On the 24th of September Germans will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. The poll will be scrutinised in the western media as a test of Germany‘s resilience to the waves of far right populism that have swept the UK and USA.
This aims to be an accessible but detailed intro to the German elections for English speakers.
What are they voting for?
The Bundestag is the federal parliament and lower house of the German federal government. It elects the Chancellor (prime-minister), currently Angela Merkel and she appoints a cabinet. It’s a pretty straight forward parliamentary system.
Germany operates a semi proportional system. Voters have two decisions to make, they select a candidate and they select a party. The direct candidates are elected first-past-the-post in a electoral district and the party list is regional. Who gets to take seats allocated by the party list votes is decided by the party and published before the election.
The two vote system has its quirks such as overhang mandates but returns a generally proportional result. Overhang mandates are a fascinating but confusing quirk. If all voters use both votes to support the same party, so choose a direct candidate and then his party with the two votes, they wouldn’t exist. A lot of people select a candidate from one party and a different party with their second vote. Overhang mandates occur when the party receives more party list votes than they do direct mandates. The party is entitled to the extra mandates, the result is that the Bundestag has no set number of members. In a close election overhang mandates could influence the result, but they’re primarily an interesting quirk to an otherwise straightforward system.
In Germany a party must gain over 5% of the vote to be allowed take seats in the Bundestag. The 5% rule is the legacy of the troubled Weimar republic, but is contested as unconstitutional. There is no longer a 5% rule of the European Parliamentary election.
There are currently 4 parties represented in the Bundestag. That’s taking the CDU/CSU as one party. There are two contenders who have a good chance to break the 5% hurdle in this election and enter the Parliament.
The Christian Democratic Union, the party of Angela Merkel and Germany’s main centre right, conservative party. They have been governing in a series of coalitions since 2004.
The party has many internal contradictions. Merkels has moved the party to the centre where she has soaked up votes from the SPD but let her party vulnerable on their right to the AfD and in other areas to the FDP.
The party has rolled out some more conservative policies to appease their conservative base but also allowed a free vote for their parliamentarians on the issue of gay marriage. The party is primarily focused on steady as she goes, fiscally responsible politics.
Often forgotten in the equation is the Christian Social Union. In most practical terms the CSU is a conservative wing of the CDU confined to Bavaria, but in labeling and structures is its own party. The leader, Horst Seehöfer has been a headache for Merkel and led to an ongoing rift within the party. Seehöfer has been outspoken in his criticism of Merkels refugee politics. The CSU has pushed for a cap on the number of refugees Germany would accept annually. Seehöfer has also been more inclined to pander to populists notions.
Despite internal disputes, the expression there is no alternative has entered common parlance. The CDU/CSU looks secure to remain the largest party with Merkel at the helm.
Europe’s oldest social democratic party has been down on their luck since adopting third way style policies during the Schröder administration. A change of leadership in early 2017, gave the party a boast in polls but failed to translate into electoral gains during regional elections. A particularly bitter results was the defeat of the SPD Government of North Rhine Westphalia. Once the heartland of the SPD, it’s a post-industrial area similar to the North Of England or the Rust Belt in the US.
While the Schulz effect has been written off by most commentators, he could still surprise when it comes to the campaign.
The SPDs problems are confounded by their position as junior partners in the grand coalition. When it comes to campaigning they have to simultaneously offer an alternative vision and how they would do things better while defending their record in Government.
It’s a little tricky to say what’s ailing the Greens. One factor is the mainstreaming of environmental issues although the recent diesel scandal has made it apparent that even in Germany, it has been more a coat of green paint rather than a green revolution.. Poor leadership is a factor, an image of being the party of a liberal urban elite at a time when everyone wants to distance themselves from such an image.
The Greens are a party established by what would be called baby boomers in the USA. 2017 and 2018 will be 50 years since the events of the 68 revolution where many who later formed the Green Party and support it became politicised. Like the Baby Boomers in the USA, it’s an ageing group of voters, some of whom are now voting conservative. Their younger supporters seem more into the sort of identity politics that has seeped into Europe via the internet from the USA than environmental issues.
Literal ‘the left’ is a combination of ex SPD and former members of the east German communist party. The party finds most of their support in the former east, appealing to a nostalgia for the former east Germany. The party likes to score points against the SDP. It contains a lot of pro-Putin, anti-Nato voices and generally hasn’t move beyond being a protest party. The party is at its core a left-wing populist party and has been losing ground in many areas to the AfD.
The liberal party crashed out of the Bundestag at the last election, failing to reach the 5% hurdle. They suffered the same fate as many junior coalition partners elsewhere. They were/are the preferred party for Merkel for a coalition deal, although she doesn’t express it openly much today. She has traditionally been a fan of Thatcher style neo-liberal economics. In fact the FDP themselves have shyed away from flying their neo-liberal colours since their major defeat. The party has slowly rebuilt itself, recording its historically best result ever in elections in North Rhine West-Phalia. Commentaters have claimed that much of this success is based the charismatic leadership of Christian Lindner.
