What to watch in Germany’s election | 31left


GERMANS are voting today in their country’s federal election. They get two votes. With one they pick an MP for their constituency (of which there are 299). With the other they vote for a regional list from which 299 top-up MPs are drawn to make up the 598-seat Bundestag. As each constituency MP is guaranteed a place further “overhang” seats are sometimes awarded to make the overall parliament proportional. The rise of smaller parties—which win many votes but few constituencies—mean the next Bundestag could be the largest yet, possibly growing from its current size of 630 seats to as many as 680.

Polls close at 18:00 local time (17:00 in London, 12:00 in Washington), when projections based on exit polls will immediately appear. These are refined over the evening as results come in. Usually they are pretty accurate. From 20:15 the lead candidates of the parties that seem to have secured Bundestag representation discuss the results in a televised “Elephant Round”, so called as it is a gathering of political heavyweights. The preliminary official results for the whole country will appear around 03:00 tomorrow, but should be very close to the projections by that stage.

Here is what to watch for:

Are there asymmetric turnout shifts?

Barring an unprecedented shock, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), their Bavarian sister party, will come first, securing her a fourth term as chancellor. Everything else depends a lot on turnout. In past elections her rivals have accused her of “asymmetric demobilisation”: seeming so inoffensive and inevitable that her opponents’ supporters simply don’t bother to turn out. At three state elections earlier this year the CDU was carried to victory by disproportionately high turnout among its voters—partly thanks to Connect17, its high-tech canvassing operation.

Otherwise, however, Mrs Merkel has run the same campaign as she did in the previous federal election in 2013: lots of talk of stability and calm leadership and few contentious policy proposals. Yet much in Germany has changed since then. There has been the refugee crisis and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. There has been another grand coalition (before 2013 Mrs Merkel governed with the right-liberal Free Democrats (FDP)). The German economy has boomed but inequality has continued to grow. Abroad there have been the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump (America’s president has been Mrs Merkel’s most effective canvasser, raising the appetite in Germany for stable, slightly boring leadership).

Will CDU voters support Mrs Merkel as diligently, 12 years into her chancellorship? Will the AfD do better than expected? Or will voters for the other parties turn out in larger numbers to balance its rise? Will the FDP’s campaign tilt towards some AfD positions deliver it an unexpectedly good result? How many centre-left voters, particularly from the Greens, will switch to the CDU in support of Mrs Merkel and her refugee policies, replacing voters lost to its right? Will the CSU’s distance from Mrs Merkel in Bavaria give it a happier result than that of its CDU sister in the rest of Germany?

How bad is “bad” for the SPD?

One likelihood is that the Social Democrats (SPD), Mrs Merkel’s current coalition partners, will perform badly. Their brief surge when Martin Schulz became chancellor candidate in the spring is now a distant memory. A former president of the European Parliament, he tried to put distance between his party and Mrs Merkel by talking about social justice, but seemed too indistinct nonetheless. The SPD might fall below its previous post-war nadir of 23% of votes in 2009. If the outcome is that bad, recriminations will begin flying tonight. Some reckon Mr Schulz focused too much on social justice in an economically comfortable country and needed a broader prospectus. Some wonder whether he should have copied Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain and stood as a more starkly left-wing alternative (they will wonder that more loudly if the socialist Left Party gains support today). Some think he should have made more of his European background and credentials. And some reckon it will always be impossible for the party to make advances while Mrs Merkel is chancellor. Whichever analyses prevail will influence how the party responds to a bad result and approaches the prospect of a new “grand coalition” with her.

Has the AfD outperformed expectations?

Nerves have jangled in the mainstream parties in recent days as the AfD has done better and better in opinion polls (one final survey by INSA yesterday put it on 13%). Might even these not reflect the full scale of support for the party? Might there be “shy AfDers” in the German electorate? Even if the polls do not understate its support, the party seems certain to clear the 5% threshold needed to join the Bundestag, and thus change the tone and mood of Germany’s relatively calm and collaborative federal legislature. A third-place result for a party whose lead candidate, Alexander Gauland, reckons his compatriots can “be proud of the accomplishments of German soldiers in two world wars” would prompt much soul-searching. At 15% or above that would become outright panic, suggests one insider.

Nonetheless, be wary of reports—to which parts of the English-language press are prone—that sensationalise the AfD’s popularity or power. A rise in support for door-slamming dissent is not entirely surprising in a country that has let in 1.2m additional immigrants in two years, and whose two main parties have governed together so cosily for four. Moreover, as the journalist Philip Oltermann notes, there has been a party right of the CDU in the Bundestag before (the hard-conservative Deutsche Partei, which sat there until 1961 and even joined a coalition). And the AfD’s politics is not fundamentally new. It is best understood as a new fusion of pre-existing political forces: anti-Western nationalists in the small-town east, politically alienated Russian Germans and bourgeois anti-cosmopolitans on the CDU right who are alienated by Mrs Merkel’s liberalism (for decades Mr Gauland was a CDU stalwart). Is the AfD’s likely success today worrying? Absolutely. Is it a return to the 1930s? No.

Has the FDP achieved a comeback?

