From Jamaica – with love?

The German election of 2021

Here are five thoughts regarding the recent German general election, the Bundestagswahl 2021.

[Quick guide to the main parties and their acronyms:

  • CDU – Christian Democratic Union – Germany’s main conservative party.
  • CSU – Christian Social Union – the CDU’s sister party which only fields candidates in Bavaria.
  • SPD – Social Democratic Party – Germany’s main centre-left party.
  • FDP – Free Democratic Party – a liberal, pro-business party on the centre right.
  • The Green Party – Germany’s main socially liberal, environmentalist party.
  • The Left – Germany’s post-communists; the successor party to the communist party that ruled over East Germany from 1949-1990, the Socialist Unity Party – Sozialistische Einheitspartei.
  • AfD – Alternative for Germany – a far-right, anti-immigration party.]

#1 The era of the Volkspartei is over (for now): After the foundation of the Federal Republic of German (West Germany) in 1949, the concept of the Volkspartei became central to democratic politics in Germany. The term translates as ‘People’s Party’, but it should not be conflated with the invocation of the ‘people’ by populists. Rather, the point was that the main centre-right and centre-left parties – the CDU and SPD – should be ideological broad churches that do not exclusively represent one section of the electorate only. This became particularly relevant for the SPD, which had been a Marxist party until its party conference in Bad Godesberg in 1959. The Bad Godesberg programme ditched Marxism as the party’s guiding ideology and with it an exclusive focus on the proletariat. Contrary to populism or left-wing radicalism, the aim of the Volkspartei was to uphold liberal-democratic institutions (what the Germans refer to as the freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung).

The notion of the Volkspartei implied that the main parties should cater for large chunks of the electorate, which would be reflected in their vote share. Indeed, in their respective heydays, the CDU and SPD were able to attract over 40% of the votes (or at least over 30%). Angela Merkel’s success over the last sixteen years has masked the relative decline of the Volksparteien. In the current election, the CDU and SPD are neck to neck, with (depending on the broadcaster) 24% – 26% of votes. It is hard to argue that parties which poll in the 20% region should be seen as genuine people’s parties. Perhaps this signals that the era of ideologically moderate, catch-all, broad-church Volksparteien is over, and that Germany is finally catching up with other European countries (such as the Netherlands) that have seen a splintering of their party systems. That said, with the right kind of candidates or policies, it might not be impossible for the CDU or SPD to recover their status as Volksparteien in the future.       

#2 How would you like your coalition? Jamaica – Traffic Light – Grand? Germany’s electoral system is a mixture of the majoritarian First-Past-The-Post system and Proportional Representation. That typically means that no single party has the necessary number of votes to command a governing majority in the German parliament, the Bundestag.Hence, German governments are usually coalitions. Roughly, for much of German post-war politics, the assumption was that a large Volkspartei – either the CDU or the SPD – would form a coalition with a smaller party. Up until 1998, this was the FDP, which entered into coalitions with the CDU or the SPD, respectively. The FDP held, as the saying goes, the role of kingmaker in German politics. From 1998-2005, however, that role fell to the Green Party, which formed two coalitions with the SPD (1998-2002; 2002-2005). Since then, we have only seen one classic Volkspartei + small party coalition, namely the coalition between the CDU and the FDP under Angela Merkel’s leadership (2009-13). Apart from this brief period, Mrs Merkel governed in so-called grand coalitions between the CDU/CSU and the SPD (2005-9; 2013-2017; 2017-2021).

The decline of the Volksparteien, as well as the increasing number of smaller parties and their relative electoral strength, raises big questions for how coalitions are formed in Germany politics. The traditional two-party coalition model (Volkspartei + small party) seems to have run its course for now. Given last night’s result, this means that Germany is either looking at another grand coalition between the two main parties (CDU + SPD) or a three-party coalition. For the latter type of coalition, there are roughly two models (which are named after the party colours of the respective coalition partners):

The Jamaica Coalition – named after the state flag of Jamaica: CDU (black), Green Party (green), and FDP (yellow). In 2017, Mrs Merkel already tried her hands at Jamaica, but failed, with the FDP walking out of the coalition negotiations. Would Mr Laschet (the candidate for chancellor for the CDU) have more luck than Mrs Merkel? We do not know.