The party has positioned itself as a more respectable protest party, drawing voters away from the AfD. The party in NRW focused on issues such as security but also identity politics themes such as political correctness.
Current polls put the party on track to re-enter the Bundestag. But expect lots of difficult questions about the parties coalition intentions.
Far right parties have been gaining mainstream success across Europe, in the aftermath of the 2009 financial crisis and the Syrian refugee crisis. The AfD was initially a eurosceptic party, critical of Merkels reaction to the Eurocrisis. They positioned themselves as soft-eurosceptics. But as the Eurocrisis faded into the background and the refugee crisis took the headlines, the economically liberal and eurosceptic wing was ousted from leadership and replaced by a right-wing populist leadership.
The party has entered 13 of the 16 federal states of Germany, barely missed entering the Bundstag at the last election getting 4.7% of the vote.
With the refugee crisis fading, internal disputes and challenges from the FDP, the party is slipping in polls. That said because of the malaise in poll numbers for the greens and the left, they could still enter the Bundestag as third largest party, but with only about 10% of the seats. If the AfD enters the Bundestag whatever the result. It will result in lots of headlines and soul-searching.
The reform of Germany’s social market economy under the last SPD government actually positioned Germany to weather the 2009 financial crisis better than other European economies. So Germany hasn’t been struggling with high unemployment and austerity like elsewhere. There are plenty surveys out there claiming generally optimistic attitudes of Germans towards economic and employment prospects. That said Germany has level of exploitative and precarious employment similar to the US. The wealth gap is increasing and the middle class is shrinking. The social insurance system is creeking and massive gaps have opened up. One of the few policies that the SPD can point to as their record in coalition, is the minimum wage. But the minimum wage law is so full of holes that its affects have been very limited.
Definitely the refugee crisis will feature but as it’s no longer dominating the news cycle, it’s unlikely to be the focal point of the election. When it features much of the discussion will probably have to do with multi-culturalism, identity and security. The CDU are good at positioning themselves as the party of law and order, a fact demonstrated by the results in North Rhine West Phalia.
Global events, such as Trump and Brexit will feature to the benefit of Merkel. She has always been able to portray herself as a steady and reliable hand in troubled times. She has been anointed as the new leader of the free word by some American publications. Merkel has clearly been positioning herself to benefit from these trends or specifically the backlash against them. She clearly identified herself as a committed European in recent speeches.
Russia is a complex theme in Germany. The country was generally less supportive of sanctions in the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea than other EU countries. Pro-Russia/anti-US sentiment is widespread in the SPD and Die Linke. Merkel has navigated a more moderate route, she has been a go between for the west and Russia and generally pro-dialogue. A nuanced middle of the road approach that is Merkels hallmark. But she has spoken very critically of Russia when necessary.
There will be plenty dull but pressing topics up for discussion. How to deal with the effects Germany’s ageing population will have on its pension system is a big one. The SPD wants to hold off on increasing the retirement age again, the FDP wants to consider market solutions that would encourage more people to save for their retirement, while Merkel doesn’t want to talk about it until the election is over.
The Potential Results
Germany has a long history of coalitions. The coalitions are usually discussed using the party colours to come up with names for the coalitions.
CDU/CSU = Black
SPD = RED
Greens = Greens
Die Linke = Red
FDP = Yellow
Afd = Blue
The current coalition is referred to as the black/red or simply a grand coalition. On the current numbers it would be easily returned. The most realistic alternative is a black/yellow coalition. It’s a reasonable prospect, but one the FDP probably want to avoid discussing until the election is over.
In terms of a potential change of Government, the usual one historically is the Red/Green, but the figures make it a long shot.
A Red/Red/Green is another but the SPD are more inclined to form a coalition with the CDU as a junior party than to lead a coalition with Die Linke. In the current Bundestag, a Red/Red/Green coalition is possible, but the SPD have stuck to their Black/Red coalition.
There are numerous mixes that the media likes to give exotic names like traffic light coalition (Red/Yellow/Green) or Jamaica coalition (Black/Green/Yellow). They have little bearing in reality. Although some of these coalitions have occurred at regional level, it doesn’t mean that they’re more likely at national level.
How the results will be reported on the day.
Germany votes on a Sunday and once poll closes there should be very accurate exit polls. The exit polls will quickly give way to victory speeches, recriminations and discussions about potential coalitions.
The German media is surprisingly good at getting party leaders to appear to discuss the results but don’t expect any clear answers. If any party is hovering around the 5% hurdle, it could be a long evening as exit polls are corrected as the actual results are reported.
Then there is a month until the new Bundestag convenes to elect the Chancellor.
So far the election campaign has been pretty standard, all the current polls and trends point to Merkel being safe. Whether she will govern for the next full four years is another matter. Already there are discussions about what politics in a post-Merkel Germany will look like.