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Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Christian Democrat, won a second term as minister-president in Saarland on March 26. (Facebook)

No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.

In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.

Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.

Don’t believe the hype.

It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.

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RELATED: As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives
Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke  ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.

Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.

In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.

Continue reading Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Your weekend cocktail-party glossary for the German election

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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.Germany Flag Icon

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 Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor for the past eight years, is likely to return for a third term chancellor, even though it’s less clear which governing parties will join her in coalition.

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?

Not to worry.  Here’s all the lingo you need to sound (and be) in the know about what’s likely to happen this weekend in Germany — and what might happen in its aftermath. Continue reading Your weekend cocktail-party glossary for the German election

Assessing the potential coalitions that might emerge after Germany’s federal elections

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With now less than 40 days to go until Germany’s federal elections, polls show that chancellor Angela Merkel is by far the most popular candidate to return as chancellor and her party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), will clearly be the largest bloc in Germany’s Bundestag after the election. Germany Flag Icon

Polls have been remarkably consistent throughout much of the year leading up to the September 22 vote.  The center-right CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union), overwhelmingly leads Germany’s largest center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party), and voters overwhelmingly prefer Merkel to the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück — by a nearly two-to-one margin.  Here’s the trendline from Infratest dimap, which released its latest poll this week:

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This week’s news that Germany leads GDP growth in the eurozone, which itself pulled out of recession in the second quarter of 2013, will only buoy Merkel’s chances.  Barring a huge shift in public opinion that has only calcified over the past year, Steinbrück, a bland technocrat who comes from the right wing of the SPD and who served as finance minister in the ‘grand coalition’ government of 2005 to 2009, will lead the SPD to a loss of nearly historic proportions.  But while that means Merkel is very likely to return as chancellor, the composition of Merkel’s third government is less certain.

That’s because support for Merkel’s current coalition partners, the free-market liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), has collapsed since the previous September 2009 election, when it won 14.6% of the vote and 93 seats in the Bundestag, a record-high electoral performance for the party.  But since 2009, the FDP has struggled to maintain a presence in local Germany elections, losing support in state after state.  Its decade-long leader Guido Westerwelle, the first openly gay party leader in German history, stepped down in April 2011 as party leader and vice chancellor (though he remains foreign minister) after the FDP won barely 5% in the state elections of Baden-Württemberg.  His successor as FDP leader is the Vietnamese-born Phillip Rösler (pictured above), who began his career in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and who had served previously as health minister in the CDU/FDP coalition government from 2009 to 2011.

Although Rösler has not lifted the FDP back up to its 2009-level heights, he has managed to staunch the party’s decline.  In the May 2012 elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, the FDP managed to win 8.6% of the vote, an increase of nearly 2% from the previous election, though that’s largely due to the popularity of Christian Lindner, who led the FDP’s 2012 campaign.  More recently, though, in Lower Saxony’s state election in January 2013, the FDP won 9.9% of the vote, a gain of 1.7%.

It’s also because Germany’s electoral system is notoriously complex.  Germans will actually cast two votes in September — the first is for a candidate to represent one of 299 electoral districts in Germany, the second is for a German political party.  The second ‘party vote’ is meant to determine the party’s ultimate total share of seats in the Bundestag, and so a party will receive additional seats on the basis of the party vote sufficient to provide that its percentage of seats in the Bundestag is roughly equal to the percentage of votes it received pursuant to the party vote (so long as the party receives at least 5% of party vote support).  That means that the number of seats in the Bundestag changes from election to election — although it must have a minimum of 598 seats, it has had as few as 603 and as many as 672 since German reunification.

The FDP has struggled all year long to achieve merely 5% support in opinion polls and, while it’s doing better in polls than it was at the beginning of the year, there’s no guarantee that it will meet that threshold:

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That means that, more than anything else, the composition of Germany’s next government turns on the FDP’s performance.  If it wins less than 5%, Merkel will not have the option of continuing a coalition with the FDP.  Moreover, even if the FDP wins more than 5%, it may still not win enough seats to cobble together a CDU/FDP majority in the 598-member Bundestag.

Furthermore, polls show that while German voters overwhelmingly prefer Merkel as chancellor, they actually favor a return to the CDU/SPD grand coalition, more than the current CDU-led government or a potential SPD-led government:

preferredcoalitions

Two additional coalitions — a CDU/Green government and a united left coalition among the SPD, Green and Die Linke (the Left Party) — also win significant support.

But what are the chances that any of these five coalitions will actually emerge after September 22?  Here’s a look at each potential coalition and the chances that it could form Germany’s next government.

CDUpreferredcoalitionThe current government: CDU/FDP.

