The 2017 federal elections were a potential turning point in German politics


Almost three months after the German federal elections in September, coalition negotiations are continuing between Angela Merkel’s CDU / CSU and the German Social Democrats. Eva heidbreder argues that the 2017 federal election marked a potential turning point in German politics, with sweeping structural changes in the country’s political dynamics now apparent, and a shift from a left-right divide to one that separates winners and losers of globalization.

Credit: Craig nagy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It seems observers, especially those outside of Germany, are surprised by how long it takes Chancellor Merkel to form a government. Immediately after the elections, the analysis seemed simple enough: the Germans aspire to stability, and the entry of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – an openly right-wing party – is a reaction to growing uncertainty; but Merkel won, so overall not much will change. But the ongoing struggle to form a government shows just how wrong that reading was. The 2017 election marks a break, triggered by structural changes in the democratic landscape, the experiences of the last three coalition governments and divergent pressures within parties. These three dynamics will mark German politics for years to come.

Let’s start with the broader structural changes, which are not unique to Germany but are present in many Western democracies. In short, societies are more pluralistic and the traditional left-right divide no longer reflects the underlying societal cleavages. This has the effect of dissolving long-standing partisan affiliations, with contradictory effects that will prove difficult to resolve. In Germany, these broader trends have led to further fragmentation of the party system, as well as within the parties.

Until the 1980s, only three parties counted in the German parliament. With the exception of a grand coalition, the iron rule was that the small liberal FDP formed a coalition either with the center-right Christian Democratic CDU or with the center-left Social Democratic SPD. Things changed when the Green Party entered the scene, and about two decades later Die Linke became an established voice on the left of the SPD. With the recent addition of the AfD, there are now six relevant parties in parliament, and a simple arithmetic consequence is that elections no longer produce the configurations needed to form bipartite governments, with the exception of a “large coalition ”of the population considerably reduced. SPD and CDU.

The more subtle consequence is that the old big parties, CDU and SPD, have vocal competitors to their right and to their left, to which they cannot easily react due to a dialectical effect of increased fragmentation. In search of votes, the two traditional parties have moved to the middle voter in the center – and while this move is a pragmatic strategy for party survival, it has created a space at the ends of the spectrum in which the new parties can thrive.

The shift to the center is strongly linked to the second dynamic, namely that coalition governments operate by accepting compromises between parties, which in turn can sow disenchantment among the population. The effect is not new; but while at the end of the 1960s it led to extra-parliamentary opposition, today the fringe parties are in reality in parliament.

In addition, during her leadership of three consecutive coalition governments, Merkel has shown extraordinary ability to produce compromises and has been able to present the government’s successes as true achievements of her consensual style. Therefore, his former coalition partners are all terrified of repeating the experience.

Some figures illustrate this fear well. After participating in the first grand coalition with the CDU (2005-09), support for the SPD fell from 34.2% to 23%; this figure fell again to around 20% in the last election. Notably, the SPD suffered these losses despite an impressive performance in government, having kept all of its big promises, including supposedly un-swallowable policies for the CDU like the introduction of a minimum wage.

For the FDP, the shock was even more traumatic. Not only did he fall from the government, but he was totally excluded from parliament in 2013. While the party entered the coalition government with the best electoral results in its history, four years later it saw its very existence. threatened.

With the exception of the Greens, who have not yet governed with Merkel, the opposition appears to be the most attractive position, if not the safest, for the German parties. While the SPD came to this immediate conclusion on election night, the FDP rather reluctantly entered pre-coalition talks. The party has put on a panoply of demands to avoid taking on the image of a compromise taker, formulating red lines mainly to show that it will stick to its principles.

The failure of the pre-coalition talks between the four parties, representing the colors of the Jamaican flag, put the ball back in the SPD’s court and brings us to the third dynamic – the internal party battles. The SPD does not appear to be at all prepared for coalition negotiations: no clear list of demands, no clear analysis and public criticism of the failed talks in Jamaica, and not even an unequivocal internal party line on whether to ‘a grand coalition. These whites are also distracting from a debate over who is responsible for the failure of coalition talks with the CDU, which so far has simply rejected the option of a minority government.

The pros and cons of a renewed grand coalition challenge all parties. The strongest thing is that new elections will most likely produce the same results, or could even further strengthen the AfD. The Bavarian CSU, the CDU’s sister party, is particularly nervous about this prospect, as it has suffered huge losses at the hands of the AfD (AfD + 12.4%, CSU -10.5%). The CDU lost votes after the last grand coalition, but hopes to forge another with the SPD. This has worked in the past and would offer the possibility of reorganizing the party in government (and possibly changing the chancellor mid-term to herald the post-Merkel era). Thus, the CDU hopes to lobby for a grand coalition and portray any defection as harmful to the country.

The argument in favor of the SPD is more complex. The party leadership may be in secure seats, but many in the lower ranks risk losing everything if there is a new election. On the program side, the SPD could push for far-reaching policies in return for entry into a coalition government, such as pension and health insurance reform, and a credible move towards Macron in the European politics. They could indeed shape policies, but the risk is great that this will translate again into electoral gains for the more visible parties to their left, and again allow the CDU to escape at the expense of the SPD. In short, the SPD could win politically, but believe it would put its very existence in jeopardy, as Merkel has proven to be an excellent policy implementer and credit taker.

However, despite the apparent turmoil over the formation of the government, the current situation is neither hopeless nor devoid of valuable opportunities. As I said at the start, the German situation is indicative of broader trends affecting Western democracies: parties in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere are grappling with the interdependent effects of the increase in pluralistic societies and the shift from a left-right tendency to divide to one that separates the winners and losers of globalization. The traditional party systems of these states are not well equipped to adapt to this increasingly dominant social division. Leaders like Trump and Macron have reacted to this change, and although their responses are significantly different in content, they have both broken with traditional party logics. The beauty of a “Jamaican coalition” would have been in its ability to pressure parties to do the unthinkable so far and actually restructure the party landscape.

Alternatively, a minority government led by the CDU could be a chance to tackle broader structural challenges. In this regard, the temptation to opt for a grand coalition should be avoided. This would not only strengthen the AfD’s status as the most important and therefore predominant opposition party in the German parliament. It would also avoid, once again, the need to reshape the party landscape in Germany. According to this interpretation, the 2017 election should be read as a vote for differentiation, for party distinction and for the end of the brand of compromise politics, which makes those who see themselves on the losing side in society feel ignored by traditional parties. . Ultimately, this puts particular emphasis on one factor in the struggle to form a government: Chancellor Merkel’s outspoken and highly effective style of government.

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Note: This article originally appeared on The UK in a changing Europe. It gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the Author

Eva heidbreder – University of Magdeburg
Eva Heidbreder is Professor of Multilevel Governance in Europe at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg. His research areas include topics such as effective and legitimate governance in the EU, horizontal implementation networks in EU policymaking, civil society participation – including research questions concrete issues such as the Brexit negotiation process.


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