For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments.
And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.
For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.
With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.
Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.
It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.
Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.
Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.
Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.
Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.
On September 4, German chancellor Angela Merkel will face one of her final electoral tests this year before most Germans believe she will attempt to win a fourth term in 2017.
That test comes in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the sprawling state that flows across the north of what used to be East Germany and, as has been reported extensively, Merkel’s own home state. Voters will select all 71 members of the regional assembly, the Landtag, on Sunday, September 4.
Though the state is home to just 1.6 million people, it’s one of two state elections this month (the other is in the left-leaning Berlin on September 18), and it’s really the first political test since March of the appeal of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) that hopes to win over 20% of the vote and, perhaps, edge out Merkel’s own party, the more center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party).
The CDU, under Merkel’s leadership, has led Germany since 2005, and it has also served as a junior partner in a coalition government in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since 2006, alongside the more dominant center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). Nationally, the CDU serves as the senior partners alongside the SPD in the second of two ‘grand coalitions’ that Merkel has headed since winning power over a decade ago.
As Europeans weigh the wisdom of Nice’s ill-fated (and judicially reversed) decision to ban ‘burkinis’ and as Germany’s state interior ministers try to adopt a limited burqa ban in public spaces, Merkel’s popularity is still sagging from a decision last summer — easily the boldest of her political career — to permit nearly one million Syrian refugees to settle in Germany at the height of the largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II.
Polls show that the AfD is roughly tied with, or even leading, the CDU in the state, each with anywhere from 19% to 23% of the vote, with the SPD leading in the range of between 24% and 28%. In a series of state elections earlier this year, the AfD performed best in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, winning nearly 25% of the vote there in March.
But reports that Merkel’s decision about whether to seek a fourth term — or the contours of a national election next September — could be significantly affected by a regional election in one of Germany’s most sparsely populated states are misguided. Barring a more lopsided upset, the SPD-CDU coalition is almost certain to continue under the state’s minister-president since 2008, social democrat Erwin Sellering. Though the refugee crisis has dented Merkel’s popularity, the CDU holds a wide lead nationally over the SPD and Germany’s other parties, though the AfD is now winning the support of between 10% and 15%, which would be enough to make it Germany’s third-most popular party. Victories in a handful of states is a far different thing that sustaining support until next year’s election, especially as the AfD has suffered from a self-inflicted internal leadership struggle.
Though Merkel may have grown up in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the CDU has never particularly been popular in the east. In the last state election in 2011, the CDU struggled too, but it was instead against Die Linke (The Left). In fact, the hard left is set to lose even more support from 2011 than the CDU. Five years ago, the CDU won 23.1% of the vote, a standard it might well replicate this year. But Die Linke is forecasted to win far less than the 18.4% it won in the 2011 election. There’s no doubt that the AfD poses a direct threat to the CDU, both in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and nationally because so many conservative Germans worry about the effects of resettling nearly a million Syrian refugees. But the AfD, especially in the east, seems to be taking votes from nationalist-minded voters on the left too, especially from Die Linke, a party with its roots in East Germany’s Soviet-era Communist Party.
In 2008, US president Barack Obama won the largest Democratic mandate in a generation, in part, by pledging to change the tone in Washington.
But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.
Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.
Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.
Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.
Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.
It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.
It’s tempting to argue that results from three state elections in Germany on Sunday spell the beginning of the end for chancellor Angela Merkel.
In all three states, the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) won representation for the first time at the state level. That means that the AfD’s parliamentary presence will rise to eight German state assemblies, with the party poised to enter the Bundestag in the next federal election (after narrowly missing the 5% electoral threshold in September 2013).
It’s not the first time that radical parties have made minor gains in elections. In the 1992 Baden-Württemberg state elections, the hard-right Die Republikaner (Republicans) won over 12% of the vote, making it the state’s third-largest party. Hard-right parties have routinely won a small share of the national vote, though never enough to enter the Bundestag. Former East German communists founded what is today the radical leftist flank of Die Linke (The Left) and, despite a quarter-century from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party (certainly not as hard-left as it was in 1989) is still controversial.
It’s true that Merkel has taken a bold stand in welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and that policy has left many German voters concerned that the rate of immigrants — over one million since the migration crisis swelled last summer — is more than Germany society can assimilate culturally, socially and economically.
It’s not an unfair concern, so it’s not surprising that the AfD’s popularity is rising. Since its creation in 2013 as a party of mildly eurosceptic academics, it has turned sharply right under a new more hardline leader, Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old chemist and businesswoman whose anti-migration rhetoric has attracted voters scared of the effects of so many new German refugees. The AfD’s turn was so hard that Bernd Lucke, one of the movement’s founders, quit the party last summer.
