‘If Eris, the Greek goddess of strife, symbolises the electoral climate in the UK, US and France these days, Harmonia, her antagonist in Greek mythology, must be watching over Berlin’.
Josef Janning for CFR
Finally tomorrow we have the long awaited national elections in Germany in which Mamma Mutti (Merkel’s nickname) will be running for a 4th term. Merkel has a strong lead ahead of her next biggest contender, Martin Schulz of the SPD, and it is is no longer a matter of whether she is going to win but one of who she is going to lead with. In order to gain a clear majority, Merkel would have to win a 51% majority and this will not happen: presently she is in the lead with an estimated 38-40% of the vote. Schulz’s Social Democratic Party are estimated to pick up around 23-24% of the vote.
The Present Situation
Merkel has governed in what is known as a Grand Coalition (that being the two biggest parties) with the SPD since the last elections in 2013. This will be her fourth term in power and probably her last. Her predecessor and mentor, Helmut Kohl, also served four terms.
Who are the main parties in Germany?
I will list here the main ones, that is to say the ones that are estimated to get above 5%, the minimum threshold required to enter the Bundestag.
The CDU/CSU: Angela Merkel’s centre right Christian Democrat Party. The CSU is the Bavarian part of it – they both stand for the same thing although the Bavarian sister party may be a little more conservative. Angela Merkel has been at the helm since 2000. Her predecessor, Helmut Kohl, also led the party for 4 terms from 1973-1998. It was under his watch and that of a CDU/FDP coalition (I’ll tell you more about the FDP below), that Germany saw reunification in 1990 after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the East German government in 1989. It was Kohl who called for German reunification in fact and in October 1990, some eleven months after the wall came down, the German Democratic Republic (what was East Germany), became one with what was then known as the Federal Republic of Germany (former West Germany). The East German CDU merged with the West German CDU and elections were held in 1990 for a reunified country.
Reunification wasn’t without it’s problems in the beginning: there was some economic recession in the east and taxes increased in the west (inevitable when a capitalist country merges with a former communist one), leading to a slight downgrade in Kohl’s popularity but he was still reelected for a fourth term in 1994. In 1998, his party lost and Kohl’s position as leader of the CDU was inherited by Wolfgang Schauble, the present 75 year old Finance Minister. In 2000, Wolfgang resigned and was replaced by Angela.
The SPD: The Social Democratic party which is led by Martin Schulz, former European Parliament President. He took over from the party’s leader, Singmar Gabriel, in January 2017. The SPD is actually older than the CDU, having been established in 1863 (the CDU was founded in 1945). The SPD has been in a Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel’s party since the 2013 federal elections. They have also been in coalition governments in Germany for 15 of the last 19 years.
They have a left leaning slant and speak up strongly for workers rights, the working class, trade unions and the welfare state, much like the Labour Party in the UK. So it’s kind of like a Conservative/Labour alliance but Merkel has the reins. Like Merkel, the party has strong pro-European leanings, particularly since Schulz took over at the helm (given his previous position as President of the European Parliament). Schulz identifies with the working class having eschewed university education himself. He joined the SPD at 19 and was elected to the European Parliament in 1994. He worked once as a bookseller, used to play football and is a reformed alcoholic. The SPD’s ratings hiked shortly after Schulz took over in January 2017; in fact, after only one month in the role, his ratings in February 2017 were 50% to Merkel’s 34%. That didn’t last long however and Merkel soon caught up again. Look at the image below.
As the second largest party under the terms of the Grand Coalition, the leader of the SPD serves as Vice Chancellor (with Merkel as Chancellor).
