The German Election and What it Means for Europe and the World

Editor's note: This piece is a contribution from listener Max Lein

On 24 September the citizens of Europe's most populous country will be called to the ballot boxes, and Angela Merkel is vying for re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor after 12 years in office. Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is leading the “Great Coalition,” so named because the CDU forms a government with its junior partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which has received the second-most seats in the German Bundestag.

The next German government will have a full plate. On the European level, it will have to contend with difficult Brexit negotiations, find a new direction on how to evolve the EU, tackle the refugee crisis, and think of ways to deal with the erosion of democratic norms in countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. It will also have to re-think its relation to the United States after President Trump has canceled the free trade deal with the EU in its current form, exited the Paris Accords, and put the US's commitment to NATO in question.

Fortunately for Germany, it can enter negotiations from a position of strength: Europe's largest economy is currently in good shape, it is outperforming its big European neighbors, it has a budget surplus, and France - Germany's closest partner in the European Union - has just elected a Europhile President who has the backing of the French parliament.

The German Political Landscape: Consensus

According to recent polls, 80 percent of Germans think that the EU should fill the void left by the US in international politics, and 93 percent favor stronger collaboration in defense matters on the EU level. Here, the distinction between Europe and Germany is crucial. Independently of the political bent, Germans strongly support the European project — not just as an economic union, but one that aims at furthering the political integration of the member states. This commitment is partly rooted in the shared suffering during the two World Wars. The inner logic of a lot of European politics reveals itself when viewed through the lens of post-WW2 politics. The Euro, for example, was France's asking price for the German reunification and any increase in Germany's military spending is seen very skeptically by its European neighbors. Therefore, Germany's strategy is to push for more collaboration on military spending on the European level,.

There is also overwhelming consensus when it comes to how President Trump is viewed: according to Deutschlandtrend his favorability rating is at a staggering 5 percent. Polls by Pew similarly show a precipitous drop in trust since Trump took office, not just in Germany but worlwide with the exception of Russia and Israel. Trump's numbers compare very unfavorably even to Theresa May's who polls at 22 percent despite her push for a hard Brexit. Trust in the US as a partner has fallen from 59 percent in November 2016 to 21 percent in June 2017; the US is now tied with Russia. These numbers should not be simplistically interpreted as anti-Americanism, but correlate strongly with Trump's pre-election behavior and post-election policies. More on that will be discussed below.

Domestically, Germany's single payer healthcare system (which Germany has had since the 1880s!), the existence of global warming, shutting down all nuclear power plants by 2022 and the move to renewable energies are not political demarcation lines.

One topic that could have been a major difference between the ruling CDU and the other parties was the full equalization of homosexual civil unions and heterosexual marriages. Since all potential coalition partners of Merkel's CDU promised that this would be a non-negotiable item of any coalition agreement, Merkel decided to allow parliament to vote on it, and a mere week later, the Bundestag voted for full equalization with a comfortable 63 percent majority. (A vote in parliament without the CDU's placet would have meant the SPD had had to break the current coalition agreement, thereby triggering a governmental crisis just before the election.)

There are differences on policy details, of course, such as how to best switch to renewable energies and how to adapt the health care system to the demographic change and the retiring baby boomers in particular.

Points of Separation: An Overview of the Party Landscape

There are currently 7 political parties which are likely to enter the next parliament. The two with the most seats, the Christian Democrats (CDU and the Bavarian CSU) and the Social Democrats are considered the “big parties”, because they would be the ones who would lead a coalition with one or more parties. The other parties, the Liberal Democrats (FDP), the Green Party, the Left (yes, that is their actual name) as well as the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) are smaller parties. Traditionally, the Chancellor is the party leader of the strongest party and the Vice Chancellor the leader of the junior partner.

The dynamics between larger and smaller parties is a staple of German politics. Typically, smaller parties have a sharper profile and gather votes on a few select issues. The Green Party in the mid-1990s pushed very hard for phasing out nuclear power plants in Germany and for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Once these then-fringe issues have become main stream, that small party would often experience a slump in the polls until it found its next issue. Apart from injecting new topics into politics, small parties allow voters to express displeasure with their preferred party without “wasting” their votes. In an election year where a coalition between the CDU and the FDP looks likely, a CDU voter could vote for the FDP if he or she is unhappy with the state of the CDU but would still like to ensure that a coalition of the two comes to be.

To understand which space each party occupies on the political spectrum, especially the FDP and the Green Party, it is necessary to go beyond the one-dimensional left-right axis that might be useful for countries with few parties. Moreover, one should not use the political demarcation lines of US politics to decide which party is on the “left” of the spectrum and which is on the “right.” Universal healthcare and acceptance of global climate change are not divisive issues, and therefore do not serve to meaningfully distinguish between political ideologies in Germany.

