German elections: Angela Merkel coasts to victoryBy Patricia Hogwood on 2 October 2013
In Germany’s federal election of 22 September 2013 Angela Merkel’s christian democratic CDU/CSU secured 41.5 per cent of the vote, a gain of almost eight percentage points over the last election in 2009. With the main opposition party, the social democratic SPD, trailing at 25.7per cent, Merkel is set to enter her third term in office as Chancellor (prime minister) of Germany.
Merkel was accused of running a deliberate campaign of ‘asymmetric demobilisation’, a strategy attributed in Germany to the CDU General Secretary Ronald Pofalla. The idea is that an incumbent party runs a campaign wherever possible avoiding contentious issues (the NSA scandal, intervention in Syria); capturing many of their opponents’ key issues (childcare, rent controls, citizen engagement, the Eurozone crisis); and so dull that stupefied voters for the opposition parties can’t be bothered to go out and vote. The ‘asymmetry’ relates to the predicted outcomes on voter mobilisation . The potential voters for the opposition see no incentive from the contending parties to go out and vote, whereas supporters of the incumbent party vote to keep their party in power. Certainly, the election campaign was both dull and undifferentiated. Certainly, the CDU/CSU moved in on the issues with which the SPD tried to set itself apart. However, there was no evidence of demobilisation in this election: early indications suggest that voting turnout increased over the previous election in 2009. Moreover, the CDU’s strategy may not have been quite as cynical as the asymmetric demobilisation theory suggests.
The truth behind the dull campaign is more likely to rest on the uncertainty over potential coalition partners for Germany’s new government, which made it difficult for either of the main parties to specify their policies too closely before the election results were known. Even with the boost given to larger parties by Germany’s additional member electoral system, it is now clear that Merkel will need a coalition partner to govern. For the first time since its formation in 1948, the CDU/CSU’s customary partner, the liberal FDP, failed to reach the five per cent threshold needed for a share of the party votes. With this it has been knocked out of parliament. In the past, the CDU/CSU has shored up the FDP’s position in times of need by calling for its own supporters to donate their second vote – the party vote – to the FDP, to lift their coalition partners over the threshold and into parliament. However, this strategy dates back to when the party landscape was fairly straightforward: made up of a centre-left and a centre-right party and the ‘half-party’ FDP, traditionally the ‘kingmaker’ in forging a government coalition. In the current party system, where also the Greens, Left party and the new party Alternative for Germany (AfD) looked like serious contenders to enter parliament, the CDU could not afford to be so generous, and let their traditional partners fall.
With 8.5 per cent, the Left Party, a merger of the former East German post-communist party and a breakaway group of the SPD, came in third, with the Greens just behind on 8.4 per cent. Either of these parties could deliver the needed majority, but a CDU/CSU – Left Party coalition would be ruled out on ideological and policy grounds. A few years ago, the same could have been said for a CDU/CSU – Green coalition. The Green party leadership thinks of itself as a radical and left-leaning force and would doubtless have preferred an alliance with the SPD. However, a CDU/CSU-Green coalition does have a precedent at the regional level. Also, some 45 per cent of Green voters polled claimed they would prefer Merkel to Peer Steinbrück, the leading candidate of the SPD, as Chancellor. Given that the majority of Green voters are closer in social profile to voters of the centre right than the centre-left, this is perhaps less surprising than it appears at first sight. However, the most likely outcome of the coalition negotiations is a ‘grand coalition’ between the CDU/CSU and SPD. The last grand coalition (2005-9) was an unhappy experience for the SPD and Steinbrück, then Finance Minister, in particular. He has already ruled himself out of a future government under Merkel. Also, in terms of their vote share, the SPD is in a much weaker position now. Although the party’s post-election posturing suggests it will demand a high price for its cooperation in parliament, the reality is that the SPD may find it difficult to assert itself over its policy preferences.
A further factor behind the undifferentiated nature of the campaign is that for German voters, the overriding concern for this election has been a marked social polarisation in the country. Some 60% of people polled during the election campaign noted that their vote would hinge on social policy. CDU and SPD alike sought to address this issue: the CDU adopting an upbeat message of improvements through a strong economy; the SPD portraying a disaster scenario of growing social and economic dysfunctionality. It is difficult to see what the SPD will be able to gain over this issue in a coalition with the CDU/CSU. The SPD’s main campaign pledge was to introduce a minimum wage of €8.50 across the board, replacing the current system of sectoral negotiations over wages. Merkel is against the standardisation of the minimum wage, arguing that the current flexibility works better for the economy. The SPD set out by supporting its minimum wage demand with a package of tax hikes for top-band tax payers and the super-rich. However, they vacillated over the tax issue in the campaign, at times showing a preference for exporting the regulation of taxation –including the outlawing of tax havens – to the European Union. Aside from Steinbrück’s trail of campaign gaffes, this failure to commit over taxing the wealthy may in retrospect turn out to be one of the greatest flaws of the SPD’s campaign. It is likely to have alienated left-leaning party members and some of the party’s core support, and will make it easier for the CDU/CSU to resist calls for a wealth tax under a future grand coalition.
Irrespective of the coalition issue, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Angela Merkel would head Germany’s new government. In the run up to the election, she was twice as popular with the general public as Steinbrück. She is seen as a safe pair of hands and generally credited for leading Germany through the worst fall-out of the economic crisis, even though economic experts attribute this more to trade union wage restraint than government policy. Ironically, the power to shake up German governance may not lie with whichever party forms a coalition with the CDU/CSU, but with a party that failed to broach the five per cent threshold. No, not the FDP – the new AfD. With 4.7 per cent, this party came in just behind the FDP. Unlike the FDP, though, for the AfD this result was a triumph, not a disaster. This single-issue party is campaigning to extricate Germany from the Eurozone. With a new Greek bailout on the horizon, this party is in prime position to influence the public consensus on the Eurozone, and, with it, the new German government’s policy direction and economic leadership in Europe.
Patricia Hogwood is Reader in European Politics at the University of Westminster, and convenor of the PSA German Politics Specialist Group (GPSG).