Merkel has done less well than expected and weeks of fractious political bargaining now lie ahead. But whatever the country’s next government looks like, don’t expect a softer line on Brexitby Paul Lever / September 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
German elections: Infographics and result trackers
Usually when a nation goes to the polls interest centres on who is going to win. Yesterday’s federal election in Germany was different. Everybody assumed that the Christian Democrats would emerge as the largest party and that Angela Merkel would continue as Chancellor. Everybody assumed too that the Social Democrats would be in second place. The big question was who would come third—would it be the Greens, Die Linke (the party of the far left), the liberal Free Democrats or the upstart populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD)?
In the event all the small parties did well. The definitive results are not yet published, but Die Linke and the Greens look to have retained their vote shares of around 9 per cent. The Free Democrats who had failed in 2013 to reach the 5 per cent threshold needed for representation in the Bundestag look to have bounced back to over 10 per cent. But the big winners were AfD who came from nowhere to reach 13 per cent.
Though nationalist movements have in the past occasionally been elected to provincial parliaments in Germany, this is the first time that a party to the right of the Christian Democrats has achieved national success, something that will send shivers down many German spines. AfD was founded in 2012 by a group of economists and academics who were sceptical about the euro. But it later morphed into an anti-immigration and anti-Islam party which was able to exploit the resentment caused by Chancellor Merkel’s decision in 2015 to let in a million refugees. Its leaders say things that make other politicians wince (sharia law has no place in Germany, Islam is incompatible with democracy), but which many Germans privately agree with. The other parties treat it as a pariah and have ruled out any co-operation with it. But it seems to have caught the zeitgeist.
Whether it will survive in the longer term is questionable. It is prone, like all such populist parties (vide Ukip), to regular infighting (its chairwoman, Frauke Petry, was denied any leadership role in the campaign) and it is split between moderate and fundamentalist factions. But it will now have 80 or so members of the Bundestag, will receive state funding and be guaranteed exposure on television. It will certainly change the tone of German politics. The other parties, and the media, will have to find a better way of dealing with it than they have been able so far to do.
If AfD was the big winner in the election, the big losers were the two big parties. For the Christian Democrats, and for Merkel personally, the result was a disappointment. Their likely vote share of 32.9 per cent was the lowest ever, down by nearly 9 percent on 2013 and significantly lower than the polls had been predicting. The party’s campaign, and Merkel’s contribution to it, were uninspiring. The themes of stability and strong leadership worked no better than they did for Theresa May.
“If AfD was the big winner in the election, the big losers were the two big parties”
But they have won an election for the fourth time in a row, something which only Helmut Kohl has previously done, and they are still, after 12 years in office, by far Germany’s biggest party. Merkel’s personal position is somewhat weakened, but there will be no challenge to her leadership and no reason why she cannot complete a full four more years as Chancellor (she has already said that she will not run for a fifth term). Overall it’s a pretty impressive record.
But for the Social Democrats the result was more than a disappointment: it was a disaster. They lost nearly five percent of their vote share from a poor result in 2013 and have, it appears, ended up with only 20.8 per cent. Never since 1949 have they done as badly as this. There will be much soul searching as to why.
Personalities played a role. When the Social Democrats have been in power they have had popular, charismatic Chancellors: Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder. This time their candidate, Martin Schulz a former President of the European Parliament, was mediocre and lacklustre. When he was first nominated he generated a short-lived bounce in the party’s ratings. Some thought that his man of the people image and his newness to German national politics would count in his favour. They didn’t. The more the German electorate saw of him, the less impressed they were.
But fielding a poor candidate was not the only reason for the Social Democrats’ failure. They have lost their political way. It is hard to see what they stand for which differentiates them from the Christian Democrats or what they offer as an alternative to the policies which Germany is currently following. They have been particularly unsuccessful in the eastern part of the country, the former German Democratic Republic, where they were beaten into third place by AfD.
German governments are always coalitions and as soon as an election is over attention turns to the composition of the next one. This time the arithmetic of the new Bundestag will make it particularly difficult. Given the refusal of other parties to co-operate with AfD or Die Linke, only two coalition models are capable of producing a majority: a continuation of the Grand Coalition between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats; or a Jamaica coalition (so-called because the colours of the parties concerned correspond to those of the Jamaican flag) between the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Greens.
“The Free Democrats feel that they have the political wind in their sails—and will be tough in their demands”
The Social Democrat leadership has made clear in categorical terms that they will no longer participate in a Grand Coalition. They want to regenerate their party and to go into opposition. It is, as always with political declarations, theoretically possible that they could change their minds if tempted by an offer of more Cabinet posts or particular policy commitments. But it is unlikely. The scale of their defeat means that they now have to concentrate on what’s good for the party. Four more years of subordination to Chancellor Merkel would not help them re-form.
Putting a Jamaica coalition together will be a heroic task. The Free Democrats feel that they have the political wind in their sails. They have a young and charismatic leader, Christian Lindner, and are full of confidence. They almost certainly want to enter government (though they are coy about saying so) and they have no ideological hang-ups about co-operating with the Christian Democrats. But they will be tough in their demands. They will want a clear commitment in the coalition agreement to no further resource transfers within the EU. And they will want the position of Finance Minister in the new government.
This would disappoint Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has held the post for the last eight years with great distinction, and would leave Angela Merkel with a difficult dilemma. But ultimately the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats could almost certainly agree on a programme.
Whether they could do so with the Greens as well is more questionable. Until recently it would have been anathema to many Green supporters to contemplate a coalition under Christian Democrat leadership (to some of them going into government at all is a betrayal). But they have done so in Hamburg bilaterally and in Schleswig-Holstein in the Jamaica format. So it is no longer an issue of ideology.
But the policy obstacles would be daunting, particularly between the Greens and the Free Democrats. The Greens call for massive public subsidies for renewable energy and the phasing out of all Germany’s coal mines (in addition to the withdrawal from nuclear energy which is already under way). It is hard to see the Free Democrats agreeing to this.
So weeks of fractious bargaining lie ahead. Already the question “Will there be a government by Christmas?” is doing the rounds. But there is no tradition of minority governments in Germany. And all mainstream political parties, including the Greens, acknowledge that in a democracy a government has to be formed and that compromises are necessary to achieve this. So eventually some kind of solution will probably be reached.
And the implications for Brexit? There aren’t any. It wasn’t an issue in the campaign and it wasn’t mentioned at all in the TV debate between Merkel and Schulz. Whatever government is formed German policy will remain the same. Germany’s priorities are maintaining the unity of the 27; safeguarding the integrity of the single market; and avoiding having to pick up the bill when Britain goes. There is no call in Germany for offering comfort to Theresa May.