Election Pre-election coverage – Germany

If not something dramatically happens during the last week before the election there will be some tuff government negotiations after the votes have been counted. Probably Markel will continue as chancellor but it is very unsecure which other parties she will form government with. An alternative chancellor could be Gabriel for a red – red – green coalition.

Published on balticworlds.com on september 16, 2013

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The German political system

In Germany a minority government is unthinkable; the country needs a strong powerful government . This is a consequence to the Weimar Republic where many small parties in different coalitions made urgent reforms impossible. Another lesson from the past, this time the Third Reich, is that a federal system is supposed to avoid central abuse of power. The states have their own governments and parliaments and have also extensive power to legislate within their competence.

The national parliament consists of two chambers: The Bundestag with directly elected members and The Federal Council (Bundesrat) whose members are designated by the state governments. The Council must approve all laws within their competence and also have certain veto concerning other laws. Election in the states occurs on a rolling basis which could imply that the opposition gets a majority in the Council and can block governmental propositions. 2006 some constitutional changes were done reducing the number of propositions that must pass through the Council. In return the states were provided a higher degree of autonomy. To enter The Bundestag, a party must receive 5% of the votes .

Since the election 2002 analysers have stressed similarities with the US presidential election. The connection between social group and party preferences has become weaker and the focus on party leaders and prospective chancellor candidates has been stronger.

Party and party leaders

The Christian democrats consists of two parties, CDU and its sister party CSU that is a regional party in Bavaria. Ideologically the party stands for the principles of the social market economy, which rejects socialism and laissez-faire economics. The role of the government is to provide the framework for fair competition, low unemployment and social welfare.
The party leader Angela Merkel has a special political history. After a short political carrier she entered the German parliament 1990 representing CDU and became Minister 1991. The exposures after the election 1998 about internal secret economic transaction in CDU became the fall of party leader Helmut Kohl but a starting point for Merkel’s political career. As one of the few leading CDU politicians who were not involved in the scandals she was elected to party leader 2000. She was the first woman ever to lead a German political party. Many observers regarded this choice to be a miracle, a female, twice married protestant without any children as a leader for the male dominated, conservative catholic party. In the election 2002 she was however pushed into the background. Edmund Stoiber became the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate but lost the election.

From 2003 CDU won a number of regional elections which forced the social democrat chancellor Schröder to often negotiate with party leader Merkel in order to gain acceptance for his politics. Together Schröder and Merkel implemented a number of economic measures something that made both of them less popular than before.

When Schröder in Mai 2005 had to ask for a new election due to the CDU dominance in the Federal Council, the only conceivable CDU chancellor candidate was Merkel. But the announcement about election came as a surprise for CDU and Merkel. There was no time for preparing a good strategy or putting together a campaign program. The party leader had for a long time concentrated on blocking governmental proposition without having any constructive suggestions of her own. Still the prognoses were good, in the beginning of the campaign CDU got 20 % more votes in the opinion polls than SPD.

Merkel made a number of mistakes during the election campaign, she talked far too much about urgent large reforms and lost almost the whole lead. The election result was a disaster for CDU, the party only got 35,2 % of the votes, 0,8 % more than SPD. This was one of the worst results for the party in many years but Merkel managed to stay calm. Only 48 hours after the election she was re-elected as head of the parliamentary group. With a strong support she was ready to start the negotiations in order to form a new government, a grand coalition consisting of CDU and SPD with Merkel as chancellor was the result .

Today after leading two coalition governments Merkel is in full control over the party, she is popular and has gradually sidelined every single potential rival. She owes her strong approval ratings to a widespread perception that she has handled the euro crisis well and has shielded German taxpayers as good as possible. But she is also known for avoiding political controversies and personal attacks on her opponents. The election promise from CDU is continuity with a safe pair of hands.

The center-left Social Democratic Party, SPD, is rooted in the 19th century labour movement. It traditionally represents the interests of the working class. Much of its support comes from the large cities in the protestantic North and the former coal-mining and steel producing Ruhr region. The party has changed during the last years. During his chancellorship, Gerhard Schröder tried to reform the party. Inspired by Tony Blair’s Third Way, he launched Neue Mitte where the party took a step to the right in order to attract the important voters in the middle of the political scale.

This created a discontent with the red-green government. The unemployment was very high and the so called Agenda 21 labour market reform with new rules for unemployment 2003 – 2004, Hartz-IV, was very unpopular. Thousands of people demonstrated every Monday against the social and economic politics. The Social Democrats lost their majority in a number of federal state elections. The opposition had a majority in the Bundesrat and it become impossible to continue the governmental work as CDU blocked every proposition. SPD has never recovered after these labour market reforms.

