Germany goes to the polls on Sunday for its regular four-yearly federal election. It’s the first time since 2005 that I won’t be there for it, so perhaps it’s just as well that it looks like being fairly straightforward – at least if the opinion polls are correct.
For some background, you can read my advance preview from a month ago. This election marks the end of an era with the retirement of prime minister Angela Merkel, in office since 2005. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) have topped the poll for the last four elections, a run that now looks like coming to an end.
That doesn’t mean the CDU has had things all its own way in that time. In 2005 it blew a big lead during the election campaign and ended up beating its historic rival, the Social Democrats (SPD), by only one percentage point and having to accept them as partners in a grand coalition. But Merkel did better in 2009, extending her margin over the SPD to more than ten points and forming government with just the support of her preferred partner, the liberal FDP.
The grand coalition returned in 2013, when the FDP temporarily dropped out of parliament and the SPD, much weakened, chose not to pursue a left-wing coalition. And it was re-formed again after the 2017 election, despite serious reservations on the part of the SDP, when negotiations broke down for a coalition between the CDU, FDP and Greens.
Much else has happened in Germany over that time. Under Merkel, the CDU has moved closer to the centre of the political spectrum, particularly with its humane response to the refugee crisis of 2015. Partly in response, a far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has been able to establish itself, entering parliament at the 2017 election with 12.6% of the vote.
The FDP has also drifted rightwards; John Quiggin last month referred to it as “AfD-lite”, and while I still think that’s a bit unfair it’s too close for comfort. In the meantime the Greens, whose social base is not dissimilar to the FDP’s, have become a more moderate force: they sit in government with the CDU in five states, and it was the FDP rather than they that scuppered the coalition talks in 2017.
But the big game is the contest between the CDU and SDP, which in turn is tied in with the fortunes of the mainstream centre-left across the continent. In 2017 the SPD managed only 20.6% of the vote, twelve points behind the CDU and its worst result since the nineteenth century. [See added note below] From there it fell further in the polls, and for most of the last three years has been behind the Greens, sometimes by substantial margins. Centre-left parties in many other countries have similar stories to tell.
Once Germans actually focused on the election campaign, however, things started to change dramatically. The SPD’s candidate for prime minister, current finance minister and deputy prime minister Olaf Scholz, has consistently bested his rivals – the CDU’s Armin Laschet and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock – in debates and on the campaign trail, and since July the SPD has jumped in the polls from the mid-teens to the mid-20s, three or four points ahead of the CDU and almost ten points clear of the Greens.
Voting is strictly proportional (Sainte-Laguë) with a 5% threshold,* so unless the polls are badly wrong we can be reasonably confident about the general shape of the new parliament. SPD and CDU will probably have a narrow majority between them, so grand coalition (this time with the SPD in charge) might again be an option, albeit one that is unlikely to appeal to either.
Failing that, a majority will require a combination of at least three parties. Since neither side will co-operate with AfD and the CDU will clearly not team up with the far-left Left party (Die Linke), that leaves only three possibilities: SPD+Greens+FDP, SPD+Greens+Left and CDU+Greens+FDP. (There’s also a small chance that SPD+FDP+Left would amount to a majority, but it’s very hard to see the FDP and the Left working together.)
Funnily enough, those three possibilities represent the three failed coalition opportunities from (respectively) 2005, 2013 and 2017. Each time, a grand coalition resulted instead because the parties concerned failed to co-operate. But this time, all three will be possible simultaneously – surely one of them will be made to work?
There’s some evidence that Scholz has peaked a little too soon: one recent poll puts the SPD’s lead at only two points. If the CDU manages to again come out ahead, it will have a strong moral claim to attempt the deal with the Greens and FDP that eluded it last time. But assuming the SPD maintains its lead, it will partner with the Greens and then have to choose between FDP and Left to make a third.
The FDP is keeping its options open; it clearly prefers the CDU, but in a situation where the alternative would involve admitting the Left to government, it seems clear that it would be willing to pursue a deal with the SPD and Greens. But this time, given the FDP’s shift to the right, it may be the Greens that would be less keen on the idea. They may argue instead for bringing the Left within the tent, although that too would involve some awkward compromises.
Polls close at 2am Monday, eastern Australian time, so results should be available quickly. But their implications will take a long time to become clear.
* Unlike in some previous elections, this time the threshold should not be an issue. The only party polling close to it is the Left, but even if it dips below it will probably qualify by winning the minimum of three constituency seats (last time it won five).
[Note added 26 October. I think that comment was relying on preliminary figures; I find on checking that the 2017 result was not quite the worst for the SPD since 1890: in the November 1932 election it was almost 0.1% lower. It was lower still in March 1933, but like most authorities I do not count that as a democratic election.]