Election preview: Germany

Germans go to the polls on Sunday (“tomorrow” from an Australian perspective, although in Frankfurt, where I am, it’s still Friday evening) in an election almost universally tipped to re-elect centre-right chancellor Angela Merkel for a fourth term.

The world has changed a lot since Merkel first took the job in 2005, but she continues to maintain an unflappable air. Sometimes she has seemed inflexible – the Greek debt crisis was not one of her finest moments – but in general she has adapted well to new and sometimes dangerous conditions. Her response to the Middle East refugee crisis, “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”), has already become the stuff of legend.

Longevity in chancellors is not unusual; Helmut Kohl held the job for 16 years, finally being defeated at the age of 68. Konrad Adenauer retired at the remarkable age of 87, having been in office 14 years. So Merkel, at 63, may reasonably feel she has another term in her.

The question animating Germany is not so much the identity of the chancellor after Sunday, but the shape of the government. To understand what’s going on, it’s best to start with not just the last election, but the last two – because although both of them returned Merkel to power, they were quite different results.

The 2009 election was a victory for the right. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their preferred coalition partner, the Liberals (FDP), won 48.4% of the vote between them and 322 of the 622 seats. Not surprisingly, they formed government together.

But the 2013 election, at least on numbers of seats, was a victory for the left. The Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Left in aggregate won 320 out of 631, although from only 42.7% of the vote. But they did not form government; SPD leader Peer Steinbrück refused to co-operate with the Left, and without them he could not collect a majority. Instead he joined Merkel in a grand coalition.

So the first question for Sunday is whether one of those results can be repeated. If it is 2009 again, and there is a combined CDU-FDP parliamentary majority, there is no doubt the two will go into coalition; it would be an unequivocal triumph for Merkel. Based on the current opinion polls, such an outcome is unlikely but not impossible.

If 2013 is repeated, however, no-one knows what will happen. The three left-of-centre parties may this time decide to work together and bring the Left within the tent. It has happened in state governments in Brandenburg and Thuringia without the sky falling in. Or the SPD may again prefer grand coalition as the safer option, possibly using the threat of a leftwards turn to extract better terms.

Perhaps fortunately for the peace of mind of SPD leader Martin Schulz, the opportunity is unlikely to arise. If the polls are right, neither 2009 nor 2013 will recur; instead the balance of power between the two potential coalitions will be held by the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has been polling around 10% and will enter parliament for the first time. (Last time it managed 4.7%, just short of the 5% threshold and less than 30,000 votes behind the Liberals.)

In 2013, AfD was a Eurosceptic but still basically mainstream party; had it been represented it would have been a possible, if controversial, coalition partner for the CDU. Since then, however, it has shifted hard right, modelling itself on France’s National Front. None of the other parties will go near it this time.

That means that if AfD holds the balance of power, there are only two realistic routes to a majority. One is the re-assembly of the existing CDU-SPD grand coalition; the other is for the Greens to switch sides and join a new coalition with the CDU and FDP.

Merkel’s increasingly progressive positions during her current term have brought her closer to the Greens, so there’s a sense that this might finally be the occasion for the CDU and the Greens to join forces at federal level. There were brief but apparently genuine talks to that effect following the last election, and it has happened on occasion at state level – including the notable case of Baden-Württemberg, where the Greens hold the premiership with the CDU as junior partner.

For all the media focus on the extremists, the wonder of Germany is that its middle ground is large enough and moderate enough to allow for these possibilities. And the odds are that after Sunday, one of them will keep Angela Merkel in the driver’s seat for another term.


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