The current party leader is Sigmar Gabriel but he is not seen as a voter magnet. Instead Peer Steinbrück is SPD’s chancellor candidate but since he appeared on the scene the voter support has decreased markedly. He belongs to the right wing of the party and he has a difficult time holding together the divided party. He is accused of being thoughtless, saying things that he will later regret and to be keen on earning extra money, something that is not appreciated in the party. After he had pointed his middle finger into the air when interviewed CDU would like to reinforce the impression that he is not suitable as the leader of the country. Germans are restrained when it comes to obscenities. Drivers can be fined for making the finger gesture. The party is now mainly campaigning on a program of greater social justice and controls of banks.
The Free Democratic Party, FDP, is a pro-business party that promotes the free market economy and individual liberty. It is since 2009 in coalition government with CDU/CSU. In the last election the party got 14,6% of the votes, the highest figure ever. The party was the preferred partner for CDU and after the grand coalition 2005 – 2009 the voters wanted a coalition where the parties were pulling in the same direction. FDP politicians have however had difficulties to win support for their issues in the government. The party leader Guido Westerwelle was inexperienced and did not succeed in his role as a Minister of Foreign Affairs. As a result of the financial crises Merkel said absolutely no to tax cutting. FDP have got very bad result in a number of state elections. Its critics call it the party of the privileged few, an image the party has failed dramatically to dispel in the last four years. There is some doubt whether it will even pass the five-percent threshold needed to stay in parliament. Its current leader, a newcomer, Philipp Rösler was supposed to reverse the trend but also he lacked experience and was reprimanded by Merkel because of his mistakes. Now the party also suffers from a non transparent power division. Rösler has nominated Rainer Brüderle as chancellor candidate but he has got into troubles after sexist remarks on a female journalist.
Germany’s Green Party formed in the 1970s focusing on pacifism and environmental activism. In 1983 it managed to cross the 5% barrier. Joschka Fischer, the charismatic former leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs was one of the reasons to the popularity. Under his leadership the party abandoned its strict pacifist principles. The party’s main supporters come from middle aged higher income earners in urban areas. In the beginning of this election campaign the party got good figures in the opinion polls. This because of a successful opposition politics but also because many Germans believe that a vote on the Green Party will prevent a third Grand Coalition. It has scored some major successes in regional elections in recent years, getting its first ever state governor, Winfried Kretschmann, in 2011 in an election in the conservative bastion of Baden-Würrtemberg, one of Germany’s richest states. Just as in Sweden the leadership is divided and the party also has two front figures in the campaign; Jürgen Trittin and Katrin Göring-Eckard.

After the reunion the former East German party SED, now united with the left wing of the Social Democrats under the name die Linke, the Left, are also represented in the Bundestag. After Schröder’s reforms Agenda 2010 a number of leading social democrats left the party, one of them Oscar Lafontaine, a former Minster of Finance. This betrayal made cooperation between die Linke and SPD difficult but with their roots in the East German Communist party none the other parties want them in a collation government either. At first, the newly-merged party managed to establish itself in a number of western state parliaments. But the party lost some of its support. However it remains a strong political force in eastern Germany and is the fourth-strongest party in the Bundestag. It pursues a strict pacifist stance, for example demanding an immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan and would like to see the dissolution of NATO.

Two new parties
, still outside the parliament should be mentioned. The Pirate Party representing the new generation of people who grew up with internet has done well in a number of state elections but now their support is decreasing according to the opinion polls. Easy victories appear to have gone to their heads, and were followed by highly-public internal power struggles which turned off voters in droves. The American German cooperation in the NSA has increased their support.

Another newcomer is AfD, Alternative for Germany, a euro sceptic party founded in 2013. The party is led by Bernd Lucke, 50, a professor of macroeconomics whose background is typical for the party’s founding members. The party’s main supporters are (mostly male) well-off professionals and economic experts who are opposed to ongoing efforts to secure the euro with taxpayer money. The AfD hopes to capitalize on widespread disillusionment in Germany with the euro and the different crises packages. While most Germans continue to support the common currency, a significant minority, many of them from the conservative side of the political spectrum, would like to see its dissolution.
Whether the AfD can attract significant amounts of support remains to be seen. But some voters may see it as a viable alternative to the conservative CDU, which has moved to the center during Merkel’s leadership. Even if the party fails to surpass the 5 percent hurdle it could attract enough voters from Merkel’s coalition to endanger her re-election. The Merkel administration tries to coop with this by saying that a weakening of CDU will imply an opening for the leftists.

Issues

It is difficult to find issues where the large parties really disagree. The tax level is however a debated issue. SPD wants to raise tax on inheritance, high income and capital. The greatest opponent to this suggestion is FDP who has made it their profile to work against tax increasing.

