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Open Europe’s Leopold Traugott explains what is at stake in Germany’s federal elections this Sunday, and what to expect in terms of coalition negotiations.
21 September 2017
With just three days to go until Germany’s general elections on 24 September, the winner seems clear. Leading the field with 38% in the latest polls, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party CSU are poised to govern Germany for another four-year term. Her main electoral competitor, the social democratic SPD, lags far behind at 23%. The remaining four parties expected to enter the German parliament this time – Free Democrats (FDP), Greens, far-left Die Linke and far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) – are all fluctuating between 8-11%, making for a tight race for who comes in third.
This election period has been largely void of excitement, with Martin Schulz’s SPD failing to give Merkel a run for her money. Instead, much of the public debate has focused on anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic AfD entering parliament. They would be the first far-right party to do so since 1949. Separately, the return of business-friendly FDP, which spent the last four years in extra-parliamentary opposition following a crushing electoral defeat in 2013, has reinvigorated Germany’s political landscape. Under their new leader Christian Lindner, they have regrouped successfully and led one of this electoral season’s best campaigns.
After four years of a four-party parliament with 80% of seats held by the governing ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU/CSU and SPD, Germany’s next parliament promises to be livelier. With six parties set to pass over the 5% threshold (required for entry to parliament), it is unlikely that any new coalition government can unite more than 65% of seats, creating enough room for a strong opposition.
Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions…
While coalition governments are a rarity in the UK, they are the norm in Germany. Since 1945, they have been the result of every single German federal election, as well as many at state level. And they take time to negotiate, on average more than a month. The negotiations establishing Germany’s last coalition government of CDU/CSU and SPD lasted 86 days, an outlier surely, but something we may see again following Sunday’s results, particularly given the reluctance of parties to work with the AfD and Die Linke complicates things further.
Merkel will face a tough challenge come Sunday’s results. Contrary to past elections, there is no “Wunschkoalition” (ideal coalition) on offer this time, a problem that is to a certain extent self-inflicted and stems from her continuing political success over the last twelve years. The CDU’s traditional centre-right ally, the FDP, failed to re-enter the Bundestag after its last stint as junior coalition partner to the CDU – mainly because it was not able to push through its own campaign promises against the dominant Christian Democrats. They are extremely wary of committing the same mistake again.
The CDU’s current coalition partner, the SPD, faces a similar dilemma. Many members of the party ascribe its recent decline in profile and popularity to its role as junior partner to the CDU. While Merkel wins the plaudits for successful reforms, the SPD is unable to present itself as a credible alternative to its conservative coalition partner. (Something familiar to British Liberal Democrats). While SPD foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel publicly ruled out another ‘Grand Coalition’, and many amongst the party membership wish the same, Schulz has kept all options open.
What is it going to be then?
Current polls suggest only two possible coalitions that would guarantee a majority government, both of them fraught with problems. Option one would be a continuation of the current ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU/CSU and SPD, with the respective parties uniting 60% of total votes behind them. This is not only unpopular within the SPD itself, but also among the broader German electorate, which sees the continuous merging together of Germany’s two largest parties as a silent killer of political debate in the country.
Option two is the ‘Jamaica Coalition’ of CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens, currently polling at 52% combined. This setup has never existed at a federal level so far, and would prove difficult to negotiate. FDP and Greens have radically different agendas on key issues such as the environment, ‘Dieselgate’ or the Eurozone, and have openly attacked each other over the last weeks. The internal divisions between CDU and CSU, formally a union but often drastically diverging on key issues such as migration, would further complicate any negotiations in this direction.
The traditional centre-right “Wunschkoalition” of CDU/CSU and FDP falls short of a majority in current polls, garnering 48% of votes. Another much debated coalition option, ‘Black-Green’ (CDU/CSU and Greens), seems increasingly unrealistic – currently polling at 46%. As around a third of the German electorate has not yet decided whom to vote for, and margins are low, these coalitions might still become possible. Any coalition without Merkel on the other hand, such as a left alliance of SPD, Greens and Die Linke (dubbed R2G), is out of the question at this point.
On the European level, Germany faces increasing pressure from Paris and Brussels to commit to large-scale Eurozone reform. So far, Emmanuel Macron’s plan to establish a Eurozone budget worth several percentage points of GDP, introduce an EU finance ministry and create a European Monetary Fund (EMF) has received mixed feedback in Berlin. The CDU has indicated willingness to compromise on certain points, yet wants to see domestic reforms in France first. SPD and Greens embrace most of Macron’s demands, and would likely shift a German government to a more amicable position towards Paris.
The FDP however openly opposes Macron’s reform proposals – it categorically rejects the creation of a shared Eurozone budget, and would rather see the European Stability Mechanism shut down than transformed into an EMF. Rather than investing more German funds into joint Eurozone governance, the Free Democrats want to introduce a mechanism for member states to leave the Eurozone, and push for reinforcement of the no-bailout clause. Hence, expect any German government involving the FDP to be a hard negotiating partner for Paris.
Leaving the Eurozone aside, there is a broad consensus among German mainstream parties on further deepening of European integration. No matter the coalition, Germany’s next government is likely to support European defence cooperation and the development of a shared foreign and security policy. On the issue of Brexit and future UK-EU relations, I already explained in a recent blog that German elections are unlikely to cause a decisive shift in Germany’s attitude towards the negotiations. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the FDP in the next German government might tilt the balance slightly in favour of the UK.
On the domestic level, migration and asylum were dominant issues. Driven by a strong AfD that campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of migration, the CDU, CSU and FDP all opted for a more restrictive approach on future asylum intakes. Even far-left Die Linke voiced demands for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies, leaving the SPD and Greens as the main defenders of the open-door approach. Traditional left-right debates over social justice, redistribution, and structural investments were present, yet failed to gain the traction particularly the SPD had hoped for. With large parts of the German population content with the country’s and their personal economic situation, their focus remained on continuation rather than revolution.
The growing fringes of German politics
No matter the final results, it will take Merkel time to get a new government together. SPD and FDP have learnt from past mistakes, and will give the CDU a tough time at the negotiating table. So, too, will the Greens if it comes to a Jamaica coalition, in which case negotiations will become even more complicated. What is clear, however, is that the next German government will again be centrist and decidedly pro-European. While the AfD and Die Linke, two anti-centrist Eurosceptic parties, will enter Germany’s federal parliament, neither has any real chance of co-governing.
Still, the rise of the AfD signals a dramatic change in Germany’s political landscape. Over the last two decades, as far-right populist parties gradually emerged across Europe and started to transform public debates, Germany seemed somewhat immune to this phenomenon, in part due to its particular historical heritage. The AfD’s recent electoral successes at state level and predicted 9-11% in Sunday’s federal elections signify an end to this image. Taking into account far-left Die Linke as well, which campaigned on Germany leaving NATO and wants to abolish all German intelligence agencies, around 20% of Sunday’s vote will go to anti-establishment parties. In some German states, such as Saxony, support for the two parties is projected at up to 40%.
The increasing polarisation that characterises current political debate in, for example, the US, UK and France is thus, slowly but steadily, manifesting itself also in Germany. Despite the country’s decidedly centrist political landscape, centrifugal forces that seek to shift the public debate towards notions of “culture war” and polarising “us against them” rhetoric are growing in popularity. General fears over the consequences of globalisation and European integration met with extreme public discontent over the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis in 2015, leading to an unprecedented surge in support for Germany’s far right. Whether these forces will become a permanent feature of Germany’s political landscape or disappear again in the near future remains to be seen.