Traffic Light Coalition – SPD (red), Green Party (green), and FDP (yellow): There is plenty of ideological overlap between the SPD and the Green Party. The FDP is more problematic. It has, since the 1980s, positioned itself exclusively on the centre-right. It is resolutely pro-business. It is less interested in the environment. There might be some overlap here with Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, a moderate centre-left figure who served as finance minister under Mrs Merkel during the grand coalition between 2017-21. Although he has argued in favour of a higher minimum wage during the election campaign, Mr Scholz is generally pro-business. However, the issue of how to protect the environment and tackle climate change, a central concern for the Green Party and its supporters, could prove to be a real sticking point. The FDP is hostile to environmental legislation.

[Prior to last night, some observers deemed a Red-Red-Green coalition a possible outcome. This would have been be a coalition between SPD-The Left–Green Party. The Left, however, has done so badly in the election that this option is no longer viable].     

In short, coalition negotiations are going to take some time. The German political system is largely premised on two-party coalitions. Now it has to cope with the prospect of three-party coalitions. Or possibly another grand coalition. Whatever happens, don’t fall for the hype. In 2017, when Mrs Merkel attempted to form a Jamaica coalition (and failed), the largely anti-German British right-wing press already saw another ‘Weimar moment’ on the horizon. This is, of course, [insert rude word of your choice here]. For now, Mrs Merkel is going to remain interim chancellor until a new governing coalition can be found. Rest assured, she will be very, very boring.  

#3 Popularity matters: In a previous blog entry, I argued that key to Mrs Merkel’s longevity as chancellor was that she commanded high personal approval ratings, even at the height of the so-called refugee crisis. The CDU’s successor candidate Armin Laschet, state premier of the Land of North-Rhine Westphalia, did not fare quite as well and proved fairly unpopular with voters. By contrast, his social democratic rival Olaf Scholz (a continuity Merkel figure) was far more popular with voters, which partly explains the relatively good result for the SPD (compared to their previous polling which was in the 10% region behind the Green Party). It is bizarre to even mention it, but in a democracy candidate popularity clearly matters (the Labour Party might want to take note). The CDU overestimated its own popularity with voters when it was Mrs Merkel who had been popular.

#4 The slogan ‘right on culture, left on economics’ does not apply to Germany. In post-Brexit Britain, some journalist, politicians (‘Blue Labour’), and political scientists argue that in order to win, political parties should move to the right on cultural issues (immigration, national identity, status of racial and sexual minorities) while remaining on the left economically (state intervention in the economy, increased funding for the welfare state and services). Whatever the wisdom of this suggestion, it does not apply to Germany. In the election, the CDU lost roughly three million voters to the SPD, the Green Party, and the FDP. Again, this shows that Mrs Merkel’s popularity masked the lack of support for her party. It also shows that ‘right on culture, left on the economy’ does not apply to Germany. While Olaf Scholz, the social democratic candidate for chancellor, campaigned as kind of continuity Merkel, stressing the importance of continuity and competence, the SPD did not move to the right on cultural issues. Similarly, the Green Party is an extremely socially liberal party with traditionally a strong pro-immigration stance. Moving to the right on cultural issues would have harmed both parties. Voters who had previously voted CDU because they liked Mrs Merkel and agreed with her actions in the summer of 2015 would have been repelled by any rightward move. Nor, of course, is it the case that an aggressive rightward shift by the CDU would have retained such voters. This opens up a question: what is the future of German conservatism? Does it move to the right and cease to care about attracting non-conservative Merkel voters in favour of trying to snatch voters from the far-right AfD? Or does it position itself as a centrist political force that competes for socially liberal yet moderate voters with the SPD and the Green Party?        

#5 There was no ‘populist wave’: In 2017, the far-right AfD entered the German parliament, the Bundestag. This was a scandal and it remains a stain on German politics. Crucially, however, the AfD could not improve its position in the 2021 election. Rather, it lost votes. Going forward, it is hard to see how the AfD is going to position itself. First, immigration is not the political hot potato that it was in 2017, two years after the so-called refugee crisis. German politics has moved on. Second, the AfD ran highly personal campaigns against Mrs Merkel as a hate-figure. But German politics will move into its post-Merkel phase once a new governing coalition has been formed. So, where could the AfD go politically? It could take up an explicit anti-environmental stance, especially if the Green Party participates in the next government. Whether that is the route to electoral success in a country with a large environmental movement is questionable. My view is that AfD is going to stagnate. Yes, it will remain a far-right protest party for the foreseeable future, attracting voters in areas that have traditionally experienced far-right mobilisation (e.g., in the former East Germany). But grand electoral breakthroughs are unlikely. In any case, expect vicious infighting about the party’s future direction.