In 2013 the FDP’s election party was more like a wake. From 14.6%, its best-ever result in 2009, it had just missed the 5% hurdle, so fallen out of the Bundestag. Some commentators wondered if it would ever recover, especially if it did not achieve a comeback at the 2017 election. That comeback now looks probable. Christian Lindner, who was 34 when he took over the party, has reinvented the FDP by drawing heavily heavily on his own image and assertive personality, “modernising” themes like the digital economy and, increasingly in the final weeks of the campaign, right-populist overtures on Europe and refugees. His strategy has been to build an electoral coalition combining prosperous urbanites with bourgeois conservatives fed up with Mrs Merkel. Tonight comes the verdict.

How fragmented is German politics?

As in many European countries, legislatures in Germany are fragmenting as voters detach from traditional identities and habits. Assuming the AfD and the FDP get into the Bundestag and the Greens do not drop out, there will be a record six groups there (counting the CDU and CSU as one), up from four. For much of the post-war history of the German federal republic the two main parties enjoyed combined vote shares of 80%; today that figure could conceivably fall below its post-war nadir of 2009 of 56.8%. Germany will remain a relatively consensus-based and coherent political system compared with, say, the Netherlands, where the number of parliamentary parties rose from 11 to 13 at March’s election and coalition talks are still ongoing. But today’s result—with both the higher number of parties and the arrival of the AfD—will make the country’s politics at least a little more like that of other European countries.

Do months of coalition talks lie ahead?

This fragmentation makes it less likely—though not impossible—that the numbers will allow CDU/CSU to form a Bundestag majority with their traditional coalition partners, the FDP. That would leave two options: another grand coalition with the SPD or a new “Jamaica” coalition with the FDP and the Greens (so called as the colours of the three parties match that country’s flag).

The first of these is the most likely. The leaders of the SPD are willing to do another deal with Mrs Merkel; especially Sigmar Gabriel, who has enjoyed a political rebirth as foreign minister. Yet it is far from clear whether they could get it past the party membership, much of which is fed up of achieving things in coalition but, as the junior partner, getting little electoral credit for them. A vote-share lower than 23% would make the job of persuasion particularly tough. The prospect of a period of reflection and renewal in opposition, preparing the party for a more competitive, post-Merkel election in 2021, is tempting to many.

Forming a Jamaica coalition (the option preferred by Wolfgang Schäuble, Mrs Merkel’s powerful finance minister) would be even trickier. The CDU has done many deals with the FDP at state and federal level and several with the Greens at state level. But only twice, at state level, has it done so with both together. The first such government collapsed. The second was formed this summer in Schleswig Holstein, a state where the three parties are unusually close well-aligned. At federal level FDP and Greens are at pains to stress how far apart they are on everything from the environment and Europe to refugees and the economy (see my interviews with Mr Lindner and Cem Özdemir, lead candidate of the Greens). Some of that is election campaigning. Much of it is not.

All of which means the talks could take a long time. They might only get started properly after the state election in Lower Saxony on October 15th, until when all parties will remain on election mode. Germany may not have its new federal government until December, or even January.

Tant pis, M. Macron?

In Britain some expect the German election to have a positive effect on Brexit talks. Mrs Merkel, goes the argument, will be freer to make concessions with the votes behind her—especially if she forms a government with the Anglophile FDP. This is wishful thinking, as Mr Lindner himself has made clear: he has, he told me, no substantive disagreements with the current government’s stance on Brexit.

Earlier in the summer, however, it looked like the election might herald a new German policy towards the rest of the EU, and especially the euro zone. The election of Emmanuel Macron, met by warm words in Berlin, prompted speculation that the now-revived Franco-German motor could pursue new cooperation not just in politically easier areas like defence, foreign policy and environmental protections but also on a trickier subject: reform of the currency union. Perhaps this would even prove Mrs Mrs Merkel’s legacy project.

Yet Mrs Merkel has sought no mandate for such change in the election campaign. Mr Schulz, a passionate European, has talked about the subject surprisingly little. Mr Lindner has made it clear he opposes any sort of transfer union and will seek the all-important finance ministry in coalition talks (“if [Mrs Merkel] does a deal with the Liberals, I’m dead,” Mr Macron is said to have commented, a little hyperbolically). Even in the event of a new grand coalition that post will probably fall once more to Mr Schäuble, who is similarly sceptical about Mr Macron’s euro zone hopes. And a large AfD contingent in the Bundestag will add another noisy voice against new integration. Behind closed doors in Berlin the tone has hardened, a message that seems to have got through to both Paris and Brussels, where expectations are being revised down.

What next for the CDU—and Germany?

Most in Berlin assume that this was Mrs Merkel’s last run for the chancellorship and that she will stand down before the next election, in 2021. Prospective successors, in ascending order of openness about their ambitions, fall into these categories: Merkel-ites in Berlin (Ursula von der Leyen, her defence minister, and Thomas de Maizière, her interior minister), Merkel-ites outside federal politics (Daniel Günther, head of the Jamaica coalition in Schleswig Holstein, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the Saarland and David McAllister in the European Parliament), and finally younger CDU figures who have distanced themselves from the chancellor’s refugee policies (most notably Jens Spahn, the deputy finance minister and a protégé of Mr Schäuble, and Julia Klöckner, the CDU’s leader in Rhineland-Palatinate). As soon as the polls close tonight the jockeying to succeed Mrs Merkel will begin; partly under the guise of debates about what the party got right or wrong in the election campaign and its recent years in government. The final chapter of the Merkel era may be long. But it most probably begins today.

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