillingness by voters to admit their support.

In early August support for Angela Merkel declined considerably. Reasons for this included conflicts about the election program in and between the conservative parties (the CDU and the CSU), and arguments with their preferred coalition partner, the FDP, as well as embarrassing gaffes. At one point the media criticized Merkel for confusing net and gross income figures during a campaign speech. Following this, polls suggested that the CDU/CSU and FDP would only win 48% of votes between them, and thus would not be able to form a government. Further damage occurred when two prominent CDU/CSU candidates, Jörg Schönbohm and the CSU leader Edmund Stoiber, made insulting remarks about East Germans. These remarks not only alienated voters in Eastern Germany but also made some question the CDU/CSU's confidence in Merkel, as she is herself grew up in the East.

However, polls carried out by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in late August showed the CDU/CSU/FDP bloc back up at 51% of the vote. Predictions suggested that the opposing bloc of incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats, the Greens and the country's recently formed left-wing Left Party (PDS/WASG alliance) would win a combined total of only 46%. The leaders of the SPD and the Greens, Schröder and Fischer, as well as the Left Party's front-runner Gregor Gysi said they opposed the idea of a "red-red-green" coalition. With polls remaining so close, speculation increased that (as in the elections of 1994, 1998 and 2002) a small number of overhang seats might impact significantly on the election results.

On Sunday September 4, Schröder and Merkel met in a head-to-head debate broadcast by four of Germany's major private and public television networks. Although most commentators gave the initial edge to Merkel, polls soon showed that the general public disagreed and ranked Schröder the clear winner. Later analysis suggested that, in particular, Merkel's support for a flat-tax proposal by Paul Kirchhof, the shadow Finance Minister, further undermined her credibility on economic affairs and gave the impression that the CDU's economic reforms would only benefit the very rich.

Midweek polls showed the SPD clawing their way upwards by a few percentage points, although the combined CDU/CSU and FDP votes tended to remain 1 to 2 percentage points ahead of those for the left-wing parties combined. On the eve of the election, the CDU enjoyed a 9% lead over the SPD (42% and 33% respectively), with neither party likely to have enough seats (even with their preferred coalition partners) to form a government. Merkel's personal popularity (consistently below that of her party) had climbed back up to 40%, from a low of 30%, while Schröder's had reached a peak of 53% (having consistently exceeded that of his party). However, polls also showed that even at this late stage a quarter of German voters had not yet decided how to vote, and that these undecided voters could decide the final result if they turned out to vote. With polls still so close, the parties broke with tradition and continued campaigning on the Saturday before the election and on election day itself. While pundits focused on the likelihood of a grand coalition, the CDU suggested that the SPD might consent to forming a coalition with the new Left Party.


Germany went to the polls on September 18 2005. Voters in one constituency in Dresden had to wait until October 2 to vote, in order to allow the reprinting of ballot-papers after the death of the National Democratic Party candidate on September 8.

Soon after voting ended it became clear that the CDU/CSU (the “Union”) had narrowly edged out the SPD, but that neither of the two likely coalitions (SPD-Greens and CDU/CSU-FDP) could achieve a Kanzlermehrheit - the support of the majority of members of the Bundestag required to elect a Chancellor. Exit polls for both the ARD and the ZDF television networks showed the CDU/CSU on 35%, the SPD on 34%, the FDP on 10%, the Left Party on 9% and the Greens on 8%; a Forsa poll differed slightly, predicting 36% for the CDU/CSU and 8% for the Left Party. Early seat projections suggested that the CDU/CSU and the SPD had virtually tied in the count for seats in the Bundestag. The exit polls and projections proved broadly accurate in the preliminary results released on September 19 and in the final results published on October 7.

The SPD/Green coalition fell from 306 seats (in a house of 603), to 273 seats (in a house of 614) while the opposition CDU/CSU-FDP coalition fell from 295 seats to 286 seats. Both potential coalitions fell far short of the 308 seats required for a majority in this Bundestag. The Left Party and the FDP overtook the Greens, previously Germany’s third most-popular party since 1994. The FDP, with almost 10% of the vote, scored its best result since the 1990 federal election, regaining its status as the Federal Republic’s third party, which it had enjoyed throughout the history of West Germany and maintained in the first post-German reunification election. Some analysts believe that the rise in the FDP vote came as a result of tactical voting by CDU-CSU voters hoping to prevent a grand coalition by buttressing the Free Democrats. Of the parties that failed to secure the 5% needed to attain seats in the Bundestag, the National Democratic Party performed best, winning 1.6% of the list vote and 1.8% of the constituency vote (approximately the same as the proportion of spoilt ballots).


