Since Sunday, the German party system is in turmoil. Obviously because of the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) — although its result of 12.6% did not come totally unexpected; it had been predicted by numerous polls and the AfD has performed strongly on the state level for quite a while.
But there is another development that is without parallel: Both the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), the traditional German center-right and center-left major parties, had to concede an unparalleled loss of trust on Sunday, experiencing historically poor results. Given the overall election results and the SPD’s decision not to enter another “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU, the so-called “Jamaica” coalition of CDU/CSU with the FDP (Liberals) and the Greens currently looks to be the only path to power for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Widespread protest voting
Apparently, the small parties FDP, the Greens, far-left Die Linke and, in particular, the AfD were able to mobilize voters just before the election. According to an exit poll by public broadcaster ARD, the CDU/CSU lost almost one million voters to the AfD, the Social Democrats close to half a million.
The Social Democrats were quick to blame Ms. Merkel’s strategy to avoid confrontation with her contender Martin Schulz for the AfD’s electoral success. A closer look, however, reveals a more complicated picture: Especially in the eastern part of the country, the former socialist German Democratic Republic, the AfD benefitted from widespread protest voting. In the state of Saxony, it even managed to become the strongest party, ahead of the CDU. Across the five eastern states of Germany, the AfD came in a close second behind the Union, ahead of both Die Linke — which has traditionally captured the protest votes in eastern Germany — and the SPD. The Social Democrats might want to ask themselves whether their campaign sent the right message and used the right tonality, given that Martin Schulz’s post-election TV interviews were more energetic and confrontational than any of his appearances during the campaign.
The TV debate between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz might have driven even more voters away from their respective parties. Even though their platforms differ, the debate catered to the prejudice that CDU/CSU and SPD actually prefer governing together because their policies are essentially the same. During the last four weeks of the campaign then, the focus shifted: While there was no real confrontation between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the smaller parties — the AfD, the FDP, Die Linke and the Greens — engaged in a very lively contest over who would come in third.
Rejection of change and uncertainties
Polls show that for a long time the refugee crisis was the most important issue for most voters. In the spring of 2017, the issue became less significant, only to regain importance in the summer. The ARD summarizes the issues that decided the election as follows: “70 percent fear that society will drift apart further, almost two thirds are afraid that there will be a surge in crime and every other voter believes that the influence of Islam in Germany is becoming too strong. More than a third of voters think there are too many strangers coming to Germany, that a loss of German language and culture is lurking and that the way of life in Germany is changing too much.” Of course, it remains unclear how and to what extent these issues are related in the respondents’ minds — but one thing is clear: Over the summer, the refugee crisis and, in particular, its mid- and long-term consequences for Germany became a pressing issue once more.
Yet, despite these deep anxieties about the future, 84 percent of Germans think that both their personal and the country’s economic situation is positive, according to exit polls. Therefore it is not really surprising that the SPD’s campaign with its focus on alleged economic inequalities did not resonate with most voters. The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, were punished for their perceived vague positions on many issues relevant to the voters, including refugees and immigration.
Will pragmatism prevail?
If CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens use their coalition negotiations to develop a unified vision for a new government, then Germany might be able to contain the further growth of right-wing populism for the time being. For decades, after all, German politics have focused on consensus and compromise, owing to the country’s devastating experiences with radical politics in the first half of the 20th century and supported by an intentionally complex political system. Changing parliamentary majorities cannot easily overthrow the status quo, because German federalism imposes a strong set of checks and balances. Not least because of these characteristics, German politics have been a stronghold of stability and pragmatism for a long time.
The most recent data suggest that a majority of Germans values this: According to a fresh ARD poll, 57 percent of Germans are in favor of the likely new “Jamaica” coalition government now that it appears to be the only realistic option; this is more than actually voted for the parties which would constitute it. It thus seems that a majority of German voters have quickly accepted the new situation and a case can be made that the German political system will stay on track — even if there will be some noise and confusion along the way. It is now up to the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens to hold constructive coalition negotiations and come to a solid agreement. The path to that agreement will be rocky, but the alternatives — a minority government or a snap election — look much less desirable.
Author: Anders Mertzlufft, Director Public Affairs