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Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

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Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

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.

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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.

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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.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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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.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

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If there’s anyone the European Union could have sent to Moscow on a quiet trip to de-escalate tensions with Russia in February, it was former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.Germany Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

Schröder served as Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, when he led two consecutive governments led by his center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  As chancellor, Schröder cultivated strong economic ties with Russia, and in 2003, he led Europe’s opposition to he US invasion of Iraq, a cause that also found Schröder in alliance with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, who Schröder once called a ‘flawless democrat.’

But Schröder’s comments about the growing crisis have been far from discreet, greatly angering his successor, Angela Merkel. He has criticized the European Union’s approach to Ukraine, defended Russia’s right to annex Crimea, and validated Putin’s view that the NATO military action during the 1999 Kosovo War (an action Schröder supported in his first term as chancellor):

Mr. Schroeder told a discussion forum hosted by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper that as someone who was aware of history, Mr Putin had certain justifiable “ fears about being encircled” and that since the end of the Cold War there had been “ unhappy developments” on the fringes of what was once the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have “the remotest idea” that the Ukraine was “culturally divided” and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.

Mr. Schroeder accepted that Russia’s intervention was in breach of international law but compared the Kremlin’s action to his own government’s military support for the NATO bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. “We sent our plans to Serbia and together with the rest of NATO they bombed a sovereign state without any UN security council backing,” Mr Schroeder insisted, adding that he had since become cautious in apportioning blame.

That puts his position almost entirely in line with Putin’s — and almost entirely at odds with the German government’s. Needless to say, that has also ruined whatever value Schröder may have had in soothing German and European relations with Russia.  Continue reading Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

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In an overwhelming endorsement of Germany’s new grand coalition, party members of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) have approved the governing agreement between the SPD and chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right union.Germany Flag Icon

Nearly 370,000 German party members approved the agreement by the lopsided margin of 75.96% in a vote that was held over the past two weeks, the results of which were announced earlier today.  The vote followed the November 27 agreement struck among SPD leaders and leaders of Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) and Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the  Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, the Christian Social Union).

So what next?

Expect Merkel to name a new cabinet within the next 24 hours, and expect her formal reelection as chancellor to come early next week.

You can read more background about the coalition deal here and here, but here’s a short list of points to keep in mind: Continue reading SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

Germany reaches coalition deal, faces SPD party vote

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With the holidays coming, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s goal was to have a coalition government in place by Christmas.Germany Flag Icon

Those plans took a huge leap forward today, as Merkel’s governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party), together with their more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, the Christian Social Union) reached a coalition deal with the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), paving the way for a return to the same ‘grand coalition’ that governed Germany between 2005 and 2009.

Generally speaking, the terms of the deal are as follows:

  • A hike in the German minimum wage across the board to €8.50, a key concession from Merkel to the SPD.
  • More regulation over employees and increases in pensions, both concessions to the SPD.
  • The government will not raise any additional taxes or issue additional debt, maintaining a key CDU-CSU campaign pledge.

Sometimes feisty coalition talks lasted nearly a month, and the deal comes over two months after the election. Taken together, it represents a fairly generous deal for the Social Democrats, whose 470,000 party members will now vote in the next two weeks to either accept or reject the coalition deal — the ballot results are due on December 14.

The CDU-CSU hold 311 seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, just five short of an absolute majority in the 630-seat Bundestag, following a tremendous victory for the CDU-CSU in the September 22 federal elections.  Those elections saw the CDU-CSU’s previous coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) wiped out completely from the Bundestag after failing to cross the 5% electoral threshold.  Though the Social Democrats won 192 seats, it still represented their second-worst election result in the postwar period.

Though Merkel and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel will announce further details as to the new government’s policy agenda later today, cabinet ministers won’t be named until after the SPD party membership vote.  But it’s expected that CDU finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble will remain in his position (unlike in the first grand coalition, when the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück held the post).  It’s also expected that Frank-Walter Steinmeier will return as foreign minister, a role he held during the first grand coalition.  Gabriel is expected to become the SPD’s floor leader in the Bundestag or assume a super-charged economy ministry.

So what to expect next?

Merkel’s concessions — especially the €8.50 minimum wage — represent just about as far as the conservative chancellor could go, and it’s likely that Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Horst Seehofer isn’t thrilled with the deal. (Seehofer, fresh off his own landslide victory earlier in September, is unlikely to leave his perch as Bavaria’s chief executive to take a job in Merkel’s cabinet.)

In particular, the minimum wage increase makes it much more likely that the Social Democratic rank-and-file consent to the government.  If the party vote fails, it’s hard to see how there’s any appetite for a grand coalition, though I would expect Merkel and the SPD to take one last go before Germany moves to new elections — both because Merkel is anxious to get on with European governance matters and because the SPD still trails the CDU-CSU by a wide margin in polls, so Merkel could conceivably win an absolute majority if snap elections are held early next year.  A Bild poll last week showed SPD voters only narrowly in favor of a deal by a vote of 49% to 44%, though at that point, Merkel was still resisting the SPD’s push for hiking the minimum wage.

