Has Germany, a country considered one of the most stable democracies in the world, presided over by the same Chancellor for the last 12 years, become ungovernable? The 2017 general election campaign was considered by many observers to be one of the most boring in recent German history. This may well have been misleading since the results have plunged the Bundesrepublik into political turmoil.
In several ways, this election implies the end of the German political model as we have known it since 1949. Contemporary Germany has come to the end of its normalisation course. Sadly, this means that it is now a more “normal” (North) Western European country in which an increasing number of people are afraid of the perceived threats arising from opening the physical, economic and cultural national boundaries.
The erosion of the Volksparteien
With a loss of respectively 8.5 and 5.2% of the votes, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are clearly the main losers. Who can govern with a majority? is one question. Who wants to govern is another, interesting question. Listening to the post-election talk show on public TV on Sunday night, it seemed that nobody wanted to take office with Mrs Merkel, everybody appealing to the others’ “responsibility”.
Arithmetically, the clearest majority goes to a grand coalition but Martin Schulz has already firmly ruled this out. Participating in grand coalitions has made his party a bland junior partner of the CDU/CSU, a position which has been electorally very costly. Thus, he stressed the need to revive the political confrontation between a “democratic left” and a “democratic right”, in other words a government-opposition dynamic which has long been forgotten due to the centripetal trend induced by the German political party system.
Then, given the modest results of all three middle-range parties – the Liberals of the FDP (10.5%), the Radical left (Die Linke: 9.2%), and the Greens (8.9%) – only a so-called Jamaica coalition (Conservatives, Liberals, Greens) is possible. But given the incompatibility between the different programmes of the CSU and FDP with the ideas of the Greens, the various party leaders – and the re-elected Chancellor – have been very reluctant to embrace such a novelty. It is therefore yet to be seen whether Jamaica will make it, for the first time, into the federal government.
The two main catch-all government parties – CDU/CSU and SPD – are undergoing a historically unprecedented (since 1949) erosion of their electoral base . This is not without similarity to what we saw in the last French presidential election. On the other hand, none of the smaller parties has a clear enough result to play the pivotal role in what specialists of German politics have traditionally called the M-Party or middle party which determines the nature of the governing coalition.
Voters have clearly got rid of the well-established routine of 20th century-style German politics and Angela Merkel seemed rather lonely last night, even afraid that the system may slide into instability.
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The rise of the xenophobic radical right
The main novelty of this election is of course the spectacular breakthrough of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which not only enters the Bundestag, but will also occupy 96 seats or only 59 seats less than the SDP (out of 709). Should a grand coalition be eventually formed, the radical right would be the main opposition force.
The AfD has done nothing more but surf the same wave as other radical right parties in Europe. Founded by a bunch of anti-Euro academics, it has progressively turned into a racist, anti-migrant and anti-Islam party. It has succeeded in mobilising mainly non-voters, but also over one million CDU/CSU voters, about 500 000 SPD voters, and 430 000 voters from Die Linke. Besides exploiting people’s fears, a main reason for its success is in the name: it pretends to offer an alternative, that is to restore what democracy is about: choice.
This, again, shows that 21st century Germany is no longer the endless penitent nation expiating the crimes of WW2, but a more “normal” country where fear, egoism and aspirations to a revolution based on (ultra)conservative values are legitimised by certain political actors. This recalls the way Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, called for a “droite décomplexée” a few years ago in France.
The long goodbye to Social Democracy
While the German Social Democrats seemed to have fared better than their European counterparts, yesterday’s result show that this is not the case, with the party now being at a historical low of 20.5% of the votes. From a European perspective, the SPD’s problems are anything but peculiar. Like many other social democratic or socialist parties, the party has been praised by many conservatives and liberals for the neoliberal reforms conducted in the Schröder era, but it has remained internally divided and has been muddling through in an ideological vacuum ever since.
How to reconcile the necessary openness of the economy and society while preserving the interests of the grassroots and the most fragile groups? How can the economy serve human development and welfare rather than the other away round? How to make sure that the production of wealth brings about a better life for everybody and not just a few? These are the questions which have remained for too long unanswered by the Social Democrats. More often than not, they have relied on empty mottos accompanied by mild proposals at best, or badly disguised neoliberal recipes at worst.
Schulz seems now to think, rightly so, that going into the opposition is a must. Yet, looking at the Labour Party or the French Socialists (PS) – not to mention the débacle of socialist parties in Southern Europe – a cure in opposition may not be sufficient to bring the SPD the kind of programmatic re-foundation needed to provide credible perspectives for a large number of voters.
The end of a European Germany
Finally, this year’s election has key implications with regard to the German position in the expected new historical grand bargain aimed at reshaping the European Union.
The federal government’s EU policy is bound to be a bone of contention in the talks between the Liberals and the Greens (and the CSU!) over a possible coalition agreement. While the Liberals used to be a rather pro-integration party, the FDP’s current leader Christian Lindner has taken a clear defensive course, arguing against any further financial and political involvement of Germany in the EU. In contrast, the Greens remain proponents of a federal type of integration in Europe.
The coming of age of a Jamaica coalition would undeniably make things difficult for Emmanuel Macron, who will be judged for his ability to shift German positions on further integration of the Eurozone in exchange for making France more compliant with the German model of competitiveness. From this point of view, a grand coalition would be preferable.
This, again, reflects a longer development in German politics. Unlike former Chancellors, Merkel has not be ruling a country whose main EU policy was to show its allegiance to an ever closer EU. Progressively, Germany has become very concerned with its own self-interest, like any other EU Member State.
Although cautiously – some say reluctantly – Merkel has come to assert Germany’s economic and political hegemony over Europe, in a way that reflects an old classical game of inter-state power relations, rather than a new post-national constellation where interdependence is managed through cooperation and equally shared (though asymmetric) sovereignty.
The campaign may have been boring, but the outcomes of the 2017 general election turn out to be tremendously important. Germany’s normalisation is coming of age and the implications for Europe as a whole are still to come.
Amandine Crespy is associate professor in political science and European studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles and vice-director of its Centre d'études de la vie politique (Cevipol). She is author most recently of The European Social Question: Tackling Key Controversies (Agenda).