Merkel held, Schulz did not. Nine things you need about know about the German election
September 25, 2017
In the aftermath of the German vote, Christian Blasberg analyzes – with an exclusive feature for LUISS Open – the results party by party, along with the scenarios for the possible new governments, from the große Koalition to the expected (some more, some less) returns to the Bundestag.
The Christian Democratic Union’s results are, beyond question, a defeat. The party, standing at around 33% (-9%), remains the strongest in the Bundestag, and Chancellor Merkel will be able to form a government once again, but her position in Germany and within the European Union appears weakened. The coalition with the FDP and the Green Party in the future government may prove to be extremely difficult, despite the fact that there is a long history of government collaborations with the Liberals. Merkel believed that the relatively successful migration and integration policy of 2015 would convince citizens of the effectiveness of her humanitarian approach at the time, underestimating the importance of the identity and cultural aspects that takes precedence, for so many people, over the economic elements of the migration issue. Moving to the right of the political spectrum seems unavoidable, but one must wonder whether Merkel would be believable in the venture of leading such a rearrangement of her own party.
The Christian Social Union are at their all-time low, with 38% of votes in Bavaria. They paid the price for not insisting thoroughly on their distinction from the CDU on the migration issue. In 2015, they had carried out a tough stance of border closure for migrants, risking the split from their sister party, until they finally reconciled with the CDU before the elections. Now the conflict between the two parties could be exacerbated once more (and 2018 will see a general election in Bavaria) and the CSU could dictate a tougher line to the CDU, that the latter will have to follow if it wants to recover the votes it has lost against against the AfD. Otherwise the split could be really around the corner, along with the expansion of the CSU aacross the entire German territory.
The party has resoundingly failed its election campaign. It focused on such issues as social justice, which perhaps is not the greatest concern of German citizens, especially those who vote for the CDU. Topics like the reform of the Eurozone (where the SPD has clearly set itself apart from the CDU) went AWOL. There was no contrast with the CDU and no clear announcement of not wanting to remain in the große Koalition. Schulz, as a candidate, should have personalized the election campaign by putting his individual self above his party, becoming the candidate for a more widespread center-left area than the SPD alone. The party now needs a deep personal, doctrinal and image renewal, in order to become a believable democratic alternative to the CDU. There are many doubts as to whether Schulz is the right person to inject strength into such a transformative process.
AfD’s future in the Bundestag looks very uncertain. In the past, extreme right-wing populist parties in regional parliaments got often lost in internal power struggles and disappeared in the space of a term. The German press tried in every way to highlight such rifts even within the AfD, with a defamatory strategy against the party that’s too blatant and generalized, but it is hard to believe that a total collapse of the populists will really happen (although some individual disagreements remain plausible). They will form a tough opposition and will create some commotion and some discomfort within the Parliament. The weakness of the AfD lies, however, in the lack of a leading figure. Neither Weidel nor Gauland, or President Petry for that matter, have the strength to emerge as a “German Marine Le Pen”. Some others have been disqualified for obvious neo-Nazi-like inclinations. However, there is concern that the party, which has exceeded any poll with it’s 13.5% of votes, will remain an uncomfortable presence in the Bundestag for more than just the one term – a presence to which other parties must become accustomed to.
The return of the Liberals, with a 10.5% of votes, is largely due to the personalizing made by Lindner, the party president. Behind the figure of a young, dynamic and photogenic leader, the electoral programme has mostly remained in the background – it was not entirely a new one and was heavily indebted to liberalism, especially that of the economic kind. The one exception has been the issue of the digital agenda – with the FDP being the only party to bring that forward. It is to be feared that, however, the participation in a “Jamaican” government will bring back the FDP’s old reflections as a party wanting to enter the government at any cost, leading to new electoral collapses in the future. Liberals should ask, as a condition for joining the executive, for Merkel to be replaced as Chancellor in the mid-term.
Green Party (Grüne)
Their result, about 9.5% of total votes, is surprising, given their pale electoral campaign, featuring contents that were often too “politically correct”, and also taking into consideration the harsh criticism aimed at Göring-Eckhardt as a candidate. The party can be reinforced by entering a “Jamaican” government along with the CDU/CSU and FDP, but it will remain an alien element when compared to the other partners – as they know one another thanks to decades-old governmental collaborations. This may turn out to be the Greens’ downfall, or their great opportunity, if they can leave the coalition at the right time. The problem being that Merkel’s CDU has already partially invaded the ideological field of enviromentalism and therefore the task for the Greens is not an easy one, as they are torn between the responsibility for the functioning of democracy and the preservation of their identity, which by the way has always been aiming for a balance in the longtime inner conflict between the party’s moderate wing and the most radical members.
The successor to the former SED Communist Party maintained its 9% electoral level, although surveys showed an exit poll of up to 11% of all votes. Its role remains in the opposition, but the new standing of the SPD in an opposition featuring a perhaps more markedly leftist stance, could open up new approaches to the 2021 elections. At the same time, opposition to the SPD can also become dangerous to Linke, because the two parties are now competing for the same political and electoral space. Linke then has to strengthen its foundations in East Germany, which in turn will put it in an open struggle with AfD – a struggle between two extremes. Historical precedents come to mind.
Participation in these elections has slightly increased, with a turnout growing from 71% to 75%. Despite a rather boring electoral campaign, especially because of the excessive similarities between the two major governing parties, the tense climate of public debate and increased security concerns from various perspectives have mobilized more voters. There is a concern, however, that this increase should be mainly attributed to AfD voters, who had previously remained in a state of political apathy, caused by their rejection from the entire political establishment in the Federal Republic. The fact remains that a quarter of the population did not vote, a phenomenon that should not be ignored when analyzing these elections.
Only 16 minutes after the first exit polls at 6PM o’clock on Monday, the issue of the future government coalition had been resolved: the SPD announced its unavailability for a continuing the große Koalition. So there was only a mathematically possible option, considering that AfD is out of any possible scenario, and a left coalition, including Linke, couldn’t get to the necessary votes. The “Jamaican” coalition – black-yellow-green (CDU-FDP-Green Party) – has no other alternative, if new elections are to be avoided. These, furthermore, would risk the further strengthening of AfD. It is then indispensible for the FDP and the Green Party to overcome their political incompatibilities. A precedent of a “Jamaican” coalition has existed for a few months in the Schleswig-Holstein Region and it seems to be working fine. Such a government for Germany would be definitely pro-EU, although it could hardly be able to generate a coherent project of major reforms aimed at the European institutions. It is more likely that the new government formula will maintain, in many respects, the old policies of former Merkel executives.