Josefin Graef

Act one: A new power balance

The German federal election in September last year not only resulted in the biggest parliament (Bundestag) in post-war German history (and the second biggest one in the world after China), but also brought with it a shift in the country’s political landscape. Two questions have since dominated the headlines: Are we witnessing the end of the mainstream parties in Germany, and is right-wing populism here to stay?

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Conservative alliance of CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and CSU (Christian Social Union in Bavaria) remains the biggest parliamentary group. But with 33% of the votes, it had its second worst result since 1949 and lost 8.5% compared to 2013, the best election year under Merkel’s leadership. Her coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD), led by former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, lost even more votes and reached 20.5%, a historical low. Together the three parties hold a mere 399 of the 709 seats, a slight majority of just over 56%.

The smaller parties – Left Party, Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), who returned to the Bundestag after losing their seats in the 2013 election – were able to increase their share and now make up nearly 30.5% (216 seats) of the lower house. For the first time, a seventh party entered the parliament: The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) won third place with 12.6% of the votes, having been just slightly under the threshold of 5% in 2013, it founding year.

The reasons for the decline of the CDU/CSU and SPD as mainstream parties are complex. One of them is the widespread frustration about the fact that Merkel has been in power for more than 12 years, combined with her low appetite for political controversy and, perhaps most importantly, her liberal refugee policy since 2015 that has had a negative impact on public perceptions of levels of political control and public security. Her image as a guarantor of political and economic stability in a crisis-shaken Europe has increasingly given way to a ‘Merkel fatigue’ and a desire for innovation and renewal, both inside her own party and in the country as a whole. The SPD, meanwhile, has been unable to offer answers to the major challenges facing its traditional electorate, workers and the middle class: increasing competition in a globalised labour market, the rise in precarious employment, lower levels of social security, and the impact of digitalisation processes on the work environment. Minutes after the first projections has been released, SPD leader Schulz declaredamid applause from party members that the SPD would exercise its responsibility for parliamentary democracy and cohesion as leader of the opposition. Since a cooperation with the Left Party and the AfD was ruled out by the other parties, a coalition of CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens remained as the only option for a majority government – a novel constellation on the federal level.


Act two: Shipwreck on the coast of Jamaica

Exploratory talks for a “Jamaica coalition”, named after the parties’ traditional colours black, yellow and green, began on 18 October 2017. During the four-week negotiation period, interim results were published regularly, also via social media, revealing major divisions between the parties in key areas such as climate change and immigration, while party leaders gathered on the balcony of the German Parliamentary Association offices where the talks took place, attracting considerable media attention. The talks eventually collapsed on the night of 19 November when 38-year old FDP leader Christian Linder declared that there was no “common vision for the country’s modernisation” and no “common basis of trust”. It would be “better not to govern than to govern badly.” While some praised the party for being faithful to its beliefs, most commentators called them irresponsible and raised doubts about the FDP’s intention to enter into a Jamaica coalition in the first place. Chancellor Merkel said it was “almost a historic day” and one would need to think carefully about the next steps.


Act three: Another grand coalition?

The collapse of the Jamaica talks put the only other mathematical possibility to form a majority government – another grand coalition – back on the agenda. However, at a press conference the next day, SPD leader Schulz rejected this scenario once again. Only after an intervention by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a step provided for by the German constitution, did Schulz give in, supported by many in the leading ranks of the SPD who were keen to avoid new elections. But Schulz made a new attempt at forming a grand coalition dependent on a renewed focus on European integration and a reform of the German health care system.

The talks began on 7 January and ended after only 5 days with a 28-page position paper that devoted its prominent first chapter to European integration, but did not address the health care reform demanded by the SPD. At a special party conference on 21 January, only a slim majority of delegates voted to begin coalition talks with the CDU/CSU, wary of the SPD’s chance to renew itself while in government and feeling unease at the prospect of the AfD as opposition leader. The coalition agreement presented on 7 February carries a clear SPD thumbprint, introducing major changes in employment law as well as investments in education, social housing and pensions. Threatening to walk out of the negotiations, the SPD even managed to secure the finance ministry that had been in CDU hands since 2009, provoking a rebellion against Merkel. Nevertheless, many in the SPD – in particular its youth wing led by 28-year old Kevin Kühnert  – argue that the agreement does not do enough to ensure progress towards more social justice and merely secures Merkel’s position as Chancellor. Schulz’ resignation as party leader and the ensuing debates surrounding his succession have stirred things up even further.

Until 2 March the more than 460,000 SPD members will vote on the agreement in a postal ballot. Results are expected on 4 March.


A fourth act?

It is difficult to predict whether there will be enough support for a new grand coalition among the SPD’s rank and file, especially in light of recent polls that show the SPD and AfD neck to neck, with both reaching between 15% and 16%.

The AfD’s entry into the Bundestag has come as a shock to many and is highly symbolic given the established consensus that there should be no party further to the right of the political spectrum than the CSU. Starting out in early 2013 with a campaign against the government’s euro rescue policy and Germany’s role as Europe’s “paymaster”, the AfD owes its recent electoral success to its pronounced critique of Merkel’s refugee policy, complemented with an anti-Islam stance and laying claim to being the new conservative force in German politics. In contrast to the other parties, it has managed to respond effectively to issues that are felt strongly by major parts of the German population. Among these are a general scepticism towards Germany’s powerful position in Europe, a dissatisfaction with growing social inequality and low levels of social mobility despite economic growth, and a widespread discomfort with visible changes brought by immigration and social segregation.

The AfD has managed to convince its voters that prioritising the interests of the “German people” is a democratic right, and that they are the only party who can express its political will vis-à-vis the political and economic ‘elites’ who act against the people’s interests. While the party officially defines the “people” as including everyone who holds German citizenship, public statements by leading party members make clear that they consider place of birth, religion or skin colour to be important factors in determining someone’s national identity, and as legitimate grounds on which to exclude him or her from “the Germans” – and, very importantly, blame them for any grievances. In this sense, the AfD is an example par excellence of a right-wing populist party. It knows how to engage in a rhetoric of democracy, but draws on its different elements in a highly selective and strategic manner, emphasising for instance the need to accept the results of democratic elections and respect the right to freedom of opinion, while favouring the restriction of minority rights.

So far, neither the SPD nor any of the other parties have found an effective way of responding to the AfD’s political strategy. The establishment of a new “homeland” (Heimat) department in the CSU-led interior ministry will not be enough to address people’s discomfort with the new domestic and global dynamics of social and political change. As long as the AfD is able to fill this gap, it will remain a strong element in the German party landscape and is likely to gain even more votes, should the grand coalition not materialise and make new elections necessary.


The articles in this blog series draw on presentations given at the What’s Happening in Contemporary Western Politics? PSA event (British Academy, 25 January 2018).  The event was chaired by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Michael Crick, with contributions from PSA Specialist Groups’ experts. At the core of the discussion were the following questions: Is this really a 'populist moment'? What do we actually mean by populism? What are the implications of recent events for Western liberal democracies? The main goal was to reach beyond academia and foster a critical and constructive debate open to the civil-society groups, practitioners, journalists, policy-makers and the wider public. You can watch a video of the event here.


Josefin Graef is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum, a joint initiative by the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the London School of Economics and Political Science, funded by Stiftung Mercator.

Image: Berkeley Lab CC-BY-NC-ND