In view of the recession in Germany’s manufacturing industry and with Angela Merkel not standing for election, the parties of the three chancellor candidates are closer in the polls than ever before. Die LINKE could have one path to power: in a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens.
This parliamentary election promises to be an exciting contest, with the electorate able to choose from 47 parties. Smaller parties competing against the seven already represented in the Bundestag – CDU, CSU (both conservative), SPD (social democrat), AfD (far right), FDP (liberal), DIE LINKE (left wing) and the Greens – are unlikely to meet the 5% threshold required to enter Germany's parliament. One party that may cause a surprise is the Freie Wähler (Free Voters), which is already represented in several regional parliaments as well as the European Parliament (as part of the liberal Renew Europe group).
A total of 60.4 million German citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote in the Bundestag election. The country's demographics mean that older generations have more clout when it comes to voting. This is compounded by younger voters' tendency to stay away from the ballot box.
Germany's manufacturing industry is currently in a recession. This is not solely the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent disruption caused to global trade as well as interruptions to production chains. German industry has been battling a longstanding structural crisis. Growth forecasts are currently being adjusted downwards to just 2–3%. The new German government will be confronted with the task of restructuring the country's industry against the backdrop of a fundamentally changed global economy and the ecological transformation of society.
After 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel leaves behind an ambivalent legacy in terms of social policy. On the one hand, she presides over a largely comfortably well-off population. However, a large majority has less influence than in the past and has fostered a sense of dependency as public services and mechanisms of social protection have been shaped ideologically and politically. Social upheavals, climate crisis, a failing disaster prevention strategy, ailing schools, and overwhelmed administrative and healthcare services are seen as threats to a seemingly secure prosperity for which 'the state', 'politicians' and 'the parties' are to blame. The current situation in Afghanistan throws up the additional foreign policy question of who is capable of managing crises. On the other hand, society is facing a cultural overstretch. Hostile opposing camps have emerged on numerous issues, from vaccines, COVID-19 and science to fake news, migration, human rights and democracy. New forms of extremism are shaping the public arena.
Two things will be different during this year's Bundestag election. Firstly, the incumbent, Angela Merkel, will not be standing for re-election. Nobody is able to critically engage with her yet everyone will be compared with her. And Chancellor Merkel is currently extremely popular. As serving vice chancellor, SPD candidate Olaf Scholz portrays himself almost as the 'obvious' continuity candidate. By doing so, he hopes to win back the 'Merkel social democrats', i.e. usual SPD voters who only voted for the CDU because of Merkel.
Annalena Baerbock (Greens) and Armin Laschet (CDU) have not performed well. The effect is all the more severe considering that in highly complex times and in moments when greater guidance and leadership are needed, key figures become even more important.
Secondly, this election adds a new layer of complexity. The parties of the three chancellor candidates are closer in the polls than they have ever been. It remains unclear which out of the CDU, the SPD or the Greens will have the edge on election day. It is also unclear which of the many possible coalition options will be achievable. With the exception of the AfD, all the established parties will be in the running. This means, firstly, that voters do not know which leader they will end up with. Also it means that the manifesto promises and statements made by candidates during the election will ultimately take a back seat to exploratory talks and coalition agreements once the vote has taken place.
The country's experience with executive powers enacted by federal and state governments that involve all parties as part of efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have additionally contributed to discontent with a party system that struggles to highlight parties' relevant differences.
A battle has ensued over how to frame the current political momentum. "New" is a word heavily used in the Union's campaign, "now" appears on posters for DIE LINKE, our problems have "never" been so big argues the FDP, while the Greens are "ready". Either there is a consistent call for change or the belief that change has occurred and now is the time for immediate action.
CDU/CSU: Christian Democratic Union; SPD: Social Democratic Party of Germany; LINKE: The Left; FDP: Free Democratic Party; AfD: Alternative for Germany
Source: Tagesschau.de; own modification
Structural economic change, ecological transformation and the modernisation of the welfare state: these are the three main political challenges to which the parties up for election must respond – and they must do so in unusual times marked by instability and crisis.
What are the parties' central themes as set out in their manifestos? 
