international analysis and commentary

A political earthquake, German style


The term “political earthquake” may be in overuse in Western democracies in recent years, but it is certainly not an overstatement when describing what happened during the German elections on September 24, 2017. The political turmoil continued after the vote when internal party frictions and splits became apparent.

The “Jamaica coalition” on billboards


After a lukewarm electoral campaign that only gained speed in the final stretch, the Christian Democrats (CDU) lost significantly, although they did confirm their lead in the polls and came out as the strongest party. From a historic win in 2013 with more than 41%, the party in government fell to around 33%, which is its lowest result in post-war history. Against expert warnings and recommendations, Chancellor Angela Merkel stuck to her strategy of merely keeping calm and carrying on. This is one of the factors that led her party to lose more than a million votes to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Another million voters, who expected a more future-oriented campaign based on more innovative  proposals swung to the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Yet, by sticking to her game, eventually Ms. Merkel’s popularity, along with favorable circumstances, were enough and will most likely lead to her re-election as Chancellor by the German Bundestag.

Her main opponent in the campaign, Martin Schulz, rather, led his Social Democrats (SPD) to a disastrous result with less than 21% of the vote, losing around five percentage points compared to 2013. This is far lower than expected according to polls held in previous weeks and – like in the CDU’s case – it is the party’s worst result since 1949. After the television debate with the Chancellor on September 3, 2017, most viewers saw her as more convincing. In fact, it was the first direct televised debate in which she was considered the clear winner. From then on, Schulz and his party stumbled downhill. In recent months, the SPD lacked credibility, as its keyword “social justice” did not translate into concrete policies in its manifesto. Schulz had been celebrated by the media and the Social Democrats themselves at the beginning of the year as a fresh face and a respectable character coming from the presidency of the European Parliament. However, with his lack of government experience at the national level and a slow and complex rhetoric, he failed to convince undecided voters. Shortly after the results were announced, he declared that “our cooperation with the Union (CDU/CSU) has ended today” meaning that his party ruled out a renewed coalition with Merkel’s CDU. Furthermore, the Social Democrat stated that his party would now retrieve into opposition as it does not have a new mandate to govern after such a significant defeat.

Yet, more than intending to strengthen its profile vis-à-vis the center-right CDU, this move is having complex effects. One of the main elements of the political earthquake is the entry into parliament of the far-right AfD. Whereas weeks before the election, polls were giving the party high single digits, it exceeded expectations scoring almost 13% and became the third political force in the country. If the SPD were willing to go into another coalition with the CDU, the AfD would be the strongest opposition party, which entails certain Constitutional rights, such as speaking directly after the Chancellor during plenary debates. Thus, by marginalizing the nationalists, the Social Democrats aim to emerge as the main alternative to Merkel’s party during this term, hopefully setting the stage for the general elections scheduled for 2021.

Similar to what took place four years ago, when Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück and his party’s manifesto were considered a mismatch since he was rather business-friendly whilst the party manifesto included tax hikes and a minimum wage, a certain inconsistency has also emerged on this occasion. Whereas one of Schulz’s main narratives has included protecting hard-working people and improving their working conditions, there are no concrete proposals on this in the SPD’s manifesto. It seemed as though the SPD intended to remain vague enough to renew a coalition with the Christian Democrats. This lack of credibility made the party lose more than 400,000 voters to the more left-wing Die Linke, which achieved a respectable result of around 9%. This was slightly better than its score in 2013 when it ended up as the strongest opposition party with 8.6%. Certainly Die Linke  has benefited from the fact that it was the most credible challenger of the parties in government criticizing the widening of the gap between rich and poor and denouncing the low-wage sector.

More than Die Linke, the Greens can consider themselves as one of the winners of this election since they now have a real chance of coming to power. Their campaign, although less focused, was also more upbeat and powerful than it was four years ago. However, in order to sign a coalition agreement, according to a key party figure, Jürgen Trittin, three conditions need to be met by the other partners:  become more ecological, more liberal and more socially-minded. These are tough demands in the tactical game by a junior coalition partner to get as many concessions as possible.

The Liberals achieved an even more remarkable result in a comeback that more than doubled their result from four years ago. This took place under the new leadership, and the most visible face, of Christian Lindner. The shift from being perceived as a business-friendly and tax-cutting interest group to a modern future-oriented party earned them more than 10% of the votes and has allowed them to move back to the German Bundestag. Four years ago, they were considered to be the tragic losers, just missing the 5% threshold. Part of the tactical game after the announcement of the results was the statement by Lindner that they would not enter into government at any price and that they would be happy to take up their parliamentary work as soon as possible.

Apart from the historical losses of the two main parties and a triumphant comeback of the FDP, the shake-up caused by the AfD completed the political earthquake in Germany. The party that was founded by euroskeptics and concerned conservatives has drifted to the far-right and was able to gain support from a wide spectrum of voters. The great difference between them and the voters of all the other parties is, according to the polling Institute Infratest Dimap, that they did not vote for their party out of conviction, but out of disappointment with the other parties. Their party leader and their main candidate both seem to see themselves as destroyers of the other parties in parliament as they announced that “there can be no parliament without provocations” and “it is not our task to come up with constructive proposals”.

These statements along with a highly-fragmented parliament and possibly an unstable government might be worrying. Yet, these elections have also sent positive signs. The strong wind coming from the far-right will make the debates in the Bundestag not only more lively, but also more controversial. This will allow each party to strengthen its profile as they are all challenged to come up with substantial arguments and to better explain their policies. Moreover, participation increased by 5% vis-à-vis 2013 to more than 76%, which means a strong commitment to democracy and faith in Germany’s democratic institutions. The flip-side of the worrying result of the far-right is that more than 87% of the German electorate voted for tolerant and future-oriented parties committed to a strong European Union. It will be up to them to convince disappointed voters with a more constructive dialogue.