The migration crisis may have been the impetus for the AfD’s emergence, but it’s no surprise that a right-wing alternative to Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) is coming into view. She has become Germany’s most dominant politician in a generation by occupying virtually all of the ideological territory on the center-right and the center-left, leaving her right flank somewhat unprotected.
Hugging the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) into two grand coalitions since 2005, she’s shown a willingness to poach its most popular policies, including a raise in the German minimum wage. She’s been at the center of difficult battles to keep the European Union united, including last summer’s near-disastrous negotiations to keep Greece in the eurozone. The effect has been that more moderate voters have flocked to the CDU — so much so that she nearly won a remarkable absolute majority in the Bundestag in September 2013.
But it also means that voters who want change are turning not to the CDU’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, but to fringe groups, including the AfD. While the AfD’s gains are real, and they shouldn’t be ignored, neither should they be overstated. Far-right politics in Germany have existed for years, and while it’s true that the AfD clearly took votes from the CDU in Sunday’s state elections, it also appears that the AfD draws from far-left voters in eastern Germany and from disaffected SPD voters in western Germany.
The three states that held elections on March 13 couldn’t be more different, and it’s a risk to make blanket statements about the future of German politics through generalizing the results of Sunday’s elections.
The largest headline of Germany’s slate of state elections today will be the rising success of the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany).
But it really shouldn’t be.
Even at the height of anti-refugee sentiment, the AfD that won no more than 23% of the vote in any state, and it will not come close to holding power in any of those states.
Meanwhile, Winfried Kretschmann surged to what should almost certainly mean reelection as minister-president in Baden-Württemberg, a sprawling and prosperous state in southwestern Germany, home to 10.6 million people (Germany’s third-most populous). With a rich industrial heritage in and around Stuggart, the state is home to Daimler, Porsche and software manufacturer SAP, and it currently has Germany’s lowest unemployment rate (4.0%).
Kretschmann came to office in 2011 through something of a fluke, when his party, Die Grünen (The Greens), narrowly outpaced its center-left coalition partner, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party). Together, the two parties managed to win more support than the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), the party of Germany’s powerful chancellor Angela Merkel, and a party that had long dominated a thrifty state of southern German conservatism, ruling almost without interruption for 60 years. The SPD may have withered to the point where Kretschmann will need to find a new governing coalition. But in 2016, for the first time in the postwar period, the CDU wasn’t the first-placed party, falling behind the Greens. That’s due in part to the AfD’s rise, siphoning votes from the CDU, but it also has to do with the wildly popular Kretschmann. Continue reading Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south→
In the span of six days, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made a teenage Palestinian refugee cry with her government’s stand on refugee and immigration policy (then tried to pet her, in what must be one of her most cringe-worthy moments as chancellor), reiterated her increasingly isolated position in Europe in opposition to LGBT marriage equality and almost allowed her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to force Greece out of the eurozone, in the process undermining Merkel’s authority both at home and within the wider eurozone.
Merkel, who won a narrower-than-expected victory in the 2005 election, reached the apex of her political power in September 2013, when her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) nearly won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections. Despite being forced back into a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), Merkel’s popularity crested. At long last, she had won a clear personal mandate for her cautious, seemingly ideology-free leadership.
But when faced with policy issues — like Greece, LGBT rights and immigration — featuring such sharp contrasts, Merkel’s popularity was always going to fall from those stratospheric levels.
The crisis over Greece’s future highlighted the limits of Merkel’s conciliatory governing style — to sit back, wait for a consensus to emerge and follow public opinion, even (or especially) if it means co-opting a rival party’s positions. That’s how Merkel has handled everything from nuclear power to raising the minimum wage. But there’s a limit to that kind of governance. Continue reading Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?→
It’s a slow election year in Germany, so there will be few tests at the state level for chancellor Angela Merkel, her center-left ‘grand coalition’ partners or any of the various challengers to Merkel’s hold on German centrism.
That makes the results from Sunday’s election in Hamburg, a city-state in the German north, perhaps more important than they otherwise would be, and it’s not great news for Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), which won just one-third as much support as its center-left rival (and partner in federal government), the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).
The CDU and the SPD continue to be the largest of Germany’s political parties and, notwithstanding the fact that they have joined together in the second ‘grand coalition’ in 10 years, the two parties fight fiercely at the state level and will contest Germany’s next national elections later this decade. Nevertheless, it wasn’t unexpected that the SPD, under the leadership of Hamburg first mayor Olaf Scholz (pictured above), would easily win the election. Though the SPD lost four seats, enough to deprive it of its absolute majority, Scholz will almost certainly form the next government, likely with Die Grünen (the Greens).
