Germany three months out from the federal election: A preview

The chancellor candidates (from l to r): Laschet, Baerbock, Scholz

On 26 September 2021, Germany will elect a new parliament. There is considerable uncertainty about the outcome of the election although one thing is clear: When all the votes are tallied, the Bundestag (The German federal parliament) will elect a new chancellor: Angela Merkel decided a couple of years ago (after the 2017 election that ended rather poorly for her, her party, and her coalition partner) that it was time to go.

HOW DID WE GET WHERE WE ARE?

German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle has competently unpacked in this ten-minute video how Merkel has managed to stay in power for four terms, or 16 years. Basically she is widely seen as a pragmatic beacon of stability who, as the authors of the DW clip say correctly, also has managed to move “her party” (the “union” of her party, the CDU, and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, together known as “the Union”) to the center, culminating almost in the absolute majority of Bundestag seats for the Union in 2013 (a remarkable and almost unheard of feat), and her subsequent re-election as chancellor. Notably, this near majority of Bundestag seats benefitted from both Free Democrats (then the junior coalition partner) and the AfD, the right-wing anti-immigration party, just missing the five-percent mark in the popular vote that in Germany is required to enter the Bundestag. Still, that election result was a personal triumph for a leader who has as reputation as a pragmatic leader but who often comes across as boring and rarely ever as inspiring.

(Parenthetically I note that after their impressive performance in 2009, and being the junior partner of the Merkel-led coalition from 2009 to 2013, the Free Democrats’ crushing election defeat that year had the entire party leadership resign, opening the way for then 34-year-old Lindner to become the Free Democrats’ youngest-ever party chairperson. More about him below.)

The personal triumph in the 2013 election, and her transformation of the party into one that had become used to follow its leader without much debate (much helped by Merkel ruthlessly disposing of several, invariably male, challengers), may have led to her opening the borders in the 2014–15 European migration crisis and uttering those infamous three words, “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!) At the very least, that was a political miscalculation. While morally arguably the right thing to do, Merkel ran roughshod over various processes, and the poor handling of the influx of about a million refugees in 2015 (of whom less than half were registered), many of them young men, led to the outcome of the 2017 election which not only saw Merkel, and her coalition partner (the Social Democrats) punished heavily but led to the AfD becoming the third largest party in the Bundestag and a presence in the country’s political landscape ever since. The re-emergence of the Free Democrats under Lindner has resulted in a complicated political configuration: since 2017 the coalition of CDU/CSU and Social Democrats continues to govern, against an opposition of AfD (12.6% of the votes, and 94 seats in the Bundestag), Free Democrats (10.7%, 80), Die Linke [The Left] (9.2%, 69), and the Greens (8.9%, 67).

Since the 2017 federal election, and triggered last but not least by Merkel’s ill-advised and ill-fated attempt to hand-pick her successor, German politics has been in considerable flux. The Greens (who originally grew out of the anti-nuclear and pro-environment movements, but started about a decade ago to compete with the Union in some of its former strongholds, such as Baden-Wuerttemberg in the south-west), have emerged as the second largest party — at times competing with the union of CDU/CSU in the polls — while the Social Democrats (with notable exceptions such as the re-election of Malu Dreyer in the Rheinland-Pfalz [Rhineland-Palatinate] state elections in mid-March of this year) and The Left both have continued to implode. A major bone of contention remains the question whether the right-wing anti-immigration AfD is acceptable as potential coalition partner if the party does not tear itself apart before the election which remains a possibility. So far all other parties have explicitly ruled out a coalition with the AfD, at least on the federal level.

In the run-up to the federal election, the union of CDU/CSU, Greens, and Social Democrats have chosen their candidates for chancellor, with Armin Laschet (the premier of Germany’s largest state since mid-2017 and the CDU’s party leader since January 2021) being the successor of Merkel designated by her party (against a credible contender of the Bavarian sister party which led to considerable consternation there), and Annalena Baerbock and Olaf Scholz having emerged as the candidates of choice of the Greens and the Social Democrats, respectively, and really the only realistic contenders for chancellorship, with Lindner — the undisputed head of the Free Democrats — being the likely king, or maybe, queen maker.

SO WHO WILL WIN?

The first of four 2021 Landtagswahlen (state parliamentary elections) on 6 June 2021, all of them in the east of Germany (Sachsen-Anhalt [Saxony-Anhalt], Mecklenburg-Vorpommern [Mecklenburg-West Pomerania], Thueringen [Thuringia], and Berlin) has been watched with considerable attention since it was the last major state election before 26 September 2021. (The other three state elections will coincide with the federal election scheduled for 26 September of this year.)