The CDU/CSU see themselves as the last remaining people's party. Their manifesto builds largely on their 2017 platform. "Stability" is the watchword for Germany and for the Union's politics.
Following significant government interventions in all areas of social life during the pandemic, the Union is trying to roll back the state to a tolerable level, i.e. one deemed acceptable by the 'centre ground'.
Much attention is focused on the issue of technology and infrastructure. There is a call for the large-scale promotion of innovation. This will be combined with a reduction in bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, law and order issues are high on the agenda. Issues regarding thewelfare state are vital.
The parties' proactive European and global policy stances are notable, such as greater integration within the EU and the desire to play a decisive role on the international stage. Climate and the environment are low on the agenda.
Once again, the SPD is stressing the need for investment in the welfare state: public healthcare provision, improved social protections for the unemployed, pensions and a basic child allowance. The SPD portrays itself as the workers' party, demanding "good and secure jobs".
"Respect" is the term used by the SPD to demand greater equality when it comes to income and wealth, the protection of minorities, gender equality and the sharing of the financial burden caused by climate change. Sustainability is another of the manifesto's central themes.
Generally speaking, the SPD puts market regulation and investment in the welfare state at the top of its agenda. The inclusion of issues such as equality and respect make this manifesto more left-wing compared to 2017.
In its manifesto, the AfD focuses heavily on strict conservative, "traditional values", particularly "family". In terms of deregulation, the party is even more pro-free market than the FDP. An anti-EU policy also shapes the AfD's Germany-first agenda, which promotes nationalism and patriotism. The AfD rejects the civil rights interventions carried out by the state to control the pandemic. "Civil liberties" has become their battle cry, including against the "infantilising" state media, political correctness, etc. An undoubtedly right-wing manifesto.
The FDP presents itself as a progressive liberal party focused on equal opportunities, civillibertiesandhuman rights and the strengthening of liberal democracy. Otherwise the party believes firmly in the free market, deregulation and liberating the market economy from bureaucracy and government regulations.
Digitalisation is a major theme. The party is keen to promote technological development and insists that the relevant infrastructure should be expanded. Unlike previous manifestos, this time the liberal party is also calling for investment in the welfare state.
The Greens maintain their values-based approach. Equality and justice, linked with climate and sustainability, take priority.
Their manifesto is also clearly more 'pro-state'. More government in the sense of expanding the welfare state means making public services a top issue and a drive for a larger publicly funded health sector. The housing market should be more heavily regulated and the quality of education needs to be improved. However, for the Greens, a bigger state also means strengthening institutions such as the police and the army, as well as stricter regulation, e.g. of the financial sector. Wealthy individuals and corporations should pay more taxes; a wealth tax is also being discussed. Higher state investment in'green' technologies and research as well as social measures to alleviate theimpact of change are planned. Germany should have an active immigration policy as well as a more active foreign policy with regard to climate protection measures and human rights.
Traditionally, DIE LINKE focuses its attention on the issue ofsocial justice, i.e. social redistribution in all areas of society, and a peaceful approach to foreign policy.
Redistribution is the political tool of choice: there is primary distribution (higher wages, putting an end to the low wage sector), transfer incomes (higher pensions, pension eligibility by at least 65, the topping up of low pensions) and social safeguards against risk.
The welfare state will be expanded, public services improved (living, care and health, education and local public transport). It will all be funded through a tax policy that shifts the burden from those on low and medium incomes to those who have high incomes or substantial wealth.
Another key issue is 'fair transitions' with regard to climate and the environment. Here, too, social redistribution is key.
DIE LINKE manifesto promotes solidarity as a core value, underlining a radical, progressive, libertarian policy of anti-discrimination and anti-racism and an asylum and refugee policy that reflects these values.
DIE LINKE should be returned to the Bundestag in this election. They would then only have one path to power: a coalition with the SPD and the Greens. Neither party is in favour of such a partnership, but neither is ruling it out either. Representation in the German parliament is vital to the party's development. Its policy agenda is a decade old, and since then, it has had an influx of new members who now make up 50% of its base. DIE LINKE is very much a party for the future.
This is based on analysis conducted by the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)