Both Angela Merkel (CDU) and Gerhard Schröder (SPD) claimed victory and the Chancellorship as the exit polls came in. It soon became clear that neither could form a majority government within the existing coalitions. Largely because of strong hostility between Schröder and Oskar Lafontaine, a former SPD chairman turned leader of the Left Party, the obvious left-wing coalition of the SPD, Greens and Left Party was not possible. However, both the CDU and SPD said that they would negotiate with all parties that had won seats except the Left Party, while the leaders of the Left Party rejected any possibility of participating in a coalition with either of the two main parties. The exclusion of the Left Party reduced the possible coalitions to the following three arrangements:

  • SPD, FDP and Greens (called the "traffic light" coalition, after the colours used to symbolize those parties: red, yellow and green, respectively). (The SPD governed in coalition with the Greens from 1998 to 2005, and in coalition with the FDP from 1969 to 1982.)
  • CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens (called the "Jamaica" coalition after those parties' colours: black, yellow and green, respectively, which colours also feature in the Jamaican national flag). (The CDU/CSU governed in coalition with the FDP from 1949 to 1966 and from 1982 to 1998; but neither party had worked with the Greens in federal government.)
  • CDU/CSU and SPD (a Grand Coalition). (The CDU/CSU and SPD previously governed in a Grand Coalition from 1966 to 1969.)

Party-political differences and intense personal hostility between many of the party leaders (particularly between Schröder and Merkel, but also between Schröder and Lafontaine) made negotiations problematic. All party leaders had previously ruled out anything except the usual coalitions. After the election, FDP leaders stated that they would rather remain in opposition than form a coalition with the SPD and the Greens, and Joschka Fischer dismissed the possibility of a Jamaica coalition, saying, "Can you really see Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber sitting round the table in dreadlocks? This is more our style. It's impossible". Any form of compromise looked to require a change in leadership of one of the main parties.

Despite some prominent members publicly blaming Merkel for its poor showing, the CDU/CSU confirmed her as leader on September 20. On September 22, SPD members began musing that the political system should consider the CDU and the CSU as separate entities rather than as a single parliamentary faction. In such a scenario, the SPD would be the largest party in the Bundestag and thus, they argued, an SPD member should become Chancellor in any Grand Coalition. One SPD legislator indicated he planned to introduce a motion in the Bundestag explicitly defining the CDU and the CSU as separate parties. The Greens rejected coalition with the CDU/CSU after talks broke down. The CDU/CSU pressed their case for the Chancellery after victory in the delayed vote in Dresden, and ahead of talks with the SPD; the SPD maintained their own claim, but Schröder indicated that he would step aside if his party wished it.

Finally, on October 10, officials from the CDU/CSU and the SPD announced that negotiations to form a Grand Coalition had succeeded. Angela Merkel would become Chancellor and the sixteen seats in the new cabinet (including the Chancellery) would go equally to each side, with both the CDU/CSU and the SPD each having eight posts. The SPD would control eight ministries including the important roles of finance and foreign affairs, while the CDU/CSU would control six ministries as well as providing the Chancellor and the Director of the Federal Chancellery (the Chancellor's Chief of Staff), who would also hold the position of Minister for Special Affairs. Gerhard Schröder would reportedly retire from politics.

Detailed negotiations on the formation of the new government continued into November, with Edmund Stoiber of the CSU withdrawing from the proposed cabinet to continue as Minister-president of Bavaria. All three parties held conferences on November 14 (the CDU in Berlin, the CSU in Munich and the SPD in Karlsruhe) which voted to approve the deal. The majority of CDU/CSU and SPD delegates in the newly-assembled Bundestag elected Merkel as Chancellor on 22 November. 397 members of the Bundestag voted for Merkel, indicating that 51 members from one or more of the SPD, CDU or CSU do not support the coalition deal.

Reports have indicated that the Grand Coalition will pursue a mix of policies, some of which directly contradict aspects of Merkel's political platform as a former leader of the opposition and candidate for Chancellor. The coalition intends to cut public spending while increasing VAT, social-insurance contributions and the top rate of income tax. Employment protection will no longer cover employees during their first two years in a job, and the new government intend freeze pensions and to scrap subsidies for first-time home buyers. In the field of foreign policy, Germany will maintain its strong ties with France and with Poland, and will continue its support for Turkey one day becoming a member of the European Union. Merkel has defined the main aim of her government as reducing unemployment, and expressed the hope that posterity will judge the success of her tenure on the basis of this issue.

See also

Further reading

  • Proksch, Sven-Oliver; and Jonathan B. Slapin (2006). "Institutions and coalition formation: The German election of 2005". West European Politics 29 (3): 540–559.
  • Pulzer, Peter (2006). "Germany votes for deadlock: The federal election of 2005". West European Politics 29 (3): 560–572.

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