The Two Big Parties Occupy the Center

The Social Democrats moved towards the center in 1998 with Gerhard Schröder who became Chancellor in a coalition with the Green Party. A lot of their policies still echo almost 20 years afterwards, including abandoning nuclear power in favor of renewable energies, civil unions for homosexual couples and fundamental reforms of the social security system (dubbed Agenda 2010). With Merkel, also the Christian Democrats moved towards the center by abandoning many unpopular policy stances (e. g. support for nuclear power and mandatory military service). As a consequence, both parties fight for the same voting blocks in the middle and programmatic differences between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have become harder to discern.

One of the main issues is how to best deal with the roughly one million refugees currently residing in Germany, and what kind of immigration law to adopt. The CDU wants to introduce yearly caps which on the one hand do not seem particularly relevant, and on the other might be unconstitutional (the right to seek asylum is enshrined in the German constitution). Another issue is what to do with the budget surplus: the CDU wants to prioritize tax breaks while the SPD wants to increase investments in public infrastructure.

This “lack of distinct political profile” has led to fractures in the traditional voting blocks. In 2005 the “Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Equality” was formed by members of the left wing of the Social Democrats who were unhappy with the SPD's move to the center. The CDU is facing a similar movement with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) who is also appealing to conservative voters for whom Merkel has too readily abandoned certain policy positions. This split has affected the SPD in particular as it has lost a significant voting share since then. It remains to be seen whether the AfD is a lasting phenomenon, and will take a significant vote share from the CDU.

The Small Parties as a Corrective

Christian Social Union

The C*D*U appears only on the ballots of 15 of the 16 states, in Bavaria people can caste their vote for the C*S*U (Christian Social Union). While CDU and CSU are two different parties, the see themselves as “sister parties” which have been in a *de facto* permanent coalition since 1949. Bavaria is a very independently-minded state, the German analog of Texas perhaps, where the inhabitants tend think of themselves as Bavarians first and Germans second. Unlike the name might suggest, the CSU is much more conservative than the CDU at large and sees itself representing Bavaria's interests on the federal level, and is so successful in elections that it can govern without a coalition partner. 

The Liberal Democrats

The oldest small party in post-WW2 Germany are the Liberal Democrats (FDP) who traditionally have a libertarian bent and have appealed to well-educated, middle class voters (disparagingly called the party of doctors and lawyers). They used to be strong on the protection of individual freedoms and privacy, with an emphasis on personal responsibility, the rule of law, free trade, and education. However, as of late the party has been in a bit of a philosophical crisis after narrowly missing 5 percent of the votes in 2013 which are necessary in order to enter parliament. The FDP's marquee issue in this election is to improve education. To quote the party's official program, they want to lead a “man to the moon” project in order to give Germany the best education program in the world. Another key issue is improving the conditions for founders of new companies as well as small and medium businesses.

The Green Party

The Green Party  was born of various political movements from the late 1970s and early 1980s that were against nuclear power, in favor of laws protecting the environment, feminism, for pacifism and a New Left. There was also a significant conservative element as the pacifism and environmentalism movements included a lot of Catholics who saw the world and the environment as part of God's creation that deserved protection. Many of the views that once were radical have since become main stream, e. g. the push for renewable energy and gay rights can be attributed to the rise of the Green Party. The Green Party has entered coalitions with the Social Democrats and, more recently, also with the Christian Democrats. The Green Party has long become fully main stream, it is currently a member of 10 out of 16 state governmental ruling coalitions. In one quite conservative state, the Green Party has become the party with the most seats and replaced a conservative Christian Democrat as the state's prime minister. The Green Party's main principles, social progressivism coupled with (financial and environmental) sustainability, have proved attractive to especially urban voters of all stripes as it promises to combine social progressivism with financial conservatism. The main campaign issues are abandoning coal power plants until 2030 and the switch to all-electric mobility (e. g. from 2030 all new cars sold have to be electric). Other promises include a commitment to a multicultural society, better integration of refugees, imposing stricter privacy protections for consumers and a push for net neutrality as well as a better way to mitigate negative side effects of global trade.

The Left (Die Linke)

The Left  is the union of two rather distinct movements: left-leaning former Social Democrats in the former West of Germany and left-over communists in former Eastern Germany. This schism becomes visible on many policy positions, because German Social Democrats are very distinct from what many Americans might consider socialist or communist parties. (The SPD (founded in 1863) predates Karl Marx's “Das Kapital” from 1867, the manifesto that socialism and communism as we understand it now are based on.) The Western wing of The Left as well as all other main stream parties are very critical of the Eastern wing's tendency to be uncritical of the crimes committed during the East German dictatorship. For these reasons the SPD on the federal level and in the formerly West German states are currently not open to a coalition with the Left; in the East they belong to 3 out of 5 state governments. Its policy ideas are quite traditional, critical of global trade, against military interventions and using the taxation system to redistribute the money from the affluent to the poor.

