Those who have argued that the big political story of the last few years is the collapse in support for traditional centre-left parties have a major new string to their bow. The German Social Democrats (SPD) – the original social democratic party – have fallen to less than 21% of the vote, their worst result since 1890.
On the latest results, which are not final but will change only very slightly, the SPD has 20.6%, down 5.1% on its 2013 result. The Christian Democrats (CDU) have 32.9% – a larger drop (down 8.6%), but from a position where they could afford to lose more. Both major parties have under-performed their opinion polls, but that’s consistent with the direction the polls had shown in the last couple of weeks.
It’s a far cry from last March, when the two were running neck-and-neck in the polls. Despite the adverse swing from 2013, opening up a 12% margin has been a remarkable achievement for CDU leader Angela Merkel.
If CDU and SPD are both, in a fashion, losers, then the winners are clear. Four minor parties will be represented in the new parliament, but two of them have simply maintained their vote from last time: the Greens with 8.9% (up 0.5%) and the Left party with 9.1% (up 0.5%). The big gains have gone to the Liberals (FDP), up 5.8% to 10.6%, and even more so to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), up 8.3% to 13.0%.
AfD has been on something of a roller-coaster of support: its poll results peaked above 14% on two occasions last year (with a big dip in between) in the wake of the Middle East refugee crisis, before falling back to around 7% in the middle of this year. It looked as if it might be in danger of again falling below the 5% threshold, but instead its vote started to increase again, with the most recent polls putting it around 11%. That trajectory continued through polling day.
So the far right returns in force to the German parliament, but it will be a powerless minority. Other countries have learned to live with such parties, and no doubt Germany will too. AfD will now be subject to exposure and scrutiny that it may not be well equipped to withstand.
And a percentage point here or there makes no difference to the fundamental parliamentary arithmetic. As I said in my preview, there are only two realistic routes to a majority: either the CDU-SPD grand coalition that has governed for the last four years, or a coalition between the CDU, the FDP and the Greens.
SPD leader Martin Schulz has ruled out the first option, committing his party to going into opposition – probably a wise move, since the last two periods of office as a junior partner have both been disastrous for it. That leaves only the CDU-FDP-Greens combination, which Germans refer to as the “Jamaican option” since the three parties’ colors (black, yellow, green) match those of the Jamaican flag.
No doubt there will be some hard bargaining to settle the precise terms of such an agreement. In particular, there is bad blood between the FDP and the Greens, partly driven by the fact that they are in many ways very similar, both catering to the educated middle class. But there is little doubt that they will come up with a deal to give Merkel a fourth term in office and preserve her signature policy of a humane response to the refugee question.
As long as such a large fraction of the vote is tied up with the far left and far right, it’s difficult for the German system to work in its accustomed way. But perhaps a period in opposition will give the SPD the opportunity to demonstrate that the decline of the centre-left is not irreversible.