If the deal is approved, however, don’t expect the grand coalition to work as smoothly as the first coalition.   Continue reading Germany reaches coalition deal, faces SPD party vote

Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

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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.Germany Flag Icon

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.

So what’s holding up the deal?  Continue reading Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

German election results — federal Bundestag and Hesse state results (in five charts)

Election officials released provisional results overnight in both the federal Germany election to determine the makeup of the lower house of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, and the Hessian state elections.Germany Flag Iconhesse flag

Here’s where things stand in the total national ‘party vote’:

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As predicted by exit polls earlier Sunday, neither the new eurosceptic party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) nor the longtime liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) won more than 5% of the vote — meaning that they have not won any seats in the Bundestag.

The final total won by chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — together with the Bavarian Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union) — comes to 41.5%.  That’s exactly the same percentage that the CDU/CSU and chancellor Helmut Kohl won in the 1994 German elections, and it’s just 2.3% less than Kohl’s total in the 1990 elections, which came in the aftermath of the largely successful reunification of West Germany with East Germany.  It’s an absolutely huge win for Merkel — but we already knew that as polls closed Sunday.

Here’s a look at how Sunday’s election result compared to the previous elections in September 2009:

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There are no absolutely clear winners except the CDU/CSU, which improved on its 2009 totals by a staggering 7.8% — including a nearly 1% improvement by the CSU (which is pretty incredible, given that the CSU seeks votes solely in Bavaria, home to just 12.5 million of Germany’s 80 million residents).

The FDP obviously had a disastrous result — the party’s worst result in Germany’s postwar history, which comes after its postwar high of 14.6% just four years ago.  Both leading FDP figure and economics and technology minister Rainer Brüderle, party leader and vice chancellor Philipp Rösler and former party leader (until 2011) and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle are all likely to step aside from their top leadership positions.

The center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) improved slightly on its 2009 result, which was a postwar low for the party under chancellor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served as foreign minister in the 2005-09 CDU/SPD ‘grand coalition’ government.  But the SPD’s performance under its 2013 candidate Peer Steinbrück, who served as Merkel’s grand coalition finance minister, was its second-worst result in postwar German history.

Die Grünen (the Greens) also suffered a retreat from its 2009 totals and especially from polls in 2011 that showed them winning between 20% and 25% of the vote.  The poor result follows an unfocused campaign with at least four different leaders.  The Green platform swung from promoting ‘Veggie Day’ to advocating tax increases, despite the fact that its electorate is becoming more moderate, less radical, older and wealthier.

Die Linke (the Left) appears to have retained its traditional strength as the second-most popular party in the eastern states (second to Merkel’s CDU), but it has also lost support since 2009.  Though its leaders were crowing that it will be the third-largest party in the Bundestag for the first time since reunification, the CDU appears to have made significant inroads into the Left’s eastern heartland.

Though the AfD had a superb performance, it obviously fell 0.3% short of entering the Bundestag and, while it will work hard to retain relevance in next spring’s European elections, it’s difficult to tell if it can retain and grow its strength between now and 2017.

Here’s the breakdown of the seats in the Bundestag — due to so-called ‘overhang seats’ resulting from the way in which additional seats are allocated to bring seat totals in line with the ‘party vote,’ there are 630 seats:

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With 311 seats, Merkel is five seats short of an absolute majority.  Without the option of her previous coalition partner, the FDP, it means that she has three options: Continue reading German election results — federal Bundestag and Hesse state results (in five charts)

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:

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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

How Peer Steinbrück became the Bob Dole of German politics

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Peer Steinbrück is not going to be Germany’s next chancellor.Germany Flag Icon

Steinbrück’s standing in opinion polls has worsened since it became clear he would become the chancellor candidate of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party) — the more that Germans get to know Steinbrück (pictured above), the more they dislike him, no matter how many Bavarian mountains he climbs between now and September 22.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that chancellor Angela Merkel is assured of reelection, because while her own Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union), together with the Bavarian Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union), leads the SPD in polls, it’s uncertain whether its smaller coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democrats), will win enough support to meet the 5% threshold to win seats in the Bundestag, the German parliament, though the FDP has ticked ever so slightly upwards in polls in the past couple of months.

Polls have been consistently remarkable since before 2013 began, and they make for grim reading if you’re an SPD supporter.  Here’s the state of things with about six weeks to go until voting:

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That wouldn’t just mean a loss, it would mean a Bob Dole-style loss —  think back to the 1996 presidential election when Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton, who seemed so vulnerable after the 1994 midterm elections brought a Republican sweep of Congress, sailed to reelection against Dole.  Clinton aides disparagingly joked after the fact that it was like virtually running for reelection unopposed.  Dole won just 40.7% of the popular vote to 49.2% for Clinton — a landslide the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the United States since.