The FDP: This one’s getting quite a lot of press at the moment due to its young 38 year old charismatic leader, Christian Lindner. The Free Democratic party is the equivalent of our Liberal Democratic Party I suppose in that it is a liberal party but more conservative than the SPD when it comes to how generous to be with government coffers. In a Chatham House webinar earlier this week, Associate Fellow of the Europe Program at Chatham House Quentin Peel, described them as ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative’. It has been around almost as long as the CDU, having formed in 1948. The FDP have been a junior coalition partner (the post currently held by the SPD) in Germany many times: 1949-56; 1961-66; 1982-98 and 2009-13. It was only in the last elections in 2013 that they failed to gain the 5% threshold required to enter the Bundestag; not a problem they will have tomorrow with an estimated 8% win (although I anticipate, given Lindner’s popularity, it may be more than that). Lindner is confident, relaxed, eloquent, funny and self-depreciating and claims that the FDP have learnt from their past mistakes. He welcomes Syrian refugees but insists that they should return home after the war is over. Whilst he is said to be excited about Apple’s new I Phone technology, he is also of the opinion that they are not living up to their responsibilities in the tax arena. He praises Macron’s energy but is wary of his proposed eurozone reforms. He says that he wants faster broadband, more funds for police, better schools and less bureaucracy. Furthermore, as a young person himself, he connects with the younger voters.
The Greens: We all know that the Greens are a much stronger party in Germany than they are in the UK. The German Green Party was founded in West Germany in 1980 and they joined up with Alliance 90, their equivalent in East Germany, after the fall of the wall in 1989/90, in 1993. They are now just known as The Greens. As you would expect, their focus is on ecological, economic and social sustainability and they are anti-nuclear. They are also very proactive in campaigning for LGBT rights, keen on investing in education both for preschools and adults and in the last elections, campaigned for a national minimum wage which Merkel finally implemented on 1st January 2015.
There are two leaders: Simone Peter, a 51 year old blonde and former state minister for the Environment, Energy and Transport. and Cem Ozdemir, also 51 and the son of a Turkish immigrant.
Colour: Green, obviously.
Die Linke: The party of the left: one of the more extreme parties (with the AfD being the extreme party on the right). It was founded in 2007. Angela Merkel has said that she won’t enter a coalition with either of them but both are expected to get above the 5% threshold required to enter the Bundestag. Currently Die Linke is expected to get around 8% (not as much as the 11% AfD are expected to get). Unlike the FDP, Die Linke did secure enough votes to get a foothold in the Bundestag in the last elections in 2103 after polling just over 8%; the figure they are expected to repeat in tomorrow’s elections.
There are two party leaders: a woman, Katja Kipping (a 39 year old red head); and a man, Bernd Riexinger (a 61 year old silver fox).
The AfD: Last but not least, the far right xenophobic party, Alternative fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany basically). Founded in 2013, they are the youngest party and have a lot of support in the states of former East Germany and some of the poorer states where there is high unemployment and probably high levels of immigration. This can unfortunately result in xenophobic attitudes because of the high levels of unemployment. Until recently the two AfD leaders, again a man and a woman, were Frauke Petry,a 43 year old cropped hair brunette who studied her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Reading; and Jorg Methuen, a 57 year old German economist. Petry once advocated shooting at refugees entering the country and her counterpart, Methuen, said that Berlin’s Holocaust memorial was a ‘monument of shame’ and that Germany should stop atoning for its Nazi past (DW, ‘Ten Things you need to know about the AfD’).
That changed in April this year when the party voted by almost 68% to replace them with Alice Weidel and Alexander Garland as party heads.
Alice Weidel. An unlikely leader for a party that has previously spoken out against gays. She is a 38 year old blonde, attractive former banker who worked for Goldman Sachs. She is also ‘openly lesbian and lives in Switzerland – for tax reasons – with a partner originally from Sri Lanka’ (Guardian, 20.9.17). The couple have two adopted children. So, gay and shacking up with a foreigner. An unlikely combination for someone in the AfD. Seidel has been presented as the party’s moderate voice. She is however a ‘rabid nationalist’ and has praised China for it’s ‘law and order policies’ and for knowing how to protect their borders (also The Guardian).