Merkel prefers to continue her current coalition over any alternative because her political agenda matches well with the FDP’s political agenda.  Any negotiations between Merkel and the SPD or the Greens would entail huge concessions from Merkel that she would not otherwise have to make in coalition with the FDP.  But, as noted above (and as represented in the graph to the right, on the basis of current polls), it’s unclear if that coalition can win a majority.

Under Rösler’s leadership, the FDP is running on a campaign of lower taxes and liberalizing Germany’s economy, which is standard Free Democratic fare, and both the FDP and Merkel’s CDU oppose new tax increases.  Their largest policy difference might be same-sex marriage — the FDP supports it and the CDU (and especially the Catholic-influenced CSU) oppose it, although the FDP has taken a much stronger stand on privacy rights than Merkel’s CDU.

Even if they win enough seats to form a majority, no one expects the margin to be larger than the government’s current 21-seat margin.  So even a single-digit majority could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if Merkel finds herself forced to look outside her own government to enact her legislative agenda on an ad hoc basis, especially with respect to European Union matters, given the sometimes eurosceptic nature of many CSU deputies.  That’s hardly a recipe for stable government.

Polls in August show that together, the current government will win between 44% and 47% of the vote if the election were held today.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t give us much of an idea about whether they’ll have enough support in the Bundestag to form a majority.  Since reunification, Germany has held only six federal elections — they’ve resulted in three CDU-led governments, two SPD-led governments and a single CDU-SPD grand coalition. Continue reading Assessing the potential coalitions that might emerge after Germany’s federal elections

Much Ado about Nothing? The non-politics of privacy in Germany

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Guest post by Mark Dawson and Jacob Krumrey

With German chancellors Angela Merkel’s personal approval rating at 62% and her CDU/CSU leading over the opposition SPD by around 15%, the result of Germany’s upcoming general election seems to be all but a foregone conclusion.  In the midst of a flaccid campaign, the U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has now not only revealed that Germany is one of the principal targets of the NSA’s internet surveillance operations (‘Prism’) but also accused the German intelligence services, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), of collusion with the NSA – of being ‘in bed’ together.  These revelations could potentially stir up an otherwise all too quiet campaign.Germany Flag Icon

The opposition SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Social Democratic Party) are sensing an opportunity to attack Merkel’s integrity and competence, her main assets in the campaign.  In a thundering editorial in Germany’s leading tabloid newspaper, Bild, last week, their parliamentary leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, demanded answers on the steps Merkel had taken to protect German interests.  The chancellor now seems to be facing a dilemma: either she was aware of the extent of data-sharing between the NSA and BND, and therefore lays accused of obfuscation, or was not aware at all – and therefore less competent than her public image suggests.  At the very least, the opposition hope to cast Merkel as an unprincipled populist: cozying up to the United States when spying on internet users in Germany and sharing intelligence beneficial to German security, while chastising the very same practice when it is found to be in breach of civil rights.

Merkel’s CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, Christian Democratic Party) / CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern, the Bavarian Christian Social Union) government, meanwhile, are trying to counter the allegations by adopting an assertive posture: Interior Minister Friedrich has travelled to Washington, D.C., to demand answers from the US government.  Merkel herself, in a packed press conference on Friday, insisted that, in Germany, German law has to apply unconditionally.  At the same time, however, Merkel was forced into delaying tactics.  The German weekly Der Spiegel had just published fresh allegations about the extent of collusion between German and American authorities: she would answer questions but only after having received further information from the Americans.

It is too early to gauge definitively the impact of these allegations on the election campaign.  So far, however, the SPD have not been able to turn the tide in their favour. The latest ZDF opinion polls show that even though the CDU/CSU have suffered small losses, the SPD remain at a dismal 29%.   Only the FDP, traditionally strong on civil rights, have gained: perhaps even enough to clear the five-per cent threshold necessary to allow them to stay in parliament. Ironically, the ‘spy scandal’ – through a reinvigorated FDP – could re-open the prospect of the current CDU/FDP coalition staying in power.

What could explain this paradox?  To begin with, the SPD face a credibility problem of their own.  As the government have been quick to point out, cooperation between U.S. and German authorities on intelligence is long-standing.  Steinmeier himself was responsible for Germany’s intelligence services during the previous ‘grand coalition’ government, during which many of the programmes now being investigated were launched.  When it comes to privacy, moreover, German votes usually credit niche parties such as Die Grünen (The Greens) or the libertarian FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei, Free Democratic Party).  More important perhaps, German voters show little appetite for a polarized campaign in the first place.  Asked in a recent ZDF poll about their desired coalition, a majority of Germans said they would like to see a grand coalition of the two main contenders.