The troubling aspect for the CDU isn’t that it did so poorly in Hamburg, which has traditionally leaned toward the SPD, but that it seems to be losing voters to more right-wing alternatives, including the mildly eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which actively advocates that Greece and other countries leave the eurozone. It’s the four state where the AfD has now surpassed the minimal threshold to win seats in the state parliament/assembly. Continue reading AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections→
With the world’s attention more focused on Scotland’s independence referendum this week — or even on Sweden’s national elections — it’s tempting to give short shrift to two state elections in eastern Germany last weekend. But, taken together, they portend major implications for the future of German politics.
The first is the now undeniable rise of the conservative, eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany). Having narrowly missed the 5% threshold to win seats at the national level last September, the AfD won nearly 10% the August 31 elections in the eastern state of Saxony.
In the September 14 elections, the AfD blew past 10% in both states — winning 12.2% of the ‘list’ vote in Brandenburg and 10.6% of the vote in Thuringia. Not only has the AfD displaced the fast-withering Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), it now threatens to steal both social and economic conservative voters from the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) of three-term chancellor Angela Merkel. Years of Merkel’s cautious pragmatism and two ‘grand coalition’ governments may have caught up to the CDU, giving the AfD a wide berth on the German right.
Meanwhile, Germany’s socialist party, Die Linke (Left Party), will continue as the junior partner to the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) in the Brandenburg state government. More extraordinarily, it has supplanted the SPD as the clear party of the left in Thuringia.
Its leader, Bodo Ramelow (pictured above) could become the state’s next minister-president, which would mark the first time that the Left has controlled any state government in Germany. Established after reunification as the remnants of the former East German socialist party, it now also includes a significant band of former disaffected left-wing SPD members and supporters.
It’s not necessarily that Saxony is shifting to the right, as The Economist wrote earlier this week about the results of last Sunday’s state elections in Saxony.
It’s more that right-leaning voters are switching allegiances from one party to another, not unlike similar shifts in western Germany and at the federal level.
Though the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) will have to find a new junior coalition partner, there’s no doubt that it will continue to govern under minister-president Stanislaw Tillich (pictured above with German’s chancellor Angela Merkel), who won his second reelection after assuming the office in May 2008.
Neither its junior partner in the outgoing government, the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), nor the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD, National Democratic Party) met the 5% hurdle to return their legislators to Saxony’s 126-seat state parliament, the Landtag.
Many of their voters appear to have supportedthe newly formed, anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) instead, which won 9.7%, making them the fourth-largest party in the Landtag with 14 seats.
None of this news, however, was unpredictable, because the results largely lined up with polls.
The election was most disastrous for the Free Democrats, a party that, it’s not an exaggeration to say, faces political extinction. Though the FDP made some of its strongest gains in its history in 2009 at both the federal and at state levels, it’s been facing backlash for the past four years. In last September’s federal elections, it lost all 93 of its seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, shut out for the first time in postwar history. Now that it’s lost all of its seats in Saxony’s Landtag, it will no longer be a part of any state government, a massive turn for a party that just one year ago controlled the German foreign ministry, among other portfolios. It now holds seats in just eight of 16 state assemblies, a number that could drop to six if it wins less than 5% of the vote in upcoming September 14 elections in Brandenburg and Thuringia.
Bodo Ramelow (pictured above) isn’t a Stasi throwback intent on socializing Thuringia into a communist hellhole.
Instead, he’s a rather boring Lutheran born in West Germany, but he could also become the minister-president of the former East German state after state elections on September 14, which could give Die Linke (Left Party) control of its only state in Germany. Thuringia is just one of three eastern states voting throughout the next month, joining Brandenburg on September 14 and Saxony two weeks earlier on August 31.
The Left Party, in particular, has a strong following in the former East Germany, given its roots as the former Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (Party of Democratic Socialism), the successor to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the eastern German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. As such, the traditional Western parties have been wary of partnering with the Left Party.
That’s beginning to change as the German left increasingly considers a more unified approach, and eastern Germany has been a laboratory for so-called ‘red-red coalitions’ between the Left and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). As such, the Left Party served as the junior partner in Berlin’s government for a decade between 2001 and 2011 and in the state government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern between 1998 and 2006. Furthermore, a red-red coalition currently governs Brandenburg, and its leaders hope to renew a second term for the government in September’s election.
Though the outcomes aren’t roughly in doubt, the elections take place under the backdrop of news that the eurozone could be sinking back into economic contraction. Initial numbers from the second quarter of the year showed the economy contracting by 0.2% — the first contraction since 2012 — after first-quarter growth was revised down from 0.8% to 0.7%.
That’s in addition to the income gap that still plagues eastern Germany, where economic growth lags significantly behind the states of former West Germany, nearly a quarter-century after reunification:
The east’s lagging economic growth, the strength of Die Linke, and growing unity between the SPD and Die Linke are common themes in all three state elections over the next month.
As voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.
But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.
In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force — the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.
Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.
If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.
