Merkel’s potential coalition partners do not get alongby James Sloam / September 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
The German elections were expected to be a mundane affair. For months it was clear that the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) would remain the most powerful party and that Angela Merkel would remain Chancellor, matching Helmut Kohl’s historic achievement of four consecutive election victories. The result came as something of a shock. Despite their overall victory, the CDU/CSU, along with their competitor (and Grand Coalition partner) Social Democratic Party (SPD) experienced large losses compared to the last federal election in 2013.
Six parties crossed the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation for the first time (up from four in 2013, and three for almost the entire period of the old West Germany, 1949-1990). Most problematic was the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which saw its support rocket in the wake of Merkel’s 2015 decision to take in a million refugees. Given the stated intention of the SPD not to re-enter government with the Christian Democrats, German politics has become a hell of a lot more complicated.
On Sunday, the vote shares for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats fell by 8.6 points and 5.2 points respectively. Although the result has elsewhere been portrayed as a clear victory for Merkel over her challenger Martin Schulz (SPD), the CDU/CSU score of 33 per cent was its lowest ever. The SPD score of 20.5 per cent was also its worst result in post-war history. Together they gained the support of little over half of the electorate.
From their highpoint in the 1970s, when the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats shared around 90 per cent of the vote, the two parties have been in decline. The SPD suffered electorally from the emergence of the Greens as an electoral force in the 1980s, and then again from the establishment of the Left Party in 2007. The rise of the AfD in the aftermath of the financial crisis and Eurozone crisis has added a new anti-establishment threat on the right of the political spectrum.
The implosion of support for CDU/CSU and SPD is a direct result of anti-establishment sentiment. The Coalition between the two main parties, which took place just once in the first 56 years of the Federal Republic, has now become a feature of German politics. The two parties have shared power in eight of Merkel’s twelve years in charge.
The smaller parties have benefitted from their opposition status. Although the Greens and Left Party managed to modestly increase their support in 2017 (from 8.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent, and 8.6 per cent to 9.2 per cent), it was the AfD and liberal FDP who made dramatic gains. Both parties fell just short of the 5 per cent threshold in 2013, but managed to achieve double digit scores—12.6 per cent for the AfD, 10.7 per cent for the FDP—in 2017. The AfD won over almost six million voters.
“The new Bundestag will contain six parties—which is likely to lead to the first three-party coalition in the history of the Federal Republic”
Its performance was all the more remarkable given the party’s internal divisions, which have led to multiple resignations and public spats over the past twelve months. Its most prominent figure, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not be joining the party’s parliamentary group shortly after the election. The disagreements centred on differences between moderate nationalists and Eurosceptics, and an ideological hard-core that openly espouses anti-Islamic rhetoric and questions the continued need for German guilt for the Holocaust.
As in many established democracies (including the UK), Germany has witnessed a regionalisation of voting patterns over recent decades. The differences are most pronounced between the old federal states (formerly belonging to West Germany) and the new states (formerly belonging to East Germany). Voters in the East are poorer and more likely to vote for populist parties. The far right and far left together captured between 36 per cent and 43 per cent of the vote in the five East German states (excluding Berlin). The success of the communist-successor Left Party in its natural hunting ground was not surprising. But the rise of the AfD in the East was spectacular. The party came first in Saxony (with 27 per cent of the vote) and achieved an average of 20 per cent in the other Eastern states (excluding Berlin).
The implications of this result for coalition politics and government in Germany are profound. The new Bundestag will contain six parties, which is likely to lead to the first three-party coalition in the history of the Federal Republic. With the SPD closing the door to another Grand Coalition (for the time being at least) and no party willing to deal with the AfD, the so-called “Jamaica” coalition—between CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens—appears to be the only show in town. However, this coalition is not without its problems. The FDP and Greens differ greatly on both economic and cultural issues—from the future of German energy policy, to immigration, European integration and the question of dual citizenship.
These differences may well be overcome through the coalition negotiation process, but governance in Germany just became a lot more difficult.