The 2013 German Federal election: not so boring after allBy Peter Allen on 30 September 2013
Charles Lees, who was in Berlin for the Federal election last week, takes an in-depth look at how the election, and its aftermath, unfolded.
Long before polling day on the 22 September, the core result of the 2013 German Federal election – the triumph of the right-of-centre CSDU/CSU and subsequent return to a third term in office of Chancellor Angela Merkel – was to all intents and purposes a foregone conclusion. Germany’s impressive economic performance, as well as the political acumen of Merkel and the singular incompetence of her opponents, had led to a series of impressive opinion poll leads for Merkel and her party and, in the absence of any game changing gaffs or scandals during the campaign, the situation had not changed on the eve of the election. As a result, many observers complained about the so-called ‘strategic demobilization’ of the Merkel campaign and the apparent disengagement and apathy it had created. In short, the 2013 Federal election appeared to be - whisper it softly - quite boring.
On the eve of the election, I was in Berlin leading an election observation delegation arranged by the International Association for the Study of German Politics (http://www.iasgp.org) and very kindly funded by the German Academic Exchange Service, the DAAD. So it was exciting to attend off-the-record briefings by the major polling organizations that pointed to the underlying potential for upsets on election night. The first and most striking possibility was that the newly formed and explicitly Eurosceptic ‘Alliance for Germany’ (AfD) might enter the Bundestag. The AfD - a more cerebral version of UKIP with a high proportion of academics within its ranks – was polling consistently around the 4.5 to 4.7 per cent level and it was suspected by pollsters that these numbers were actually under-estimates due to the reluctance of respondents to admit support for such a party in traditionally pro-EU Germany. As a result, it was felt that the scenario of the AfD scaling Germany’s five per cent electoral hurdle was a very real one. The other possibility was that Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), might fail to scale the five per cent hurdle and, in the absence of any directly–elected seats, be excluded from the Bundestag for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic. This possibility was considered less likely than an AfD breakthrough but was intriguing, given the way that Merkel appeared to aggressively campaign for both first and second votes under Germany’s MMP system and thus reduce the incentive for CDU/CSU voters to ‘loan’ their second vote to the FDP.
The results of the 2013 Federal election and changes in vote share from the previous election in 2009 are set out in Figure One.
The figure shows that the CDU/CSU was the clear winner, polling 41.5 per cent of the vote (up 7.7. per cent on 2009) and narrowly missing out on an absolute majority in parliament. The left-of-centre SPD did less well, up 2.7 per cent on 2009 to 25.7 per cent. The smaller parties did less well, with the FDP down 9.8 per cent to 4.8 per cent, the Left Party down 3.3 per cent on 8.6 per cent, and the Greens down 2.3 per cent on 8.4 per cent. The AfD narrowly failed to enter parliament with 4.7 per cent, whilst other parties (including the troubled Piraten with 2.2 per cent) polled 6.3 per cent. The turnout rate was 71.5 per cent was a little higher than 2009’s all-time low of 70.8 per cent.
The table shows the subsequent distribution of seats in the Bundestag. With 311 seats, the CDU/CSU fell five seats short of an overall majority of 316 (50 per cent plus one in the 630 seat parliament) but still gained an extra 62 seats on the 2009 total. The SPD won 192 seats, up 46 on 2009. The FDP failed to enter the Bundestag, whilst the Left Party won 64 seats (down 12) and the Greens 63 (down 5). Thus, the 2013 Bundestag elections had generated two major systemic changes to the German party system. First, and most obviously, the FDP’s failure to enter the Bundestag for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic meant that the party’s traditional role as ‘liberal corrective’ to and ‘majority creator’ for the two main parties could no longer be performed. As we shall see, this will have an impact on the processes of coalition negotiation and formation. Second, a much less remarked-upon but still significant development was that for the first time since the 1960s, both catch-all parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, improved their vote share and subsequent number of seats in the Bundestag. This represents a significant concentration of the German party system in the Bundestag and, although quite likely to be a temporary development, a halt in the process of de-concentration that has taken place over the last half a century.
The initial analysis
Pollsters in the traditional Monday morning de-brief at the Federal Press Office in Berlin were divided in explaining what one of them described as the ‘caesura’ that took place the night before. Doubtless more will become apparent in the coming weeks as more data emerge but we do know the following six things about the election.
(1) Merkel’s vote came from across the generational cohorts but her power base is located with older voters.
