Whereas the international media considered the German election boring and prearranged, the outcome in fact contained dramatic results. At first sight, nothing much changed: Chancellor Angela Merkel will stay in office and appears to be a constant in German politics. The person Merkel seems to matter whereas the other parties appear to be negligible variables and the distribution of seats in parliament a sideshow. Building a new government will prove a challenge however, with a far-right party in the parliament for the first time since 1949 holding nearly 12.5% of all seats.
Merkel’s Christ-Democratic Party (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens will likely form a government. The Social-Democratic Party (SPD), meanwhile, will go into opposition after yielding the party’s worst result since 1949. The CDU–despite remaining the strongest party– and other established parties in Germany suffered a similar disease: they all lost votes to other parties. The populist right-wing AfD ultimately benefited most from the voter migration.
The AfD rose to power by addressing people’s fears during the refugee crisis. Since then the party has made waves by holding extreme positions on migration while neglecting other policy fields. A not-inconsiderable share of the population felt that other parties ignored their worries and did not take voters’ interests sufficiently into account. One of the main reasons behind support for the AfD from swing voters and non-voters was to provoke and punish the “establishment”. The populists’ leitmotiv was the mismanagement of the refugee crisis, which attracted voters. However, the reasons why the established parties lost voters were unique and manifold for each.
Many CDU voters were disappointed by their party’s deviation from classic conservative beliefs. With the introduction of minimum wage, the opening of borders during the refugee crisis, and the legalisation of gay marriage–“the last bastion of conservative values”–voters turned their backs on the party. Although well-aware of these problems, CDU efforts sought instead to address another problem: poor performance in urban areas. In response to rising inequality and exploding housing prices, cities vote in favour of Socialist parties.
Another issue the CDU faced was an ongoing fight with its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU, which took a conservative position in the refugee crisis. This conflict signalled instability to voters. Despite their more restrictive take on immigration, however, the CSU still lost votes to the AfD.
The SPD seemed to be riding on a wave of success when they introduced Martin Schulz as a candidate. A noticeable amount of young people joined the party, an apparent reversal of the trend of a dying party. However, classic Social-Democratic voters were disappointed by the unique focus on social justice during the election campaign and Schulz’s tame behaviour towards Merkel during the election debate.
The Green Party alienated their base through a persistent disharmony. Traditionally, the party is split ideologically into a realist wing and a radical wing. The refugee crisis and the prospect of a potential coalition with the Christ-Democrats have caused severe conflicts within the party. Even though the Greens did not lose a significant share in the election, the voters whom they lost mostly switched to the extreme left and the liberals, which represent valid alternatives to each wing.
The Left, the socialist party traditionally strong in the economically weak regions of Eastern Germany, suffered significantly despite keeping their result from last period constant. The party failed to address people’s fears of refugees as an economic threat. A common belief among economically weak voters is that immigrants would replace Germans on the labour market and would exploit of the tax-funded social system.
An exception to the described pattern is the liberal FDP. Although the Liberals lost voters to the AfD as well, they managed to get themselves out of their recent crisis. Through a complete makeover and an exhaustive personality cult of the core candidate Christian Lindner, FDP managed to enter the parliament after having failed to reach the 5%-threshold in the 2013 election. Their strong focus on digitalisation gained the votes from the younger generation, wealthy social-liberals, and the free-market conservative wing of the CDU.
Even though the re-election of Merkel signifies stability, this election revealed a significant change in the political landscape. Germany might be a late adopter of populism, but this does not downplay the threat to society. On the other hand, this result serves as a wakeup-call to the established parties as voters democratically legitimised the AfD. The outcome should be an incentive for the established parties to listen closer to their voters’ needs and present a more attractive profile. Yet, the other parties should accept AfD’s status as a democratic party to enable productive collaboration or confrontation. In conclusion, the outcome of the equation which describes the German government might seem the same, but there has been a change of variables. The chancellor remains the same, but the new government will be a vector of four variables which will make the equation harder to solve. Merkel ceteris paribus does not hold anymore.
(Source for all the data used in diagrams: Infratest imap)
by Jacqueline Seufert