With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.
For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.
Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:
We’re less than two weeks from December. That means that the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, has been sitting for about a month, and we’re weeks away from the self-imposed deadline that chancellor Angela Merkel placed on securing a new coalition government.
In case you forgot, Merkel won a handsome victory in the September 22 federal election, when her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — together with the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria) — won 311 seats in the Bundestag, just five seats short of an absolute majority. It was the biggest victory for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in nearly two decades, harkening back to the wide margins that former CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl won in 1990 and in 1994 in the afterglow of the relatively successful reunification of West and East Germany.
But while the CDU-CSU savored a sweet victory, their coalition partners between 2009 and 2013, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) failed to win any seats in the Bundestag for the first time since 1945, leaving Merkel with two options — a minority government or a coalition government with more leftist partners.
Though Merkel flirted throughout early October with Die Grünen (the Greens), a tantalizingly novel coalition that would have remade the German political spectrum, the Greens pulled out of talks on October 16. So for over a month, coalition negotiations have been exclusively among the CDU, the CSU and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). Earlier in November, the coalition talks were going so well that CSU leader and Bavarian minister-president Hoorst Seehofer worried that the harmony would subsume the real policy differences between the German right and the German left.
As Merkel quipped earlier this year, Christmas comes sooner than you think, and Merkel, Seehofer and the SPD’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel (pictured above), are under increasing pressure to agree on a coalition agenda — and given that the CDU-CSU’s 311 seats and the SPD’s 192 seats constitute 79.8% of the entire Bundestag, expectations are high that such a wide-ranging coalition will tackle long-term reform both in Germany and in the European Union. Moreover, any coalition deal agreed among the three parties must also win subsequent confirmation from a vote of 470,000 SPD members in December.
You’ve mastered the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, you’re ready for the showdown over the US government shutdown and the debt ceiling fight, and you’re ready to hit the party circuit this weekend, wit and pith at the ready.
But wait! You’ve forgotten that Germany, the most populous and arguably the most important country in Europe, is going to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government.
You know that her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) holds a wide, double-digit lead over the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).
And you know that, as far as elections go, it’s been a particularly boring one — even by the standards of Germany’s relatively muted consensus-driven politics.
But what else should you know about Sunday’s election?
In an election campaign with few twists and even fewer turns, leave it to a blast from Germany’s past to shake up politics just 12 days before Germans head to the polls.
In a move that seems baffling at first glance, former chancellor Helmut Kohl spent the weekend welcoming Rainer Brüderle, a former economics and technology minister, and Philipp Rösler, the vice minister for economics and vice chancellor, and the leader of the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), to his home — and indicating that he was all but endorsing the FDP in elections later this month.
It’s odd for many reasons, not least of which because Kohl (pictured above, center, with Brüderle left and Rösler right), the longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismark, was the longtime leader of the center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) that chancellor Angela Merkel now leads. Kohl, now age 83, has been out of frontline politics since 1998, when he lost his bid for reelection. Among Kohl’s top accomplishments are vital roles in engineering both the reunification of West and East Germany and the development of the European single currency.
So what is Kohl up to?
There are a handful of reasons why Kohl might be campaigning so openly for the Free Democrats in the last stretch of the campaign, but none are as compelling as the explanation that Kohl is actually doing Merkel and the CDU a huge favor by boosting their coalition partners.
The Free Democrats are the junior partners in Merkel’s governing ‘black-yellow’ coalition, and though Merkel would prefer to continue governing alongside the Free Democrats, their support has dropped so low that it risks missing the 5% threshold necessary to win seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. With the Christian Democrats holding a consistent double-digit lead over the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party), and with voters preferring Merkel with a two-to-one margin over Social Democratic chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, there’s not much risk that the CDU will lose on September 22 — together with its Bavaria sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union).
So if Kohl can bring a few crossover voters from the CDU to support the FDP, he can help guarantee that the Free Democrats make it back into the Bundestag with at least a minimum of seats, therefore facilitating the possibility that Merkel can continue her preferred coalition in a third term without resorting to a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (as she did from 2005 to 2009). Crazy like a fox.
It’s a dangerous game, though, because there is some risk in that strategy. Steinbrück delivered a strong performance in last week’s debate with Merkel and while it hasn’t helped him in the polls so far, the race could tighten in the closing days. Moreover, the newly formed Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), the country’s first eurosceptic party could steal votes from Merkel on the right, and it’s the one party that’s gaining in polls over the past week — it could even hit the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag. But at this point, with less than two weeks to go, a massive change would require a year’s worth of stubborn German public opinion to transform virtually overnight. So it’s a risk that Kohl — and likely even the cautious Merkel — are probably happy to take. Continue reading What is Helmut Kohl thinking by endorsing the FDP in Germany’s elections?→