The latest addition to the German political system is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). None of the established parties are open to a coalition with the AfD. It feeds of the same trends and fears that are attributed to the rise populism in the US with Donald Trump as well as other Western countries: skepticism towards the European Union and multiculturalism (Islam in particular), a renewed focus on the nation state and the Germans as a people, and distinctly against refugees and asylum seekers. Amongst all main stream German parties, they are also the home of a lot of climate change skeptics — something rather unusual in Germany. The AfD supports a strong social safety net, although it wants to offer this safety net only to Germans. They reject what is viewed as “immigration into the German social safety net”. A lot of the AfD's policy positions oscillate between neoliberalism and arch conservatism — and further than that. There have been numerous scandals where party officials have been anti-Semitic and espoused right wing extremist and Christian fundamentalist ideology.

Potential Coalitions

Alternative for Deutschland

Of those six parties, only four are open to coalitions as the Left and the AfD intend to stay in the opposition. And they would not be able to find a partner willing to enter a coalition with them either.

Judging from current polls, the CDU will remain in power. So let us start with possible CDU-led coalitions. A very likely option is a continuation of the center-right/center-left Great Coalition between CDU and SPD. Other likely combinations are a coalition of CDU and FDP or the so-called Jamaica coalition between CDU, FDP and Green Party (since the colors associated to those parties, black, yellow and green, are found in Jamaica's flag). A traffic light coalition between SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and Green Party is also an option.

The German-American Relationship and How It Will Be Affected by the Election

For decades Germany's most important partner outside of Europe has been the United States. And while the friendship has been strained over the last decade-and-a-half, skepticism of US administrations and their policies should not be conflated with anti-Americanism. While anti-Americanism certainly exists to a certain degree, from the German perspective the growing distance between the US and Germany is the result of a number of policy positions and decisions by various US administrations.

Merkel's change in tone represents a sea change in the attitude towards the US that will have long-lasting effects on the trans Atlantic partnership. The reason being that both of the major parties, including the more US-friendly conservatives, will treat the US with more skepticism, less like a friend and close ally, and more like a business partner. Therefore, independently of what coalition will be elected to lead Germany for the next four years, its stance towards the US will likely be very similar. Where previously there might have been an implicit trust in diplomatic dealing, in the future the German side will proceed with much more caution.

It is important to not just blame this on Donald Trump, the estrangement between the US and its traditional allies in Europe has started in the George W. Bush years. The Bush Administration has pushed for a number of policies, chief among them the invasion of Iraq that much of the population of European countries were strongly opposed to, but skepticism towards climate change among other things should also be mentioned. Initially the CDU was still willing to join the US-led coalition into Iraq. In fact, it cost the CDU an electoral victory in 2002 when the conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber would not rule out that German troops participate in the war in Iraq in a TV debate with Gerhard Schröder. Contrast this to the close relationship between Germany and George W. Bush's father whose role was pivotal in the German reunification just a decade earlier.

Donald Trump's behavior pushed even the German conservatives over the edge: From the vantage point of Germany, the most important political issues are preserving the European Union, fighting global climate change and stemming the rising tide of autocratism in Turkey and Eastern Europe in particular. Donald Trump has openly supported Brexit and criticized the EU, abandoned the Paris Accord and claimed the treaty's intent was to harm the US, and seemingly used every opportunity to say nice things about various autocratic leaders while chiding its European allies (and Germany in particular). This is in addition to Trump's thinly veiled anti-Semitic, racist and sexist overtones, many of which would have permanently ended his career if he were a German politician.

Also behind the scenes the relationship has taken a turn for the worse: on several occasions German diplomatic efforts were stymied by the sheer lack of people in the US's State Department — on several occasions German diplomats literally had no one to talk to about important issues due to the plethora of unfilled positions in the State Department. President Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Germany and the European Union, for example, and during low-level diplomatic meetings on Germany's trade surplus the US counterparts were reportedly ill-prepared. This makes maintaining proper diplomatic relationships very difficult.

For many international initiatives, the US won't be part of the discussion — not because it is being excluded by its partners, but by its own choice. And if the world's no. 1 economy decides to step aside, then no. 2, 3 and 4 will naturally fill the void. That is why there is are more eyes on Chancellor Merkel than ever, and Germany as the West's largest economy has to step up.

It is not all bad, though. In a recent campaign speech for the Social Democrats their candidate Martin Schulz called for Germans to take a page from American virtues and be more daring and that young people should have to courage to try new things. While this was just a campaign speech, the mere fact that this characterization of Americans was included in the campaign speech of a center-left politician is telling. The American people are still admired, envied, for their optimism and can-do-anything attitude, despite the facts and naysayers. That is how the US sent men to the moon within a decade, relying on less computing power than the smartphone we currently carry in our pocket. That is why it is home to Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook. However, this great strength can turn into weakness if the US decides to move down the wrong path, undeterred by the warnings of friends and allies.