On the spot in Germany

I’m in the Ruhr city of Duisburg, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, on a slightly gloomy election day in Germany. The weather is now clearing – it was very foggy this morning in Amsterdam – but there’s no great sense of popular enthusiasm about.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is not a figure who arouses great national affection, but nor has she performed badly enough to create any real wave of resentment. This is not a “Throw the bastards out” election, although it may nonetheless result in a change of government.

I don’t really want to venture a prediction, but for what it’s worth my sense is that Merkel’s outgoing coalition government might just keep its parliamentary majority. It’ll be nothing like the current 42 seats – it’s beyond dispute that there’s going to be a swing to the left – but it just might be enough.

Failing that, a grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, as in 2005-09, is a possibility, but it strikes me as unlikely. The centre-left then was on the defensive; now it’s on the way back, and maintaining Merkel in office looks like a retrograde step. Last time, moreover, it led to the SPD’s worst result in living memory at the 2009 election.

Ideally, the SPD would rather rely on a non-CDU majority, namely the Greens and the Left. Leader Peer Steinbrück has ruled out taking the Left into coalition, but some less formal arrangement may still be possible. It might also be used as leverage to secure a grand coalition in which the SPD would take the leading role, although the precedent for that in Italy is not particularly encouraging.

It’s even possible that the right-wing eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany could win seats in parliament, creating an additional coalition option – and a major additional headache – for Merkel. (This is a particular favorite in the British media, where euroscepticism is hot property.)

You could also have a look at my piece in Friday’s Crikey, in which I consider the issue of European integration and also the role of Germany’s Liberals (FDP). Coincidentally, Britain’s Liberal Democrats have been having their annual conference this last week and going through a similar sort of soul-searching about the price of coalition with the right. Here’s how I put it:

[The FDP’s decline] in turn is symptomatic of a European trend: free-market liberal parties, having enjoyed something of a heyday a few years ago, are now suffering from having become too closely identified with the political Right. Britain’s Liberal Democrats are the most familiar case of this, where coalition with the Tories has sent their support into freefall, but the FDP has had a similar experience.

In 2005, when Merkel first won office, the FDP had an opportunity to change the political narrative by joining a broad “traffic light” coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens. But it stayed out, stressing its pro-business themes and less its social liberalism, just as corresponding parties across Europe were tending to do. That worked well in the short-term (2009 was its best-ever result), but now it’s paying an electoral price.

It’s perhaps a little ironic that an election that is, at least in part, about European integration, might turn on the fact that Europe is already sufficiently integrated that political trends do seem to operate across the continent.

Sadly enough, a common theme among election previews is a failure to communicate the important fact that elections are not just about shifts in public sentiment but about the way that electoral systems translate them into institutional power.

Australia, for example, would be a rather different country today if Kim Beazley, not John Howard, had been prime minister for two or three terms around the turn of the century. But that was prevented not by the public opinion unaided but by the fact that the electoral system failed to give Beazley a majority of seats in 1998 to match his majority of the two-party-preferred vote.

Similarly, Merkel’s position after tonight will depend a great deal on the arbitrary matter of whether or not the Liberals make it across the 5% line for representation in parliament. It’s looking as if they probably will, and that might be enough for Merkel to hold on to power.

Or it might not. Stay tuned.

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