Figure Two shows the breakdown of votes by generational cohort and demonstrates that, although the CDU/CSU is the most popular party in all cohorts, it is amongst voters over 60 that this is most evident, with the SPD lagging 20 percentage points behind on 29 per cent. It is also worth noting that it is amongst this demographic that the concentration of support for the two big catch-all parties is most apparent, with 78 per cent voting for either the CDU/CSU or SPD. By contrast, only 58 per cent of the youngest cohort voted for either of the two catch-all parties.
(2) Female voters were a little more likely to vote for the CDU/CSU and the Greens.
Figure Three shows that there are moderate differences in way women and men voted. 68 per cent of women and 66 per cent of men voted for the catch-all parties but, within that, five per cent more women than men voted for the CDU/CSU. Women were also a little more likely to vote for the Greens, whilst men were slightly more likely to vote FDP, Left Party or AfD.
3. Levels of education matter.
Figure Four demonstrates that the higher the educational attainment of voters, the less likely they were to vote for the catch-all parties. Thus, 76 per cent of voters with little or no qualifications voted for either the CDU/CSU (46 per cent) or SPD (30 per cent). By contrast, only 60 per cent of voters with a university degree or equivalent voted for the catch-all parties, with the Greens doing particularly well with 15 per cent of the total vote for this cohort.
4. The unemployed are an electoral class apart.
Figure Five shows data on voting by occupational status and indicates that, whilst a majority of the employed (65 per cent) and pensioners (77 per cent) voted for the two catch-all parties, only 43 per cent of the unemployed did. Moreover, in this group the differential between the CDU/CSU and SPD all but disappeared. The main beneficiary of this disaffection is the Left Party, whose 21 per cent of the vote is equal to that of the SPD and only one percentage point behind the CDU/CSU.
5. Angela Merkel is a political class above.
Figures Six, Seven, and Eight present data on public perceptions of the main party leadership candidates. Figure Six shows approval ratings for all of the main party candidates, by all respondents and own party supporters, on a scale between plus 5 and minus 5. The figure graphically illustrates the degree to which Merkel monopolized public approval, with a net approval rating of plus 2.1 amongst all voters and 3.9 amongst her own supporters. By contrast Peer Steinbrück, the SPD’s candidate, only managed to achieve borderline net approval (0.7) in the electorate as a whole and lukewarm support (2.6) amongst his own supporters. All three of the other main candidates, Rainer Brüderle (FDP), Gregor Gysi (Left Party) and Jurgen Trittin (Greens), were vaguely disapproved of by the wider electorate, although it is worth noting that the highly polarizing Gysi enjoyed approval ratings amongst his own supporters (3.4) that were second only to those enjoyed by Merkel.
Only two of the leading candidates, Merkel and Steinbrück, were bona fide Chancellor candidates and Figure Seven shows preferences for these two candidates by party affiliation. The figure shows clearly the degree of mismatch between them, with roughly double the number of voters (60 per cent to 31 per cent) preferring Merkel. Not surprisingly, 97 per cent of CDU/CSU voters, 90 per cent of FDP voters, and 60 per cent of AfD voters preferred Merkel. Even Left Party voters were evenly split with 43 per cent preferring either candidate. The only good news for Steinbrück was that 78 per cent of SPD voters and 52 per cent of Greens voters preferred him over Merkel, which in itself is not a ringing endorsement of his candidature.
When we drill down into data on the personal attributes of the candidates, Merkel’s dominance becomes even more pronounced. Incumbent effects may be at play here but, nevertheless, Figure Eight demonstrates that Merkel’s profile trumps Steinbrück’s on ‘sympathetic character’ (52 per cent to 18 per cent), trustworthiness (40 per cent to 13 per cent), ability to deal with the Euro crisis (42 per cent to 12 per cent), decisiveness (54 per cent to 17 per cent), technical competence (40 per cent to 13 per cent), ability to create jobs (41 per cent to 11 per cent), and tackle future problems (38 per cent to 16 per cent). These numbers are undoubtedly unfair on Steinbrück, who had not only been a highly competent Finance Minister in the Grand Coalition during the 2008 global financial meltdown, but had also been a key supporter of the Schröder government’s Hartz IV labour market reforms of nearly a decade earlier (that many agreed had helped restore German economic competiveness, albeit at the expense of Germany’s social fabric and to the long-term electoral cost of the SPD). Doubtless therefore, Steinbrück would have been struck by the irony that he only led Merkel on perceptions of his ability to foster social justice, an issue on which not only was his own record quite patchy but which also enjoyed relatively low levels of issue salience amongst voters enjoying economic good times.
