German election: a new era of uncertain coalition politics

With just three days till polling day, Germany’s election is wide open. Rarely has such a crucial democratic exercise been tinged by so much uncertainty. Never before have Germans faced such a broad spectrum of possible electoral outcomes.

Angela Merkel is quitting the political battlefield and the army of voters the chancellor once commanded is now up for grabs. Her departure, after 16 years in power, has disrupted a system that once seemed the model of stability.

“For so many people the primary loyalty was to Merkel — and now she’s going,” says Andrea Römmele, professor of communication in politics at the Hertie School in Berlin. As a result, “we have an extremely high volatility among voters — more than 50 per cent of them are open in all directions.”

Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is floundering, unsure about what to do and where to go next. Its rivals, the Social Democrats, are on a roll, with a commanding lead in the polls. But the SPD, like the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, faces an uncertain future. Germany’s old model of two dominant big-tent parties is being replaced by something much more fragmented.

Europe’s economic powerhouse could end up with its first ever three-party coalition government — an outcome that will have far-reaching implications for the way it is run.

“For the first time in Germany’s postwar history it looks like its next chancellor will come from a party that won a lot less than a third of the vote,” Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal Free Democrats, tells the Financial Times. “It means that Germany is finally becoming part of the European mainstream.”

Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, is floundering, unsure about what to do and where to go next © Odd Andresen/AFP via Getty Images

Indeed, Germany was for many years the big exception in Europe. In other countries, established parties such as the Italian Christian Democrats or the French Socialists have been swept aside — but in Germany the CDU/CSU and SPD have for decades been the linchpins of the party system. The country was renowned and envied for its cohesion and the long tenure of its chancellors — Konrad Adenauer, who was in power from 1949 till 1963, and Helmut Kohl and Merkel, who each governed for 16 years.

But the two pillars of its politics have long been in decline, challenged by rising forces like the environmentalist Greens on the left and the nationalist Alternative for Germany on the right. Protracted in the case of the SPD, the decline of the CDU/CSU has been much more precipitous: it is currently on 22 per cent in the polls, an astonishing 15 points down on April last year. If the pollsters are right, it is heading for the worst result in its history.

The CDU/CSU’s drop in support has been the big story of this campaign. Perhaps the key factor is the weakness of its candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, prime minister of the industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a man who has singularly failed to connect to voters. But the party also appears to many exhausted, devoid of vision and new ideas.

The SPD, on the other hand, has the wind in its sails. According to snap polls, its candidate, finance minister Olaf Scholz, won all of the three TV debates between the three chancellor candidates and the latest surveys suggest he is on course to become Merkel’s successor.

Candidates for the federal elections, the SDP’s Olaf Scholz, Green co-chair Annalena Baerbock, and CDU chair Armin Laschet during a live TV debate earlier this month
Candidates for the federal elections, the SDP’s Olaf Scholz, Green co-chair Annalena Baerbock, and CDU chair Armin Laschet during a live TV debate earlier this month © Michael Kappeler/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Yet any Scholz victory could turn out to be Pyrrhic. The SPD has recovered massively compared with the start of this year, when it was hovering around 15 per cent, but it is still a pale shadow of its former self. Polls put it on around 25 per cent — as recently as the 1998 election it won 40.9 per cent of the vote.

What links all the main parties is the extreme volatility in their poll performance. The Greens are no exception: they have dropped from 28 per cent in April, when they appointed the 40-year-old MP Annalena Baerbock as their first ever candidate for chancellor, to 15 per cent now.

“The CDU/CSU, SPD and Greens have all seen 10-point swings in their poll numbers over the past four months,” says Omid Nouripour, a Green MP. “It shows that people are no longer as closely affiliated to a particular party as they used to be. There’s a new fluidity in politics.”

That, he says, is a potential threat to the system as the “old certainties fall away”. “But it’s a big opportunity, too,” he says. A party’s popularity no longer rests on old loyalties “but on its performance”. “That should be an incentive for the parties to try harder, to perform better, to really deliver,” he says.