To put into perspective the kind of loss that Steinbrück and the SPD is facing, it’s important to remember what happened in the previous 2009 election, which at the time was the SPD’s worst postwar election result.  Under Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had served as foreign minister and deputy chancellor in the Merkel-led ‘grand coalition,’ the SPD won just 146 seats in the Bundestag (a drop of 76 seats) with just 23% of the party vote and 28% of the constituency vote.  (Half of the 598 Bundestag seats are determined in first-past-the-post single-member constituencies, the other half are determined on the basis of proportional representation on the basis of statewide party lists).

But if Steinmeier’s 2009 performance was a tragedy, Steinbrück’s 2013 performance is turning out to be a farce.  It’s amazing to believe that Steinbrück is in danger of leading the SPD to an even poorer result that Steinmeier’s in 2009, especially with the Greens set to improve on their 2009 performance.  Continue reading How Peer Steinbrück became the Bob Dole of German politics

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.

Steinbrück set to challenge Merkel as SPD candidate for chancellor

In a month when most eyes have been on Germany’s current finance minister, all eyes are now on Germany’s former finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, who is now set to become the main challenger to German chancellor Angela Merkel in federal elections expected later in 2013.

In a bit of a surprise, Steinbrück was named as the candidate of the main opposition party, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) on Friday after the other main contender, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, indicated that he didn’t want to run.

Among the trio of Steinmeier, Steinbrück and party leader Sigmar Gabriel, Steinbrück has always been the clear favorite.

But perhaps the most jarring element of Friday’s announcement was that SPD party leaders simply announced the news — in Germany, there are no primaries and no leadership contest as such to determine who will be the candidate for chancellor (essentially, think of the German chancellor much like a very strong prime minister rather than a president). Gabriel is highly unpopular among voters and Steinmeier previously led the SPD against Merkel and her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — to disastrous result.

In the previous September 2009 general election, Steinmeier won just 23% for the SDP and lost 76 seats (for a total of just 146).  The party thereupon fell out of the CDU-SDP “grand coalition” that had governed Germany since 2005.  The CDU, which won 34% and 239 seats, was able to form a more rightist coalition with its preferred partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), which won 15% and 93 seats. Steinmeier had previously served in the “grand coalition” as foreign minister.

The next federal election in Germany is expected to be held in September or October 2013.

Steinbrück, however, remains a less than ideal candidate — he served as Merkel’s finance minister from 2005 to 2009, so it’s going to be difficult for Steinbrück to draw as clear a contrast on economic policy as might otherwise be the case, even with signs that Germany, the last beacon of economic strength throughout the eurozone, is now also likely headed into recession.  As finance minister, Steinbrück famously (demonstrating his, ahem, willful side) derided Keynesian economics and criticized the stimulative approach of the UK’s government under Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, but he is well regarded, alongside Merkel, for steering Germany reasonably well through the 2008-09 financial panic. (Note: Paul Krugman will be happy).

On Europe, too, the German electorate seems receptive to a populist challenge to Merkel’s performance on European affairs — Germans are incredibly weary of four years of what they see as German bailouts of profligate governments from Portugal to Greece.  Nonetheless, the SPD is actually more pro-Europe than the CDU — and especially more pro-Europe than the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, Christian Social Union).  In Bavaria, the CSU-led government’s finance minister Markus Söder has all but called for Greece to be booted out of the eurozone.

In any event, German voters seem fairly well disposed to giving credit to Merkel for walking a tight line between letting the eurozone crumble, on the one hand, and holding governments in Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Greece to very tight austerity plans in exchange for European monetary and fiscal support, on the other hand.

The latest polls show the CDU-CSU with a very healthy lead of around 38% to just barely 30% for the SDP — since 2010 and 2011, the gap has only grown wider in favor of the CDU-CSU.  The FDP, however, looks set to collapse, picking up just 4%, though the SDP’s preferred coalition partners, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Greens) poll a very strong 13%.  The newly-formed Piratenpartei Deutschland (Pirate Party) and the more leftist Die Linke (The Left Party) poll 6% each.  Given Steinbrück’s centrist characteristics, I would not be surprised to see the current soft support for the Pirate Party migrate to the Left Party or to the Greens — there will be a lot of room on the left in a Merkel-Steinbrück race to win support, both on Europe and on economic policy, especially if Germany’s economy continues in a downward trajectory.  Given the Left Party’s strong base of support in the former East Germany, there’s a real opportunity for the Left to break out.

The ideal candidate for the SPD may well have been the premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, who led the SPD to a huge victory in elections in May of this year.  A premier with charisma, who has championed a more activist state response to boost economic growth, and who could well have been Germany’s second woman as chancellor, Kraft indicated earlier this year that she was not interested in running for chancellor.