The other is 76 year old and one of the 3 AfD founders, Alexander Gauland. He was once a member of the CDU and not a fan of Merkel’s ‘modernisation’ tactics. In 2013, he jumped ship and set up what was then knows as Wahlalternative 2013 (Election Alternative 2013), which later became the AfD. He is fiercely anti immigration and wants Germany to close its borders. He once said of an image showing a drowned refugee child that ‘we can’t be blackmailed by children’s eyes’ (DW, ‘Ten things you need to know about the AfD).
They are nationalists and as such, are not only anti-immigration but anti-Europe. In fact, of the top 5 parties (all listed here), they are the only ones who are not in favour of Europe. In the 2013 elections they were just under the 5% threshold to join the Bundestag but are now forecast to gain at least 10-11% of the vote: more than the FDP and Die Linke, both on 8%, and the Greens on 7%. Should the AfD get enough seats to enter the Bundestag, and they will, it will be the first time that an extreme right wing party has been in the German government since the Nazis were in power.
No party is likely to form a coalition with them but they will now have a strong voice in the Bundestag. The height of their popularity was shortly after Merkel’s open door policy for refugees and they hit a low point when the party split into two factions but they are now back in the game and in a strong position. They did particularly well in the 2016 state elections and won double digit figures in Baden-Wurttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt: in each state they came either second or third. In the home state of Angela Merkel in last year’s state elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, they even beat Merkel’s party and came second; the SPD came first. In the 2016 state election in Berlin the AfD came fifth. The results of that state election were as follows: The SPD, 38 seats; CDU 31 seats; Die Linke 27 seats; Greens 27 seats; AfD 25 seats and FDP 12 seats.
Have a look at the chart below:
Colour: Light blue.
How are people likely to vote?
See the chart below:
What are the likely scenarios?
The most likely outcome, another Grand Coalition with the SPD. If they refuse to form another coalition with Merkel, she could form a 3 way coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Why would they refuse to be part of another Grand Coalition? Being the underling in the deal has sometimes been called the death knell for the SDP. Some suggest that they would be better off taking time out to form a strong opposition and make their party ‘great again’. Continuity is the easy choice according to Quentin Peel for Chatham House, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always the best choice in the long run. A strong opposition is good for democracy.
How would another Grand Coalition be different from the status quo? The SDP have suffered in this position and would need to try to improve their position. One option would be to demand the post of Finance Minster that is currently in the CDU’s hands. The SPD have held this role in a previous coalition. It would give them a key position and more autonomy to focus on issues of social justice.
Schulz has put forward 4 conditions under which he would consider forming a Grand Coalition again; 3 are to do with domestic policy (mainly distribution politics) and one is to do with foreign policy. These are as follows:
None of the above seem impossible and Merkel is already in favour of the last.
If the SPD only manage to get 23% of the vote, as polls indicate, it would be their worst result since 1949. If current opinion polls are correct, the CDU/CSU and the SPD share around 60% of the vote. In the 1970s it was more than 90%.
The much talked of Jamaica Coalition (called so because of the black yellow and green colours of the parties). If this were to be the outcome, the Greens would probably end up being the least important of the 3: were they to remain an opposition party, they would have a louder voice. The FDP would be the second strongest voice. The Greens are more prone to helping weaker EU member states than the FDP, i.e. Greece. They are also against the idea of a two tier Europe in which Germany, France and the stronger countries (in terms of economy and GDP) would form part of the inner core. They are more in favour of a unified Europe where all the member states work together and no one gets left behind. In terms of foreign policy, the Greens are also a little more hawkish when it comes to relations with Greece and Turkey.
3 party coalitions are not ideal and can sometimes get messy and delay the process of decision making.
The traffic light coalition: An SDP, FDP and Green Alliance (red, yellow, green). This is unlikely to happen, according to Quentin Peel from Chatham House.
A CDU/CSU coalition with the FDP. This would be a good option for Merkel but one area in which they collide is in Emmanuel Macron’s proposed eurozone reforms: the FDP are very much anti-bailing poorer countries out of Europe when they can’t afford to pay up. It is a view that is also shared by the present CDU Finance Minster, Wolfgang Schauble. Lindner is very keen on Greece pulling out of the euro and going back to its own form of currency. In 1957, the FDP liberals voted against the Treaty of Rome in favour of economic protectionism and they sense a growing distaste amongst the electorate for further eurozone reforms and greater integration. Another area of possible contention could be Russia: Lindner thinks that Germany should re-establish relations with Russia and reduce sanctions; a possible acceptance of their annexation of Crimea could be used to help restore peace in the Ukraine.
