Cliffhanger election boosts Germany’s liberals

Austria’s referendum was decisive, but the other electoral event in Central Europe yesterday, a state election in Lower Saxony, was a real cliffhanger. In the end, the opposition coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has been declared the winner by just one seat: 49 Social Democrats and 20 Greens against 54 Christian Democrats and 14 Free Democrats.

That’s a setback for CDU chancellor Angela Merkel, who is up for re-election in national polls later this year. But not nearly as much as it could have been; the local Christian Democrats had been pretty much written off in the middle of last year, so to get within one seat represents an impressive comeback.

Key to the recovery was the performance of junior coalition partner the Free Democrats, Germany’s liberal party. Prior to the election there had been considerable doubt whether they would even reach the 5% threshold for representation. In fact they almost doubled it, with 9.9%. No doubt a substantial part of that – although it’s impossible to say how much – was tactical voting by Christian Democrat supporters to make sure the FDP made it across the line. (Voting figures are here; you only need basic German.)

I’m a big fan of the German voting system (which, with very minor variations, is also used in New Zealand), but this is its one major drawback: because the threshold is a relatively high 5%, there’s a huge difference in seats between getting just under it and just over it. No doubt the Germans are trying to avoid the problem of having a host of minor parties represented, but it strikes me that lowering the threshold to 3% would make it a lot fairer without greatly increasing the degree of fragmentation. (In this election that would have kept the Left Party in state parliament, with four seats – two each from the CDU and SPD.)

Declining support for the liberals has also been a worry for Merkel; they’ve had a shocking run of state results and have gone as low as 2% in national polls. But yesterday’s performance is good news for them, regardless of its cause: if centre-right voters can vote tactically in Lower Saxony, they presumably can in the rest of the country as well. And Merkel is much better placed vis-a-vis the SPD than her Lower Saxon counterparts, with a lead hovering around 15%. (Wikipedia has a compilation.)

In the long run, however, the idea that they might depend on charity from the Christian Democrats is a serious problem for the FDP. Their place in German politics has depended substantially on being able to deal with both Christian Democrats and Social Democrats as the need arises, but in recent years they have been losing that freedom of manoeuvre and looking more like an auxiliary of the CDU.

With the Greens equally committed to the SPD, Germany has drifted into something that looks a lot like a two-party system. It will be interesting to watch whether the national elections end up confirming the trend.


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