Konrad Adenauer was in power from 1949 till 1963
Konrad Adenauer was in power from 1949 till 1963 © Keystone/Getty Images

Polls currently suggest that the next government will be a tie-up between three parties — though beyond that, nothing is certain. One possible outcome is a “Jamaica” alliance, named after the party colours of the CDU/CSU, Greens and liberal Free Democrats. Another is a so-called “traffic light” coalition made up of the SPD, Greens and FDP. A third option might be a “red-red-green” tie-up between the SPD, Greens and hard-left Die Linke party.

Either way, Germany faces a new, more complex, more heterogeneous government with more potential for internal tensions.

“We are going to have ever larger, more colourful coalitions on the federal level, and as a result it’s going to take longer to form governments,” says Ursula Münch, director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, Bavaria.

Helmut Kohl served as chancellor for 16 years
Helmut Kohl served as chancellor for 16 years © Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Loss of calm

Germans already had a foretaste of that in 2017, when it took Merkel nearly six months to form her cabinet. An attempt to team up with the Greens and FDP in Germany’s first “Jamaica” alliance broke down in November that year, and Merkel was forced instead to revive her unloved “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats.

But this time, the post-election dance will begin with Germany facing huge challenges that require urgent attention. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated problems in the way the country is governed — including a huge digital deficit, a creaking education system and a cumbersome bureaucracy. Germany is also facing massive upheaval as it tries to figure out how to go carbon-neutral by 2045 without completely destabilising its export-led economy.

“We are entering an era of much greater polarisation, of much more intense conflicts over things like the greening of our economy, and how much debt Germany should take on,” says Herfried Münkler, emeritus professor of political sciences at Berlin’s Humboldt University. That’s in sharp contrast to the Merkel era — a “time of calmness and composure”

The new coalition will be overlaid on a highly complex — and extremely decentralised — political system that is already showing signs of strain. Germany’s 16 Länder, or states, enjoy wide autonomy and exert power at the federal level through the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament. Usually the power-sharing works well — but occasionally, as could be seen during the pandemic, clashes between the federal and regional governments can lead to recriminations, confusion and chaos.

Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics, says ‘it was helpful to have two large, stable parties that could organise clear majorities and work together if necessary’
Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics, says ‘it was helpful to have two large, stable parties that could organise clear majorities and work together if necessary’ © Princeton University

The CDU/CSU and SPD have long played a crucial stabilising role in the German body politic. “Given how complicated the system is, it was helpful to have two large, stable parties that could organise clear majorities and work together if necessary,” says Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University. “And in the last decade there was always enough money to go round to paper over the potential conflicts.”

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis that is no longer necessarily the case. “If you have more political fragmentation combined with fewer resources, the conflicts could become more pronounced, and you’ll see more gridlock,” he says.

Others predict subtle changes in Germany’s constitutional arrangements. Münkler sees a shift in power from the once all-powerful chancellery to the “coalition committee”, a body representing all the parties in a coalition government. “The chancellor will end up being merely the enforcer of this committee’s decisions,” he says. “And his or her power will wane.”

As a result of these changes, he adds, one thing at least is certain: “The idea that we will have another chancellor ruling for 16 years is inconceivable.”

CDU supporters react as exit poll results were broadcast at an election night event at the party’s Berlin HQ during the 2017 general election
CDU supporters react as exit poll results were broadcast at an election night event at the party’s Berlin HQ during the 2017 general election © Pawel Kopczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Political diversification

The CDU/CSU and SPD have for decades been defined as “Volksparteien” or “people’s parties”, an idea that was fostered by the founding fathers of West Germany’s postwar parliamentary democracy. It was in part a reaction to the experience of the Weimar Republic of 1918-1933, which became a byword for political instability and the rise of Nazism.

In the 1920s, workers voted SPD or Communist and Catholics voted for Zentrum — the Centre party. After the war, Zentrum morphed into the CDU — a party that saw itself from the start as non-denominational, open to members of all religious groups, social classes and backgrounds. Later the SPD moved in the same direction, finally abandoning the rhetoric of class war and transforming itself into a big-tent party that for the first time sought to appeal to Christians, small businessmen and other groups once seen as “class enemies”.

Gradually both the SPD and the CDU/CSU came to dominate German politics. “In the old days either party always got 35 per cent or more of the vote — almost regardless of what they did,” says Christoph Ploss, a CDU MP who is head of the party’s Hamburg branch.