The NSA-affair casts shadows over both CDU and SDP. Both parties state that they have not been fully informed and try to put the blame on each other. But the citizens do not believe them, to claim ignorance about the US contacts is scarcely credible as both parties were in governmental position during the current time. Even if integrity and data protection are hot issues in a country that has experienced two totalitarian systems, the citizens do not seam to be surprised, they are pragmatic, an issue like this one does not determine the election result.

The Syrian crisis is of course debated in media but it is not an election issue. During a long time after WWII Germany avoided participation in military operations. Today the situation is different, the country in involved in operations in the Balkans, in Africa and in Afghanistan. But still Germany gets criticism for holding back militarily, for instance in Libya and Mali. There is no intention in participation in actions towards Syria, this is not an election issue.

The economy is good which speaks for Merkel’s advantage. The unemployment rate is on the lowest level since the unification. This has made the careful Germans to start consume which is necessary for the growth of the domestic economy. According to a survey this spring Germans are more relaxed than ever about the performance of politicians. This could be explained by a growing confidence in the German economy . Regarding social politics the Merkel government has borrowed and implemented a number of left proposals like increased child support and pensions and introduced a kind of minimum wedges.

Germany is rather united behind the European cooperation. AfG wants the country to leave the euro cooperation or to create a smaller union together with the Scandinavian more reliable countries. Some Germans think this to be a good idea; they are tired of being the wallet of Europe. The social democrats demand an answer about a new support package to Greece. But AfG is still in an initial face, it takes time to establish a new party and observers do not think that they will be able to affect this election. According to a representative poll taken by the R+V Versicherung insurance company, the euro crisis is number one on the German electorate’s list of fears. Merkel is widely given credit in the country for having kept the worst of the crisis at arm’s length from Germany.

The election campaign has so far been regarded as rather dull in media. The only television debate between the two main opponents, Merkel and Steinbrück on September 1st, was a dead heat between the two combatants. The newspapers were unconvinced that neither candidate had landed a knockout punch and most of the exchanges were civil and unspectacular. Steinbrück had really hoped to win this duel and change the negative trend but a new poll released four days later has dashed his hopes. The survey found that support for Steinbrück’s Social Democrats (SPD) has hardly changed and with just two-and-a-half weeks to go before the election, the survey paints a bleak picture for the SPD and its ambitions of governing the country together with the Green Party. Support for the SPD has stagnated at 26 percent while the downward trend for the Greens has continued, with the party managing just 10 percent in the first September poll, conducted by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.

Possible coalitions

There have not been any major changes in the opinion polls during September. CDU/CSU has parked around 39 – 40%, the Greens on 10 – 11 %, FDP on 5 – 6 %, the Left on 8 – 9%. There has been a minor increase in the preferences for SPD, from 23 to 26 % but on the other hand it seams like the Greens have lost some of their supporters. The Pirats and AfD are still outside the parliament with around 3 % .

Merkel is very popular, more than her party, but who will be her governmental partners? Twice has a grand coalition consisting of SPD and CDU/SCU ruled the country, last time 2005 – 2009, the first Merkel government. This has not been totally successful. After an election campaign with harsh words and accusations the two former archenemies had difficulties putting the disagreements behind them and they continued to block each others. Steinbrück is not keen on this solution again as SDP lost a number of voters during the last grand coalition.

Together FDP and CDU might secure a slight majority but the FDP is dangerous close to the 5% line. CDU and the Green Party is an unlikely coalition. A coalition consisting of all these three parties, named a Jamaica coalition after the colures of the parties, is for the same reason not likely.

SPD and the Green would need support from a third party, the natural partner would be the Left Party but Steinbrück has declared this impossible. The SPD party leader, Gabriel, is perhaps less reluctant to this option.

Finally we have the traffic light coalition consisting of SPD, FDP and the Greens but FDP has rejected this alternative in the same way as the party did after the election 2009.

If not something dramatically happens during the last week before the election there will be some tuff government negotiations after the votes have been counted. Probably Markel will continue as chancellor but it is very unsecure which other parties she will form government with. An alternative chancellor could be Gabriel for a red – red – green coalition.

references

1. See Saalfeld, Thomas, 2003, “Stable parties, Chancellor democracy an the art of informal settlement” in Wolfgang C. Müller & Kaare Ström (eds) Coalition governments in Western Europe, New York: Oxford University Press
2. For more information about the German election system see Lindahl, Rutger, 2004, ”Förbundsrepubliken Tyskland” i Rutger Lindahl (red) Utländska politiska system, Stockholm: SNS
3. When Merkel became chancellor a number of biographies over her were released, see for instance Daiber, N. & Skuppin, R. 2006, Die Merkel-Strategie. Deutschlands erste Kanzlerin und ihr Weg zur Macht, München: Carl Hansen verlag
4. Manfred Schmidt, R + V – a domestic insurance company
5. See for instance Forsa September 4th and 13th

  • Election coverage

    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se