The credibility gap between the Chancellor candidates is all the more evident when one compares that data with the data in Figure Nine on perceptions of policy competence between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. Once again, the CDU/CSU is considered more competent on employment policy (40 per cent to 22 per cent), the Euro crisis (38 per cent to 20 per cent), and the economy in general (47 per cent to 17 per cent). However, the parties are much closer on issues such as pensions (29 per cent to 25 per cent), families (30 per cent to 29 per cent), and tax (32 per cent to 27 per cent) and, as would be expected, the SPD is ahead of the CDU/CSU on social justice (35 per cent to 26 per cent).
6. A Grand Coalition is all but inevitable.
There was a point on the evening of the 22nd of September when it looked possible that Merkel would achieve an absolute majority in the Bundestag. There are many reasons to believe Merkel would not have welcomed that possibility, not least because it would have left her with a narrow majority and beholden to the Eurosceptic right wing of the CDU and the Bavarian CSU. Moreover, she would have had to deal with an SPD-led majority in the second chamber, the Bundesrat, which would have made her life very difficult indeed. For a consensus politician who thrives on blurring the lines of division with her political opponents, this would not have been playing to her strengths.
So it was probably with a sense of relief that Merkel saw her party fall just short of an overall majority. The loss of the FDP - the ‘liberal corrective’ and ‘majority creator’ - would have been a major setback in that it narrows her coalition options and leaves just three feasible ideologically connected winning coalitions available: (1) a Grand Coalition made up of the CDU/CSU and SPD; (2) a ‘Black-Green’ coalition made up of the CDU/CSU and Greens; and (3) a ‘Red-Red-Green’ coalition made up of the SPD, Left Party, and Greens. These three possibilities would generate surplus majorities of 187, 58, and 3 respectively. The strength of the CDU/CSU’s support effectively makes it the formateur in any coalition negotiations and for this reason, as well as the fact that for historical reasons the SPD and Left Party have a difficult relationship that would be made even more problematic with such a small majority, the third option of Red-Red-Green was swiftly ruled out on election night. The second option, the Black-Green coalition, had been formed before at the sub-national level (including in the city state of Hamburg) but is fraught with potential policy disagreements on issues such as tax and tends to be unpopular with activists on both sides. Finally, the Grand coalition option, with the SPD as a junior partner, is tried-and-tested at the Federal level; first between1966 and 1969, and again between 2005 and 2009. However, the previous Grand coalition ended with Merkel taking the credit for the government’s success and the SPD taking an enormous electoral hit in the 2009 Federal election.
Readers might see a pattern forming here, with the FDP also suffering a severe electoral beating after their participation in the 2009 to 2013 coalition. Merkel’s ability to reap the electoral benefits from her alliances whilst apparently consigning her junior coalition partners to the electoral abyss is seen by many as symptomatic of her political modus operandi. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of misogyny in some comments about her political skills, such as Der Spiegel’s shocking description of her a few years ago as the ‘Black Widow’ or ‘Praying Mantis’ of German politics. Leaving the unpleasant and frankly sexist imagery to one side, it is undoubtedly the case that the SPD’s decision to enter into tentative coalition talks with the CDU/CSU has been a difficult one., with even Steinbrück expressing scepticism and refusing to serve in such a coalition. However, as Figure Ten demonstrates, the pressure is on the SPD to form what German voters regard as the only tolerable coalition arrangement. The Figure shows that 52 per cent of voters would regard a Grand Coalition as a ‘good thing’, whilst only 26 per cent would approve a Black-Green coalition and 19 per cent a Red-Red-Green coalition. This constrains the SPD’s options, although the possibility that when all is said and done no-one wants to govern with Merkel would raise some interesting possibilities, including the calling of new elections. On balance, however, the most likely scenario is that a Grand coalition will eventually form after a relatively long and highly choreographed period of coalition negotiations. It is rash to make predictions but I would expect the SPD to extract some high-profile concessions from the CDU/CSU. These concessions might include symbolic policy pledges such as the introduction of a minimum wage – which might help decontaminate the SPD with some parts of the electorate after its association with Hartz IV – and the allocation of one or two ‘blue-chip’ ministerial portfolios, particularly those associated economic management and the labour market. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks or even months.
Charles Lees is Professor of Politics at the University of Bath. He has written extensively on comparative politics, policy, and methodology as well as providing media commentary and research and advice for organisations such as the BBC, Sky News, Australian Labor Party, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Scottish Executive.