Merkel Gaining Political Momentum in Run-up to September 24 German Election
Germany’s largest state, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), went to the polls May 14, and voters delivered Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) an unexpected victory that bodes well for their chances in the Bundestag election on September 24. Merkel has been on a roll: her party has won all three state elections this year. If the CDU is gaining political momentum, the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) political fortunes are fast moving in reverse. The NRW loss is a disastrous blow to the SPD and its leader Martin Schulz, who lost both his home state and the SPD’s heartland on Sunday, just two months after he took over the SPD chairmanship. Schulz’s rapid political rise and apparent collapse raises the question whether he can revive his party’s fortunes or if the SPD limps toward the election.
The political crystal ball. Regional elections are not always a barometer of national trends, but NRW represents over 20 percent of Germany’s population (18 of about 81 million), and this vote was a mini-Bundestag election of sorts. Angela Merkel is surely pleased with the outcome — the governing center-left SPD-Greens coalition lost decisively. Merkel’s CDU won 33 percent of the vote, a gain of seven points over the last NRW election in 2012. The governing Social Democrats, by contrast, lost eight points, and their 31 percent is their worst outcome in the state since the end of World War II. The other big story is the strong showing of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which won 12.5 percent, outperforming most opinion polls. The far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) won 7.4 percent, a significant drop from its peak support of 13 percent last fall, but enough comfortably to enter the legislature as the fourth-strongest party, ahead of the Greens. The AfD is now represented in 13 of 16 German state parliaments, which signals a growing political presence across Germany. The far-left party, Die Linke, appears to have fallen just short of the 5 percent hurdle for entering the legislature, another sobering sign for the strident left after they also failed to clear 5 percent in Schleswig-Holstein’s May 7 election.
In the final analysis, the German center-right is back, and economic liberalism seems to have won a victory that might have seemed unlikely just a few months ago. It does not appear that Russia made visible attempts to influence this German state election, but Moscow’s hopes to nudge German politics in its direction appear less promising after the last few weeks of elections.
The CDU and FDP may have enough seats to form a center-right government in NRW with a one-seat majority — an arrangement that would require enormous party discipline over a five-year legislative period. The state CDU leader, Armin Laschet, could also explore a grand coalition — Große Koalition — with the defeated SPD (whose leader, Hannelore Kraft, resigned following the defeat, opening the way for a new leadership). A more exotic three-party coalition with the FDP and the Greens would be a first in German history and would be complicated by programmatic differences between the free-market FDP and the environmentally focused greens. But it might also be a political template for the next German national coalition government, as a growing number of parties in the Bundestag makes it increasingly complicated to assemble any governing coalition other than a centrist grand coalition.
The fast and the furious. The speed with which political fortunes are shifting in Germany is striking, as elsewhere in Europe. Schulz became the SPD’s chancellor candidate in March after spending the past two decades in Brussels, where he rose to the presidency of the European Parliament. He was a relative unknown in Germany but a breath of fresh air for a despondent SPD whose poll numbers were hovering just above 20 percent. A groundswell of enthusiasm ensued and brought the SPD even with Merkel’s CDU in national polls. In the span of just two months, “two disappointments (elections in Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein) and one catastrophe (NRW)” later, as the German commentator Peter Dausend put it in Die Zeit, Schulz’s SPD once again trails Merkel’s CDU by 10 points nationwide, and a victory in the September election looks increasingly unlikely.
The SPD faces a challenge common to many parties of the European Left in this major realignment of Western politics: they have lost their political agenda and identity in the post-2008 financial crisis. (For example, the French Socialist Party presidential candidate gained only 6.5 percent of the first-round vote.) Similar to the UK Labour Party (which is currently polling at 28 percent nationally ahead of the June 8 snap election), the German Social Democrats have 27 percent support in national polls.
The underlying dynamics in German politics in the lead-up to the Bundestag election will require Merkel to continue her cautious and calibrated approach to Washington. Urgent priorities will be to build a relationship with newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron, to revitalize the Franco-German motor in Europe, and to shape the upcoming divorce negotiations with the United Kingdom. The SPD will frantically search for winning campaign themes and could be tempted to try to capitalize on public mistrust of the United Stated under President Donald Trump. The Social Democrats have toyed with opposing the NATO-agreed goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, despite the fact that the SPD is part of the government that agreed to that goal in 2014 and reaffirmed it in 2016.
Although election results humble analysts, it is increasingly likely that Merkel will win a fourth term in September, and Europe and the United States will have a leader in Berlin with global stature, enormous experience, and strong transatlantic instincts. But it is clear as well that Merkel will deploy her influence and standing to protect European and German interests.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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