How to Interpret the 2017 German Election Results By Richard R. Moeller
The results of the German federal election which occurred on Sunday the 24th of September caught some by surprise. Yet, the results were, in many ways, predictable. Elections, like decisions we make in our personal lives, are most important when viewed through the lens of scale. Indeed, it is the degree of change that we notice, not the lack of it. Elections and consequently the anticipation of policy decisions associated with voting shape the future in ways unknown. So when the degree of change is considerable, whether it was predicted accurately or not, it means a lot. The German election and the degree of potential change moving forward means a great deal to those who care about policy. The intensity of the election demonstrated that many in Germany do.
There are three pressing issues that need to be considered in the German post-election environment. First there are the coalition possibilities and the simple math of parliamentary governance. Second is the rise of the Right and the instability that may very well arise from an ideologically divided parliament on issues of sovereignty. Finally, the third issue is the loss of partisan support of the Center and the contribution of Angela Merkel to this, if any. Other issues, such as the relationship between Germany and the United States, will become more pronounced if and when a government is created which may take months to work out.
Parliamentary coalition governments occur when a single party fails to gain a majority after an election. From time to time, coalition talks break down and fail; however, this is unheard of in Germany. Even though the 2013 election took over 80 days to figure out, it eventually did. The “German Model” of mutual interest despite differences has been hailed as effective consensus governance by scholars of political systems. Now, this is in question.
The second place Social Democratic Party (SPD) relegated itself to a protest party even before the final results were in. Without the second largest party, Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) along with the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) who acts as one during elections (not at other times, however) cannot continue the mathematically straightforward majority any longer. That means the CDU will have to look elsewhere. Yet they cannot look everywhere.
Every major party has sworn off any coalition talks with the Rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD). Right now the best and most talked about possibility is the “Jamaican Flag” coalition based on the colors of the Christian Democrats (black), the yellow of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. Both the Free Democrats and the Greens are uneasy about this potential arrangement since each of their respective policy prescriptions is contradictory to the other. With the second (SPD) and third (AfD) place parties out of contention, the math screams out Jamaica or nothing. Merkel will have to concede much to these parties before they will agree.
The rise of Rightist parties is not new to Europe. It is new, in the ways that matter, to Germany. The Wars of the 20th Century demanded that. Germany now joins most other European states with this uneasy arrangement. The AfD is a new party and it has intensity, but it also is prone to recklessness and infighting. Recently one of the only AfD candidates to win first place (there where only three) has decided to sit in the Bundestag as an independent. Moreover, she once was the party leader.
Germans cast two votes and the second of these votes is for party. It was this national partisan survey vote that propelled the AfD forward with nearly 13 per cent. How the AfD handles representation is the major question. The hope is that as the party has to instinctively compromise to have its voice considered, it will moderate its positions. The dread is that the Right will only participate in the parliament to obstruct or pull others in on issues like immigration and national sovereignty and oppose international cooperation like the European Union.
On the night of the election, reports started to call the results “Merkel’s Nightmare Victory.” It’s true that the CDU won; however, it was her party’s worst showing since 1949 (when Germany was restructured after the 2nd World War). Both the Center Right and Center Left parties saw heavy losses overall. Between them, they only account for 53 per cent of the electorate compared to plus or minus 80 per cent for most of the post-war period.
The CDU/CSU lost 8.6 per cent. The SPD suffered the biggest loss of the election with only 20.5 per cent support which was down 5.2 per cent from the last election. The two fringe parties (AfD and the Left Party) won more votes together with 22 per cent than the SPD. It can be argued that the SPD is no longer a major party and they even recognized this, to a certain degree, on election night. As in sports, the SPD is now in a “rebuilding mode.”
Ultimately, the makeup of the Bundestag will change. Moving forward, it’s more evenly spread out between the parties that made it over the five percent hurdle. The problem, generally, is that parliamentary structures that are evenly spread with multiple parties tend to have more problems compromising. This produces rigidity and even a congestion of overlapping ideas which is more often found in two party presidential systems like the United States.
If a Jamaican flag coalition is created, and it looks like that is the only real option now, many argue that it could break down at any point. This has happened before. The Free Democrats (part of this Jamaica color arrangement) are prone to political swaps. In fact, the FDP was involved in the two quickest coalitions historically - once in 1969 with Willy Brandt’s SPD and once in 1983 with Helmut Kohl’s CDU. Getting and keeping a new government will be something to watch.
Lastly, without the Greens and the FDP agreeing that it’s in their own best interests to remain in government, parliamentary party shifting could occur or even another election might become necessary. If members of just one of these parties feels out-of-place or alienated they could walk away, like in 1983. With 12.6 per cent, the AFD might seem like an inviting partner. That’s a bit in the weeds at this point and unattractive to put it mildly. Jamaica is the takeaway from all this. How stable and long-lasting this union of three can be, is the hope and concern.
Richard R. Moeller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.