By Sophie Karow (University of Düsseldorf)
Germany just voted for a new national parliament. The election results are regarded as historical. After 4 years of a grand coalition, the Conservatives (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), the two largest parties in Germany, face dramatic losses. The smaller parties are considered as winners of this election, especially the re-entering Free Democrats (FDP) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) which enters the national parliament for the first time. The decisive topic of the election was migration, more precisely refugee policies in the aftermath of refugees arriving in 2015 onwards, and domestic security. The union of CDU/CSU as the strongest party now faces difficult coalition negotiations, especially because the SPD already announced to go into opposition. A so-called Jamaica coalition, consisting of Conservatives (colour black in Germany), Liberals (yellow) and Greens, is considered as the only remaining vaible but also problematic option in the current situation.
The perceived starting point of the election campaign was in January 2017 when the SPD surprisingly announced MEP and president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz as chancellor candidate. This decision was initiated by Schulz’s predecessor as party chair, Sigmar Gabriel. Opinion polls at the time showed land sliding success for him in the beginning, the so called “Schulz effect”. This was a first damper for chancellor Angela Merkel. However, numbers for Schulz fell again during spring, especially when the SPD was not able to win in any of the three state level elections (Saarland in March, Schleswig-Holstein in May and first and foremost the traditional social democratic stronghold North Rhine-Westphalia, also in May). Furthermore, those state elections mainly showed success for the conservative CDU and the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was able to enter those parliaments; the liberal FDP gained strength after their devastating drop-out on the national level in 2013, while the Greens and the Left dealt with mixed results.
In summary, opinion polls over the last few months predicted around 36% for CDU/CSU, presented changing numbers plus minus 25% for the SPD, and a neck-and-neck race for the 4 smaller parties, all between 7 and 12%. Opinion polls, regardless the method, mostly failed to predict the magnitude of the loss of the CDU/CSU. Furthermore, AfD scored higher as predicted, as well as, to a smaller extend, the Green party.
In their campaign, CDU, supported by the CSU, focused on Angela Merkel, economic stability and prosperity as well as inner security issues. SPD concentrated on Martin Schulz and social justice. With those strategies, both parties tried to convince potential protest and AfD swing voters that their issues are covered by the parties of the grand coalition. In the media perception, Martin Schulz was presented with a European profile, slightly unfit for the current political environment. Angela Merkel was presented as the long-standing stoical states women. The two of them met in one TV duel which showed once more that there is a great overlap between their two party programs. It was called rather a duet than a real debate. All in all, the grand coalition was to some extend a successful coalition but rather noiseless and loveless. Policy-wise especially the SPD was never able to sell their successes e.g. core issues as a higher minimum wage. Regardless all efforts of differentiation by the SPD, especially with an electoral leader from “outside”, namely the European level, this perception stuck in the general public perception.
Smaller parties chose different campaigning strategies: The one opposition party, the Left, again covered social equality and opposed the SPD and their governmental agenda regarding this issue. The other opposition party, the Green party, led by a dual electoral leadership elected by a party membership ballot, emphasized their core values, especially environmental and social issues. The FDP focused on its party leader Christian Lindner in a highly personalized and professional campaign and presented itself as an economic expert and keeper of liberalism. The AfD struggled with internal and personal confrontations throughout the whole time but scored mostly with anti-immigrant and nationalistic rhetoric and fear of social decline.
All campaigns where rather typical. Aside from the classical street campaign and the extensive use of online campaigning, in particular social media, most parties used canvassing to reach their potential electorate. Especially an app called “Connect17” used by the CDU showed how big data, mainly local, federal and national election results combined with social demographic numbers, can support targeted campaigning.
Winners and Losers
The CDU and CSU together gained 33.0%. This is a dramatic loss of 8.6 percentage points compared to 2013 and the worst result of the two parties since 1949. In the 2013 election, after governing for 8 years already, they were near the absolute majority in parliament with 309 of 630 seats.
Despite the results, Angela Merkel will stay chancellor and her party reads the result as achieving their strategic goals and an assignment to govern. However, it is not only the loss of her party, it is also her personal loss. This will be her last four years as chancellor. Since 2000 she is also the party leader of the CDU. The next scheduled election for this position is due in 2018. If she is not competing anymore, this would be the first official step towards her retirement. The overall question is, who will follow her. So far, no obvious candidate was established in public. With several conservative Ministerpräsidenten (prime ministers on federal state/Bundesländer levels) there are people in the background who will have to proof how successful they can be over the next years. On election evening, critical voices kept quiet.
Even though the CDU and CSU have an everlasting bond, it is important to look at the CSU separately. The two parties should not been treated as a unitary actor. In the grand coalition, the CSU often acted as an intra-government opposition (also regarding Merkel) especially with more conservative or rather right-wing positions. This strategy failed. The CSU, only competing in Bavaria, a stronghold of conservatism, lost more than 10 percentage points, facing now a result of 38.8%. The different election results of the two parties will influence their dynamics especially when negotiating over a coalition agreement.
The SPD is again on the losing side. With 20.5% they reached an all-time low losing 5.4 percentage points compared to 2013. Their electoral and party leader Martin Schulz was not able to use his “outside” position to attract voters. He immediately announced that the SPD is not willing to be part of another grand coalition. His personal career is also unsure. He already suggested former Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles as leader of the parliamentary party but also stated that he will not step down as party leader, the position he only took over in March 2017 (elected with 100%). The SPD also stated, that it is of high importance for them and the country to lead the opposition as largest party, a role that would otherwise fall on the AfD, if the grand coalition would continue.