Beyond campaign politics, the larger question is about the attitude of Germans towards privacy – supposedly the source of a transatlantic conflict of values. The same ZDF poll suggested that a vast majority of Germans find the charges of collusion credible: 79% believe that Merkel’s government were aware of the NSA’s activities in Germany.  At the same time, in a different poll, only 5% argued that the issue would have a significant impact on their voting intentions. The party with the strongest stance on data protection, Die Piraten (the Pirate Party), has struggled to even register in current polling in spite of the prominence of privacy on the campaign trail. The lesson may well be that German voters care about privacy in theory but are, in practice, unwilling to make it a make-or-break issue.

Mark Dawson is a professor of European law and governance at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and Jacob Krumrey is a graduate of the European University Institute. 

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A version of this piece was published at the Hertie School’s blog on Germany’s upcoming September 22 elections.

Read more of Suffragio‘s coverage on Germany here.

What Iceland’s election tells us about post-crisis European politics

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Iceland was supposed to be different.Iceland Flag IconEuropean_Union

In allowing its banks to fail, neo-Keynesian economists have argued, Iceland avoided the fate of Ireland, which nationalized its banks and now faces a future with a very large public debt.  By devaluing its currency, the krónur, Iceland avoided the fate of countries like Estonia and others in southern Europe trapped in the eurozone and a one-size-fits all monetary policy, allowing for a rapid return to economic growth and rapidly falling unemployment.  Neoclassical economists counter that Iceland’s currency controls mean that it’s still essentially shut out from foreign investment, and the accompanying inflation has eroded many of the gains of Iceland’s return to GDP growth and, besides, Iceland’s households are still struggling under mortgage and other debt instruments that are linked to inflation or denominated in foreign currencies.

But Iceland’s weekend parliamentary election shows that both schools of economic thought are right.

Elections are rarely won on the slogan, ‘it could have been worse.’ Just ask U.S. president Barack Obama, whose efforts to implement $800 billion in stimulus programs in his first term in office went barely mentioned in his 2012 reelection campaign.

Iceland, as it turns out, is hardly so different at all — and it’s now virtually a case study in an electoral pattern that’s become increasingly pronounced in Europe that began when the 2008 global financial crisis took hold, through the 2010 sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and through the current European-wide recession that’s seen unemployment rise to the sharpest levels in decades.

Call it the European three-step.

In the first step, a center-right government, like the one led by Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party) in Iceland in 2008, took the blame for the initial crisis.

In the second step, a center-left government, like the one led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and the Samfylkingin (Social Democratic Alliance) in Iceland, replaced it, only to find that it would be forced to implement harsh austerity measures, including budget cuts, tax increases and, in Iceland’s case, even more extreme measures, such as currency controls and inflation-inducing devaluations.  That leads to further voter disenchantment, now with the center-left.

The third step is the return of the initial center-right party (or parties) to power, as the Independence Party and their traditional allies, the Framsóknarflokkurinn (Progressive Party) will do following Iceland’s latest election, at the expense of the more newly discredited center-left.  In addition, with both the mainstream center-left and center-right now associated with economic pain, there’s increasing support for new parties, some of them merely protest vehicles and others sometimes more radical, on both the left and the right.  In Iceland, that means that two new parties, Björt framtíð (Bright Future) and the Píratar (Pirate Party of Iceland) will now hold one-seventh of the seats in Iceland’s Alþingi.

This is essentially what happened last year in Greece, too.  Greece Flag IconIn the first step, Kostas Karamanlis and the center-right New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) initially took the blame for the initial financial crisis.  In the second step, George Papandreou and the center-left PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα) overwhelming won the October 2009 elections, only to find itself forced to accept a bailout deal with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  In the third step, after two grueling rounds of election, Antonis Samaras and New Democracy returned to power in June 2012.

By that time, however, PASOK was so compromised that it was essentially forced into a minor subsidiary role supporting Samaras’s center-right, pro-bailout government.  A more radical leftist force, SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), led by the young, charismatic Alexis Tsipras, now vies for the lead routinely in polls, and on the far right, the noxious neo-nazi Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή) now attracts a small, but significant enough portion of the Greek electorate to put it in third place.

The process seems well under way in other countries, too.  In France, for examFrance Flag Iconple, center-right president Nicolas Sarkozy lost reelection in May 2012 amid great hopes for the incoming Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) administration of François Hollande, but his popularity is sinking to ever lower levels as France trudges through its own austerity, and polls show Sarkozy would now lead Hollande if another presidential election were held today.

It’s not just right-left-right, though. The European three-step comes in a different flavor, too: left-right-left, and you can spot the trend in country after country across Europe — richer and poorer, western and eastern, northern and southern. Continue reading What Iceland’s election tells us about post-crisis European politics