A while ago I analysed the recent German elections for EYP Voice, the inofficial news magazine of the European Youth Parliament network. I like what they are doing, using the skills and resources within EYP to practice better journalism – slowly but surely. You can find my text split into part 1 and part 2 there. Or here in full length.
Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing: the Path to and the Aftermath of the 2013 German Elections
“Anything goes” – this is the perception of Angela Merkel’s position after her landslide victory in the German federal elections at the end of September. Eight years after the physical chemist from the former GDR became Germany’s first female chancellor, she led her Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) to power claiming 49.4 percent of all seats in the German parliament – a mark no party achieved for the last quarter of a century. Yet what looks like the peak of Merkel’s political career might reflect turmoil sneaking up on German politics.
The Black Widow
During her political career, Angela Merkel underwent a steady and subversive transformation from the promising foster daughter of the conservative hero Helmut Kohl, the “father of the reunification”, to a calculating and pragmatic lady of power who stopped at nothing to climb to the ultimate heights of German political office.
Her rise to power obviously came with a price tag for both her party base and conservatism in Germany in general. Whenever faced with an internal party power struggle, Merkel’s position was never the loud one. Her wait-and-see attitude, which still characterises her chancellorship, is often considered boring and corroding, yet it reflects stamina and intelligence as if tailor-made by Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather IV. On her long run to the ‘Bundeskanzleramt’, she didn’t have to rattle fences like her predecessor, the working-class kid Schröder. Instead she outlasted both long-standing icons of conservatism such as Stoiber, Müller and Koch, who all ogled the throne of power, and upstarts who might have been future challengers such as Wulff and Guttenberg, giving them the kiss of death (“vollstes Vertrauen”) if necessary to protect her position. Even her long-time poltical consort Westerwelle, who had been the ideal mate since 2000, couldn’t escape Merkel’s consuming aura and was sacked by his Liberals (FDP) halfway through the rule of their 2008 coalition.
However, these casualties were only collateral damage compared to the transformation she made her party undergo. Whilst the CDU/CSU, also known as ‘Union’, of the ‘80s and ‘90s was the custodian of conservatism, under Merkel it trims its sails to the wind. Already during the first ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats (SPD) between 2005 and 2009, the CDU/CSU opened itself towards ‘the centre’ and adopted social-democratic positions when necessary. This constellation fell back into a power struggle before the 2009 elections. So when the FDP finally became strong enough in 2009, their ideological affair with the CDU/CSU transformed into a marriage – but disillusion followed quickly. Instead of pushing her coalition partners’ neoliberal agenda, Merkel continued her course pragmatically – because to her any ideology seems to be a bad ideology.
WYSINWYG – what you see is not what you get
Therefore in 2013 teaming up with the SPD, which gained 30.5 percent of parliament seats, is a logical consequence, and six weeks after the elections they are now deep into coalition negotiations. While the grand coalition was more of a forced marriage in 2005, this time it looks like a return to a friends with benefits. Although both soon-to-govern parties came to the dance with a different date (the CDU/CSU clearly wanted to continue their coalition with the weakened FDP, and the SPD teamed with the Greens with whom they had governed already between 1998 and 2005), both did not hesitate long to drop those engagements.
However, looking at the overall election outcome, a future CDU/CSU-led grand coalition is not what the people voted for, at least by numbers. Yes, the CDU/CSU won the most votes, but only at the cost of the FDP having to leave the parliament altogether after not passing the 5-percent election threshold – for the first time since their entry in 1949. Therefore these two self-proclaimed middle-class parties did not get a majority. As no new party jumped over the threshold to fill the FDP void, the rest of the seats was split among SPD, the socialist Left (10.2 percent) and the Greens (10 percent). Thus, a slim yet noteworthy majority voted for a left-of-center alternative to the previous government – and yet helped the conservatives back into power.
Because of ideological afterpains with the Left, instead of unifying the opposition, the SPD quickly took up the offer from the CDU/CSU to form a government. Although the Greens were formally considered by both sides too, it soon became clear that they had lost their Fukushima momentum and, overtaken by the Left, were not a real option.
One would see Merkel in a power position now, only having to unite two little brats into a patchwork family. However, the situation now looks different. Thanks to her merciless run to power, Merkel has put herself in a dead-end. She has to rule, no matter what, but cannot until a government is formed. Both the CSU1 and SPD with their populist leaders Seehofer and Gabriel are very much aware of this situation and use her momentary impotence to cut deals Merkel can hardly reject. So instead of dictating the agenda of her third government, she depends on her counterparts’ agreements and can only make sure her CDU stays open for whatever compromise comes along.
There is good cause to believe that the CDU in the third Merkel term will be even less conservative, more pragmatic, and lose its profile – and thus votes in future too. Rushing to uncontested dominance, Merkel might have caused a severe and irreversible self-destruction process of the CDU.