In 2013, the then only a few months old party AfD failed the 5%-threshold by inches: it received 4.7%. Now, 4 years later, it is the 3rd largest party in the Bundestag with 12.9% and most successful winner of the election. They received 94 seats. Those new parliamentarians are described as ranging from national conservatives to right-wing radicals. This is also due to the fact that over the last years the party’s main focus shifted from an anti-Euro to an anti-immigrant course. Personnel quarrels accompanied this process. Former party founder Bernd Lucke left the party in 2015, marking a final change of the party’s positioning. However, one of his successors, Frauke Petry, struggled to maintain support as well. Her party did not support her more moderate course. As a consequence, she did not compete as electoral leader and estranged from her party. With winning her electoral district, one of three won by the AfD in Saxony, she finalized this estrangement one day after the election, announcing that she will not be part of the parliamentary group but act as independent seat holder. Based on observations of the AfD parliamentary groups on state level, e.g. in Baden-Wuerttemberg, it is suspected that other AfD seat holders will follow her over time. Overall results show a clear division between Eastern and Western Germany, with astonishing high results for the AfD in Eastern Germany. This is considered as very worrying by all other parties.
The liberal FDP is the second biggest winner of the election. After being a coalition partner from 2009 to 2013 and then dropping out of the Bundestag for the first time in the party’s history, it now re-entered with a plus of 6 percentage points, therefore 10.7%. They communicate this mainly as a lesson learned but also the need for liberal positions. Re-entering means that they have to build up a new infrastructure within parliament. One reason more why they are not head over heels to be part of a coalition.
The left party DIE LINKE gained 9.2%, 0.6 percentage points more than 2013. They see their role in opposition alongside the SPD. The party struggles with the political shift and losses to the AfD in Eastern Germany, where they have their roots and former stronghold. However, the result was still communicated as a success.
With 8.9%, a plus of 0.5 percentage points, the green party Bündnis90/DIE GRÜNEN is stronger than expected but still the smallest party in parliament. Partly surprised by this not expected success the party now has to face the option of being part of the government. With two electoral leaders from the more moderate wing, Katrin Göring-Eckard and Cem Özdemir, their leadership is prepared and open for negotiations. However, the party programme also has clear left-wing positions which were deliberately included.
Play of colours – Which coalition will govern?
One of the most important questions during the election campaign was that after a realistic coalition options, also in the face of the rise of the AfD. None of the competing parties offered an answer for this, already anticipating that results may be difficult. However, cooperating with the AfD was not considered as an option by any party. With the results and the refusal of the SPD to continue the grand coalition, there is one most likely scenario left: Jamaica – a coalition of CDU, Liberals and the Green Party. This is an inconvenient option for all parties involved for several reasons: First and foremost, the parties are no natural allies. On a national level, this would be the first time of a coalition with one bigger party, if we count CDU and CSU together, and 2 more or less same sized, smaller parties. As mentioned earlier, the CDU/CSU partnership results basically in a forth actor having its stakes on the table. On the state level, there is also not a lot experience with this kind of partnership. In the small state Saarland the coalition even failed. The only other state trail of this coalition is in Schleswig-Holstein and only in government since a few months. Furthermore, from the FDPs perspective, it would be better to start their re-entry into parliament in opposition to establish political positions and personnel. However, the biggest conflict to overcome is between CSU and Greens. The main issues here will be limited immigration, which the CSU wants, domestic security, and the future of fossil fuels. To make things more complicated, these are topics which were not emphasized by the Liberals, which focus on education, digitalisation and a strong middle class. In the end, it will be up to the CDU to offer compromises. Greens as well as Liberals both announced to have a party membership ballot in case there will be a coalition agreement. Angela Merkel already said that her aim is to have a working government by Christmas. Therefore, first talks will follow shortly.
Why all parties face this more or less as a matter of fact is not only because the grand coalition was clearly penalized by the voters. Another reason is that it is comparatively difficult to initiate new elections. The parliament would have to fail several times to have an absolute majority of parliamentarians voting in favour for the chancellor, a vote which is therefore based on a coalition. Looking at the difficult voting results, it is very unlikely that most of the parties would risk such a move.
Characteristics of the electoral system and turnout
Two short notes to understand some pitfalls and background facts:
First, due to the electoral system (Überhangmandate) the 19. Bundestag will have 709 seats compared to 630 in the last electoral cycle. This is mainly caused by the result of the CSU which was able to win all 46 Bavarian electoral districts but only gained 38.8% in Bavaria. Those two numbers need to match up on federal state level in order to guarantee proportional representation on a national level. The result is a bigger parliament, in fact, the biggest in the German Bundestag history.
Second, the voter turnout was 76.2% of all eligible voters. This is much better than 2013 (71.5%) and 2009 (70.8%) and therefore perceived as positive trend. However, it is still the 3rd lowest in the German post-war history. Postal voting is getting more and more popular. In 2013 every fourth voter voted this way. Numbers are expected to be even higher this time. This changes the timeframe of the election campaign because with that voting starts (much) earlier than on election day itself.
Notes: Detailed opinion polls (over time) can be found here. For detailed election results please see here.
Photo source: http://www.dw.com/en/german-election-results-disappointing-victory-for-angela-merkel-as-cdu-sinks-nationalist-afd-surges/a-40666430