Time for a new political culture


In the pandemic year 2021, Germany has voted. It is already clear that what is needed is a new political culture of enablement and participation. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung President Dr. Ellen Ueberschär comments on the results of the German federal elections.

This article is part of our dossier "Germany has voted - The aftermath of the 2021 German federal election".


Democracy was the clear winner on the super-election day in the pandemic year 2021, with the German federal election and two federal state elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. That may sound trite, but a single glance at the surrounding environment of liberal democracies shows that it cannot be taken for granted the political competition is played out between democrats, and that populists and right-wing authoritarians remain on the sidelines. 

What are the first lessons learned in these elections? Six observations:

1. The political culture in Germany is resilient

The recent election campaign was full of tension and strongly personalised by German standards. Overall, everybody dealt with their political opponents firmly over factual matters, but respectfully in tone and style, with very few exceptions. This is largely to be attributed to the Alliance 90/The Greens party. Its formative influence on the social tone, the recognition of diversity in a multi-faceted, liberal country and the themes that matter has long been far greater than is reflected in the number of seats it won in the parliamentary elections. This political and cultural influence will continue its growth, with the party’s best ever result – on which itself and its lead candidates are warmly to be congratulated.    

2. These elections have been an absolute turning point for Alliance 90/The Greens

The appointment of a Green candidate for the position of Chancellor has for the first time publicly laid claim to leadership of one the 4th largest economies on earth. The Greens are no longer about co-operating and co-governing, but about leading from the front with precisely the values that shape Green politics in current times: ecology and human dignity, freedom and justice. The goal of Chancellorship in 2021 was missed. The reasons why it was not ultimately possible to capitalise on the momentum of recent months must now be the subject of internal, self-critical party analysis. However, the claim has been staked. It will remain in place. The leap from one to 16 constituency seats promises a solid foundation to follow the claim through. Building majority support for Green values and politics and building on what has been achieved so far must be the strategic compass in all government participation over the next four years. The fact that it is possible to increase the vote share as a coalition partner of the government is demonstrated by the election results of Alliance 90/The Greens in Berlin.

3. The new norm of a political landscape of several party players with less than 30% each opens up new possibilities

When deciding who is going to be the cook and who is going to be the waiter, as Gerhard Schröder said back in 1998 of himself and Joschka Fischer, it is no longer going to be possible to force anybody into doing the unpopular work. In any alliance of three, the two smaller partners put together, FDP and Alliance 90/Greens, will carry at least as much weight as the senior partner. This also spells an end to the previously cultivated TINA style (“there is no alternative”). The multitude of possible solutions became obvious even during the election campaign.

4. Enablement is the keyword of the hour – in climate and sustainable technology policy, but also in democracy and European policy

The previous federal government put the brakes on too many projects at the same time. Climate protection must be enabled with an immediate programme finally setting out to create the conditions for coming out of coal in 2030, to triple renewables and introduce a CO2 price for all sectors that will act as an incentive, be socially balanced and enable lower electricity prices. In transport policy, the legal framework is still geared to the automotive fossil fuel era. Only with root-and-branch reforms at this level will the mobility transition become reality. In the field of digitalisation, it is chiefly the public authorities that are way behind their potential. It requires expertise at decision-making level and exchange with the competent members of civil society to enable a modernisation of administrative processes setting the standards for a digitalisation that supports social welfare. The Covid-19 pandemic was instrumental in laying bare the shortcomings of public infrastructure in Germany, from training to healthcare via the state of the transport infrastructure. Enablement means overcoming the rigid debt brake that does not allow any new debt by moving on to a fiscal policy that promotes green investments.

5. More foreign policy!

The gaping void in the election campaign, the lack of foreign policy debate, must be filled. Precisely because Germany is credible with its democratic political culture, it must make considerably more use of its weight in Europe and beyond than has so far been the case. This will initially mean a break with the traditional culture of treating foreign, security and development policy issues as specialist matters. The ideas range from reform of the Federal Security Council via a parliamentary foresight institute right through to reflections on relaxing the traditional cabinet structure. They all send out the message that German foreign policy must be made more actively and, at the same time, be discussed far more in public at home. Germany must lose its reputation in Europe as a country that holds up climate protection, migration policy and expanding common infrastructure by taking a more participative role in proceedings in the European Council. In particular, the public debate on the approach to the major autocratic states of Russia and China should be central to the task of creating a political mandate.

6. A new political style needs to be rolled out

What strengthens democracy in the long run is no secret: participation, an open style of governance, whole-of-government approaches in complex political fields such as integration and migration policy, education and social policy, foreign, development and climate policy. It is about coherence and participative government action. This demands quite a lot of the players. But anybody wishing to enable the future will succeed only with evidence-based, consistent and participative government action.


This article was first published in German on boell.de.