Clearly this control and stability can only come with a price tag for the democracy. Combining for almost 80 percent of the seats in parliament, a CDU/CSU-SPD coalition is a juggernaut in decision-making. Having less than a quarter of the seats remaining, the two-party opposition with the Left and the Greens will not be able to exercise basic opposition powers such as deploying an investigation committee or calling for the Federal Constitutional Court. The upcoming grand coalition could literally do whatever it wants, because with these margins the majority does not have to care about the minority anymore. This is getting spooky for true democrats.
Beyond the Throne
Between the social-democratic SPD’s lack of success in the last two elections and the foreseeable loss in popularity by Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, by the next election in four years Germany’s federal political landscape may never be the same again. In the long run, the traditional coalition model with either CDU/CSU or SPD plus a junior partner will no longer work because it cannot guarantee a majority. This may not yet occur in 2017, but sooner or later it will become reality and change the identity of almost all parties. Therefore it is wise to have a look at the smaller players that didn’t make it to the throne or not even into the Bundestag in 2013.
The greatest surprise was the 10.2 percent that the Left party gained in parliament. Formed on the basis of the former GDR state party, they expanded massively to the rest of Germany during the neoliberal labour market reforms by SPD Chancellor Schröder in the early 2000s, the so called ‘Agenda 2010’. While still divided between the pragmatic East-German associations, who are part of many local governments, and the more radical West-German ones, the Left can still count on a solid voter basis of disappointed social democrats. However, due to demographic developments, their current niche might disappear if they do not open up for new voter groups and overcome their ideological infighting.
The Greens, riding an all-time high after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and 2012, are now facing a pile of shards. Their 2013 campaign was led by their last founding generation, now with an inflated self-esteem, which gave space to their older, radical ideas. As this strategy clearly did not reap the intended success, the younger ranks of the Green party have to decide whether they continue their balancing act between pragmatism and starry-eyed change-the-world attitude, or steer towards only one of these principles. Balancing both may turn off several of their voting blocs – and most probably pragmatism is the only course that can save them.
The liberal FDP is facing a similar scenario. They also fell from their all-time peak of the 2009 election, but at a slower pace. Having already been inexorably voted out of several state parliaments during the last years, their disastrous results in the federal election did not come as a surprise. Contrary to the others, they tried to follow a very clear, neoliberal path since 2000, which at times collected many votes among the young-and-successful, but drove traditional economic-liberal citizens into the arms of the CDU/CSU this year. In order to cross over the 5-precent parliamentary threshold again, the Liberals have to refocus on their traditional values and policies, and stop clinging to the CDU’s apron strings. After sacking their last leadership cadre soon after the elections, new political alliances with the SPD and the Greens look more realistic. But if they want to cherish their founders’ heritage, they may have to rewrite their entire party programme.
The most interesting options for the 2013 elections were two rather new parties – one on the left and one on the right of the political spectrum. The Pirate Party first shook up the political landscape a couple of years ago when it appeared in response to several anti-privacy laws that were heavily criticised by the public. Although the Pirates entered parliament in several states and thus developed first reliable structures, they did not jump the federal threshold either. Although the omnipresence of Snowden should have offered them an ideal platform, and their policies were progressive compared to most other parties, they could not manage to reach beyond their usual tech-savvy anti-establishment audience.
The other side of the spectrum was served by the newly founded AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’), which quickly gained attention and support by steering a clear anti-Euro course. Although the established parties heaved a sigh of relief when it became clear that the 5-percent threshold would just barely hold them out of the Bundestag as well, the AfD might increase their political influence over the coming years. Their success can be traced back to their criticism of Chancellor Merkel’s holding-still approach and realpolitik decision-making during the Euro crisis. The signature policy of the AfD is that they would rather see the dissolution of the Eurozone altogether. With a combination of economically liberal and socially conservative concepts, and backed up by a shady right-wing audience, they were able to coin Euroscepticism in Germany, which could give them promising leverage for future elections, especially with the upcoming European parliamentary elections in May 2014 – scary.
Winter is Coming
Looking into the future of post-2013 Germany, one can predict a continuation of the Merkel spirit. Political decision-making will lose the last figments of ideology and will be ruled by pragmatism – some would say opportunism. Facing such exceptionally complex times this might not be the worst thing, as moderation and multi-stakeholder decision-making will be necessary; yet it also includes a danger of arbitrariness.
While we cannot be sure what the future of German politics will hold for us, it is safe to say that the federal elections 2013 was the death blow for the democracy as we know it. It was penultimate success for the catch-all parties CDU/CSU and SPD, with the grand coalition being their last chance to hold onto power. The fact that around 15 percent of the votes cast went to parties that did not pass the threshold, and that those parties who did are very close to each other, only shows that the times of traditional party alliances is over. The German post-2013 democracy will be more tattered. The grand coalition will be the only clear-cut government option in the near future – until even they fail to reach the majority.
These are exciting and crucial times. A rethinking of democracy and representative parliamentarianism as the Germans know it might be necessary. Max Frisch, the great Swiss novelist, once claimed, “All states will either become like Switzerland, or will perish.” And indeed, with their council system that unites all parties into the government and strong direct citizens’ participation they might offer new options for viable democracy in Germany.
©Martin Hoffmann, 08.11.2013