Why the strongest party does not automatically provide the chancellor

SPD chancellors Willy Brandt (left) and Helmut Schmidt each governed for long periods in constellations in which the CDU was stronger. The decisive factor at the time was the votes of the FDP. Kurt Rohwedder

It sounds logical: Whoever gets the most votes in the election will become chancellor – according to the first forecasts on election night, either SPD candidate Olaf Scholz or CDU candidate Armin Laschet. Read more about the results in our Livticker.

But it’s not quite as simple as you might think at first, even if it will eventually be clear who got more votes. Because the Germans do not elect their chancellor directly, but the choice is made by the new Bundestag, which will be elected this Sunday. Whoever gets the majority of the votes becomes chancellor.

Two SPD chancellors won fewer votes than their Union challengers

As a rule, the election of a chancellor is preceded by an agreement on a coalition of several parties – and it is by no means certain that this coalition will include the party that received the most votes. It is likely that the chancellor candidate of this strongest party will be the first to try to form a government. But in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, it has often been the case that the runner-up in the election ends up as chancellor.

Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, for example, not only have their SPD party membership in common, but also the fact that they were chancellors – in some cases for a long time – even though the CDU/CSU was the stronger party in the Bundestag. This constellation existed after the elections in 1969, 1976 and 1980.

With Helmut Schmidt as its candidate for chancellor, the SPD never became the strongest party

Willy Brandt, who was chancellor from 1969 to 1974, only managed to win more votes than the CDU/CSU in the 1972 election. Helmut Schmidt, who took office in 1974 after Brandt’s resignation and was toppled by Helmut Kohl in a vote of no confidence in 1982, did not manage to win any Bundestag elections in which he was the strongest candidate. In all cases, the CDU/CSU governed with the FDP of the Bundestag, which at that time in any case consisted of only these three parliamentary groups.

At that time, many things were different and some things were easier – for example, the FDP was the automatic "kingmaker" of a chancellor. And it enabled Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to form their majorities against the Union parties. Unlike today, however, the FDP had already explained this in the run-up to the election. This time most parties are keeping almost all coalition parties open.

In the times when it was the strongest parliamentary group but did not provide the chancellor, however, the CDU/CSU held a top office that, in terms of protocol, is still ahead of the chancellor: As the strongest parliamentary group, it provided the president of the Bundestag.

It’s the smaller parties that matter

This time, too, it is therefore likely to come down to the negotiating skills of the candidates for chancellor: Who can convince the FDP and the Greens – as well as, if they enter parliament, the Left Party – of their merits? Or will the second-placed party – be it the CDU or the SPD – enter into an alliance with the strongest party?

All questions that will only be clarified in the coming months. Until then, no one can realistically say who will be Chancellor of Germany.

Note: This article originally appeared on Sunday afternoon at 16.30 hrs and was updated after the first election results were available.

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