But at least since the 1980s, the old duopoly has been under pressure. The first upstart challenger to the status quo was the Green party: then came Die Linke, which has its roots in the old East German communist party; and finally there was the AfD, which rose to prominence after the refugee crisis of 2015-16. There are now six parties in the Bundestag, compared with three in the 1970s.

“Societies are becoming a lot more diverse and Germany’s party landscape is changing to reflect that,” says Lindner, the FDP leader. The shrinkage of the CDU/CSU and SPD is part of that, he says. “Catch-all parties are evolving into midsized parties.”

Political fragmentation is not unique to Germany. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have for years had a much more splintered system: following elections held in March, a record 17 parties entered its lower house of parliament. Talks on a five-party coalition broke down at the end of August and caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte is now trying to form a minority administration with the liberal D66 party and the Christian Democrats.

The rise of the National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen (right), and the election of Emmanuel Macron, a liberal centrist, as president, changed French politics
The rise of the National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen (right), and the election of Emmanuel Macron, a liberal centrist, as president, changed French politics © Eric Cabanis/AFP via Getty Images

In France, too, politics has become more fraught. For decades it was divided into two camps — the Gaullist centre-right and the Socialists and their allies. But that system ended with the rise of the National Front and the subsequent emergence of Emmanuel Macron, a liberal centrist who campaigned in the 2017 presidential election as “neither right nor left”. Meanwhile, deep rivalries continue to weaken both the centre-right Republicans party, inheritor of the Gaullist mantle, and the left and Green movements.

The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) demonstrations against the government that started in 2018 also demonstrated the fluidity of contemporary French politics: they began as a conservative, rural movement by motorists protesting green fuel taxes, but within months the marches were dominated by far-left activists and violent anarchists.

In Scandinavia, too, a profusion of small parties is the norm. Even 50 years ago, Finland’s parliament had nine parties and Denmark’s eight. There are now even more of them, reflecting the relative decline of the Social Democrats, long the traditional party of power in the region, and the rise of rightwing populist parties. In Sweden, the centre-left have managed to hold on to power in an often gridlocked parliament. But last month Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Lofven resigned unexpectedly, ushering in a new period of instability.

Even in Spain, where traditional centre-right and centre-left parties continue to lead the polls, fragmentation has made forming governments much more difficult. After four inconclusive elections in four years, Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez finally formed a minority coalition with the radical-left Podemos in 2020 — months after saying such a pairing would keep him up at night.

Picky voters

Some in Germany fear a similar fate — a creeping “Dutchification” of politics. There are concerns that the decline of the Volksparteien will lead to political paralysis and unstable governments.

Others dismiss the idea that Germany could become more unstable. “If anything, it was the continuity of the last 16 years [and the reign of Angela Merkel] that was a danger to stability,” says Christian Lindner. “We hung on too tightly to the status quo. Now there’s a chance for things to change.”

“The make-up of the Bundestag needs to reflect the spirit of the times,” he adds. “And that can lead to a dynamic of renewal.”

Indeed, statistics show that people living in countries with lots of small parties tend to be happier with their political system than those in countries with dominant parties — perhaps because they feel they enjoy better representation. A Eurobarometer poll published last spring found 85 per cent of people in Denmark and 79 per cent in Sweden were satisfied with democracy, compared with 69 per cent in Germany.

According to Pepijn Bergsen, a researcher at Chatham House, the Volksparteien have often struggled to reflect the views of an ever more sophisticated and diverse electorate. “They’re set up for a political system that is defined by economic difference,” he says. “But that isn’t necessarily the main criterion for how politics is organised any more. Now it’s more about culture and identity.”

“The cleavages in society have changed and the Volksparteien are sometimes struggling to adjust to that — and to the fact that voters have just become more picky,” he says.

Some Germans, however, think it is too early to write off the big-tent parties. Many Christian Democrats point to the success of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in reviving the fortunes of the Austrian People’s party, the ÖVP, which is currently polling at around 34 per cent. Some secretly pine for a German Kurz who could do the same for the CDU.

“Kurz has shown that the decline of the Volksparteien is by no means irreversible,” says Ploss. “There’s no law of nature saying it’s all over for us.”

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet, Mehreen Khan, Richard Milne and Daniel Dombey

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