Contrary to what the polls predicted (a tight race between right-Centre CDU and right-wing AfD), the CDU did quite well (gaining about 7 percent of the vote to become the clearly dominant party in that state and its Premier allowed to choose among suitors. Some have argued that once again the CDU benefitted from some Germans’ fear of seeing the right-wing AfD emerge as the largest party although at least some credit has to go to the state’s premier, Reiner Haseloff (who interestingly favored Laschet’s Bavarian opponent as chancellor candidate.) The Left and the Social Democrats lost percentage points (about 5 and 2 respectively), with Greens and Free Democrats (Liberals) adding moderately but easily clearing the 5% hurdle.

It remains anyone’s guess whether there are any pointers here for the federal election. My guess is that the continued implosion of Social Democrats and The Left might reflect a trend, for the latter more so than the former.

The Greens — at one point tying the Union in the polls — have taken a hit last but not least because of her young chancellor candidate’s unforced mistakes (misrepresentations in her cv, un-declared income on the side) and questions about Baerbock’s lack of administrative experience, Laschet making clear that he opposes key parts of the Greens agenda, and Scholz attacking the Greens and the Union. Needless to say that they Greens have tried to re-act to these attacks but it is unclear to what extent they will manage to counter them successfully.

My best guess at this point is that the winner of the federal elections will be CDU (and CSU) or, against considerable odds, the Greens. Much will depend on voter turnout, in particular turnout of younger voters. The Social Democrats will do better than everyone currently seems to expect (not the low-teens as widely expected but also not the upper twenties as Scholz has predicted just last month), the Free Democrats will clear the ten-percent mark, and the AfD will move sidewards and gain around 10–12 percent of the vote although I would not be surprised if they do not clear the ten-percent mark. Still, not a requiem yet.

I would not be surprised if, federally, the Left might struggle to clear the 5% hurdle. That is, I would not be surprised to not see them represented in the Bundestag.

There is a good chance that Laschet — who since 2017 has run a coalition government in North-Rhine Westphalia with the Free Democrats and is in good terms with Lindner who in 2017 walked away from Merkel’s preferred coalition: a government of CDU/CSU, Free Democrats, and Greens known as “Jamaica coalition” which is also Lindner’s preferred option, under certain conditions. Which, while sad for the Social Democrats and the left in general, might be a chance for the party to rethink for what and for whom it stands, questions that other Labor parties — such as Australia’s — also face. In the grand scheme of things spending four years in opposition is of minor consequence. Should The Left (the party) indeed miss the 5% hurdle, as the continued internal fights make increasingly likely (see also here and here), it might be the end of it. Which would most likely benefit the Social Democrats.

In sum, it is very likely that the Union of CDU/CSU will once again have one of theirs (Laschet) become chancellor although he will have to lead a coalition government of Greens and Free Democrats but there remains a small possibility that he will have to rely on the Social Democrats, as Merkel had to in 2017. There is no question that there is plenty of combinatorial options for coalitions that have the majority of votes in the Bundestag and that do not have to rely on the AfD which I anticipate to be less relevant than in 2017–2021.

WHOEVER WINS …

The new government will have its work cut out for it on several grounds: the environment (with Germany’s Supreme Courts recently having ruled that some provisions of the 2019 climate change act were in violation of the rights of future generations), the national debt (having been, and being, increased during the pandemic in unsustainable ways as recently noted by Germany’s Bundesrechnungshof [General Accounting Office]), equality (with Germany having one of Europe’s largest gender pay gaps, for example), the shift of power during the pandemic away from the legislative to the executive, and relatedly the erosion of civil rights.

PS:

A friend (Paul Norton) suggested that an Australian audience would be interested in answers to a couple of related questions, so here goes:

  1. Why Germans seem to be more relaxed about coalition governments based on shifting combinations of parties than Australians are.

Interesting question. That wasn’t always so. The current situation — with six parties being represented in the Bundestag— is a result of the developments of the last two decades. Until well into the 1990s (i.e., well after the reunification of West and East) the German political landscape was dominated by CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats which together captured typically up to 80 percent of the votes and seats, with the Free Democrats often deciding who would govern. The Greens took a couple of decades to be where they are today and to be considered “regierungsfaehig” (able to govern) by parts of the population. These days coalition governments are simply a necessity given the political configuration.

2. Why the German Greens are able to form governing coalitions with right of centre parties without seriously displeasing their voter base. My sense is that if the Australian Greens or one of its State/Territory affiliates tried something like that here, we would pay a significant price.

I think this tension is there to some extent. But it is also important to remember that Merkel, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, managed to move “her party” (“the Union”) to the center, last but not least in questions of environmental policy. In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, for example, her government decided to shut down eight nuclear plants and limit the operation of the remaining nine to 2022 and to push harder for renewable energy sources. With Merkel gone it will be interesting to see to what extent the CDU/CSU will go back to a more conservative stance. Earlier this week the Union published its electoral platform and not surprisingly it is a rather conservative one (e.g., lower taxes for to earners and firms). But this is Germany. There is no independent costing of electoral platform promises so it’s a free for all (rhetorically).

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …