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While Merkel wins as predicted, the country’s political balance has shifted away from the centre, and she is left diminished. Open Europe’s Leopold Traugott explains the results of Germany’s federal elections and their consequences.
All three main predictions made prior to the German federal elections came true. Angela Merkel’s CDU is again strongest party; the SPD suffered strong losses (in fact reaching its lowest point in history); and the AfD entered the parliament (as the third strongest party). In addition, a number of important trends are visible that show a Germany drifting apart and a chancellor losing support.
Big parties trip up, small parties succeed.
As predicted, Angela Merkel’s CDU will again be the strongest party in the next German parliament, yet with little for its supporters to celebrate. The 33% that the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU receive together in the latest results projections is the second worst result in the party’s history, and far below the 41.5% they scored in 2013.
For the Social Democrats (SPD) the results are a disaster. The party that once dominated German politics falls to 20.6% in latest projections, the worst result in its history. High-ranking party officials, including the lead candidate Martin Schulz, have already announced that in view of the abysmal result the SPD will go into opposition to regroup itself and build a new profile in contrast to the CDU (with whom they have been in Government). A continuation of the current “Grand Coalition” of CDU/CSU and SPD thus seems increasingly unlikely, although not quite impossible.
The business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) are back with a bang. After four years of extra-parliamentary opposition following the party’s electoral annihilation in 2013 (parties need to reach a threshold of 5% to enter the German parliament), the party returns to parliament with 10.6%, making her the fourth strongest party.
The Green Party also did better than recent polls suggested, with current projections indicating 8.9% for the environmentalist party. The far-left Die Linke enter the parliament as smallest party with 9.1%, only a tiny increase from last years results.
Finally, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland comes in even stronger than polls had suggested, and enters parliament as the third strongest party at 12.8%. In 2013, it failed to even reach the 5% threshold. Immediately after first projections were published, the AfD’s co-chairman Alexander Gauland announced his party would “hunt” the CDU and “take back our land and our people”. This is the first time that a far-right party has entered the federal parliament, let alone as the third party, and represents a political earthquake, unimaginable until recently.
Grand coalition out, Jamaica in?
While a “Grand Coalition” of CDU/CSU and SPD would still have a majority seats, the SPD leadership already announced it would look to lead the opposition. Moreover, another coalition with the CDU/CSU is strongly opposed among the SPD party membership. Many see the SPD’s move into the opposition also as particularly important, as otherwise the AfD would become the official opposition.
Should the SPD’s decision to move into the opposition stand, this leaves a “Jamaica Coalition” of CDU/CSU, FDP and Green Party as the only option left on the table. As explained in my previous blog, this coalition will be difficult to bring about. There are strong disagreements between these parties on key policy issues, particularly between the Greens and FDP, who campaigned aggressively against each other. CSU chairman Horst Seehofer recently declared “Jamaica” the worst coalition option for Bavaria, with his and the Green Party clashing most heavily on migration, taxation and the environment. Even internally the Greens are divided on the issue, with the “Realo” (realist) wing of the party in favour of working with CDU, and the “Fundi” (fundamentalist) wing still opposed.
Still, the lack of another option might force the the party’s together. We can expect long and protracted coalition negotiations, as Merkel faces the difficult task of brokering a compromise acceptable to all.
Alternatively under German electoral law a minority government is possible. In this scenario CDU/CSU would govern nominally while relying on flexible coalitions along the way. This would be a first for German politics (minority governments have only occurred on three occasions, always mid-term and never voluntarily), and this would put Merkel in a vulnerable position. It constitutes a last resort only, preferable only to new elections.
With the AfD at 12.8% and Die Linke at 9.1%, nearly a quarter of Germans voted for parties that oppose the liberal mainstream. The rise of the AfD is built largely on both the mobilisation of non-voters (1.1 million new voters) and frustrated CDU voters (1.3 million voters switched), with the party showing the highest proportion of protest over conviction voters. This development is particularly strong in Germany’s east, where the AfD comes in second overall and gained more than 40% in selected districts, indicating a further split between different German regions. After a long period of strong centrism, with a “Grand Coalition” governing Germany for eight out of the last twelve years, many Germans are now voting for (radical) change.
What to look out for next
Don’t expect the election mood to disappear just yet. With another important state election around the corner (the populous state of Lower Saxony votes on 15 October), parties can be expected to keep up their campaign rhetoric for another three weeks. They will try to avoid being seen to compromise or cosy up to their opponents too early, which would likely impede any substantial progress in upcoming coalition talks.
The biggest issue besides coalition building is Merkel’s succession. As she enters her fourth and probably last term as German chancellor, at the end of which she will have governed for sixteen years, questions arise over who will succeed her. While a number of names are under discussion (most prominently Ursula von der Leyen), the field is still largely open. Keep a close eye on upcoming ministerial appointments and party posts to get a better indication of who is being groomed for higher office.