In terms of the euro zone reforms, Mamma Mutti loves Macron; he is her little prodigy, the son she never had.
The FDP have not been in the Bundestag for the last 4 years having suffered terribly in the 2013 elections. Their current leader, however, may well be about to bring them back from their exile in political wilderness. Lindner is said not to want the role of a minister as he would prefer to remain the leader of the FDP but he may well be interested in a role in finance. It is dubious that Merkel will allow him to take the finance role over present finance minster Wolfgang Schauble.
The last time there was a CDU/FDP alliance was in 2009-2013, again under Merkel. It is unlikely this time around however as two two parties will not be able to muster up enough votes between them to win a majority: unless Eris is in the house (see my quote just below the title).
Below is a graph illustrating the above:
What are going to be the main issues for Germany going forward?
Relations with Turkey certainly is one of the main issues. They are not great right now and some are in favour of stopping EU accession negotiations altogetehr. Unlike Martin Schulz, Merkel never actually supported Turkey’s bid to enter the EU. However, she sees this as an issue to be taken by all the EU member states in unison and not just one by Germany.
The refugee issue also has to be dealt with, along with borders and the issue of national security. And Brexit. Relations with the US are also not great with their increasingly isolationist tendencies and aggressive rhetoric towards North Korea and Iran. Trump is no diplomat and Merkel is not the only German politician who is not a fan: Schulz isn’t keen on him either.
Russia and the sanctions against them. Like the FDP, Schulz is keen on reestablishing relations with Moscow and supports a lifting of sanctions.
And if Merkel ‘fell under a bus’ all of a sudden, (the terminology used in the Chatham House webinar), who would be able to fill her shoes?
Possibly the Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, also of the CDU, although she is a bit too left wing for some. She has worked closely with Merkel from the outset and never doubted her ability to pull through the refugee crisis and pull her party out on top again. She is 58 and is a fully qualified medical doctor with a further degree in Public Health. She also has 7 children, proving that you can have children and get to the top (if you have a supportive husband who’s prepared to take up the slack, and she does). Her father was also a Christian Democrat and worked for a time at the EU Commission in Brussels, where she was born. She, like Merkel, is very pro-Europe and is fluent in several languages. She spent several years out in California, (where her children were born in close succession), where her husband (also a doctor) had a teaching fellowship at Stanford University.
What next for Merkel after this term?
The next EU President after Tusk? Who knows. Quentin Peel suggested it to Merkel some time back but at that time, she was happy in her role as Chancellor.
You can keep an eye on the polling on Twitter with Europe Elects: @EuropeElects.
Sources and further reading:
Council on Foreign Relations, ‘What’s at stake in the German elections?’, 15.9.17:
Other CFR articles:
‘What to look out for on election night’, 21.9.17:
‘Prime time debates with few prime time ideas’, 8.9.17:
‘The quiet before the storm’, 1.9.17:
‘What are the Manifestos?’, 26.7.17:
‘What’s left from Kohl’s era?’, 23.6.17:
ECFR Podcast, ‘The World in 30 minutes’, on the German elections, 18.9.17. This one is extremely useful. It is hosted by Mark Leonard and he interviews Josef Janning and Ulrik Franke, both of who have written some of the articles above:
Deutsche Welle (in English) also have may useful articles, too many to post individually. Here is the link and you can look for yourselves:
This is quite a good explainer of who is who and what the main issues are in Germany from CNN, 31.8.17:
Taken from the CNN article above.
Courtesy of Quentin Peel’s webinar on the German elections with Chatham House earlier in the week. Forgive the poor quality of some of the images: I took them on my phone during the presentation. Any further references as to where he got them from are posted on his images.