German Elections: Roundup

Clearing out the link trap.

If the CDU’s results are anything like the polls, its leadership is going to be cleared out willy nilly, with numerous top politicians losing their coveted direct mandate parliamentary seats. The classic pol’s solution to this problem is to have your party put you near the top of the proportional list section of the ballot – if you don’t win your direct mandate you’ll probably get in as a list candidate, and although direct mandates trump, if you do win one of your party colleagues will just “nachrücken” and move up the list one spot. However, Armin Laschet’s personal numbers are so dreadful even being the no.1 on the CDU list might not save him.

Wolfgang Schäuble probably won’t need that – his lead in his own patch is over thirty percentage points – but he might not last as speaker of the Bundestag, seeing as the CDU isn’t going to be a majority, the CSU is deeply bitter at him about Laschet’s nomination, and people are angry he hasn’t condemned Hans-George Maaßen enough. Maaßen himself looks likely to be a problem that solves itself, by losing.

The FDP is trying very hard to condemn things while also not actually ruling out any coalition option, even one with Laschet as chancellor and the CDU isn’t the biggest party. With the Left party on 6%, though, the FDP’s chances of being in the coalition are strong pretty much whatever they say.

The distinction between the direct and list candidates always leads to interesting shenanigans. If a party overperforms, not only does it need extra list candidates to get its proportional whack, it also needs to fill the slots that went to direct candidates. This guy is 60th on a SPD regional list but is now unexpectedly faced with power. There will be quite a few like him; the workings of the electoral system mean that the size of the Bundestag varies with the relationship between direct and list candidates, and this year promises to take it well over the current 709 MPs, already a record.

The Greens had a party conference with a week to go and it was awkward, as Robert Habeck could only just restrain himself from saying he should have been the candidate. Fortunately the coalition-making process will probably put off the night of the long cargo bikes reckoning for quite a while.

Here’s a look round the odds and sods. 47 parties are taking part this year, down to the Gardeners’ Party, the Party for a Humane World, and The Base. This is mostly important because the more votes that go to parties that fail to get the necessary 5% or two direct seats, the fewer you need to be a majority in the Bundestag. The biggest and really the only one likely to come close is the Independent Voters. This will be most familiar to AFOE readers as the CSU’s Mini-Me coalition partner in Bavaria, but it’s had a weird pandemic, morphing into an antivax protest group and winning state-level seats outside Bavaria for the first time. Polls put it at 2-4% nationally, but at least on the regional level, the CSU has found it necessary to call it out by name. The Base, meanwhile, is a frankly disturbing collection of virus quacks, Holocaust deniers, and a celebrity hatter practising as a lawyer under a false name, and I have questions as to why it chose a name that’s a literal translation of “Al-Qa’ida”, although its leader is almost certainly wrong in predicting it will get 20 per cent of the vote.

YouTube star Rezo issued his final pre-election rant, denouncing all parties as corrupt and encouraging viewers to vote – presumably for the gardeners or someone? He does seem to be the only actor in the election to mention the whole thing where ice-cream king August von Finck just paid for the whole opposition to doing anything about the Eurozone crisis, other than me.

Candidates are older, richer, and more likely to be men than Germans in general, which isn’t much of a surprise.


So we blogged about the CDU’s successful blitz on the Greens, and Armin Laschet’s subsequent no good very bad campaign. We talked about Laschet’s team for the future, now with added Friedrich Merz, and what was becoming of the political constituency Angela Merkel put together. It’s probably time to deal with the Social Democrats and their sudden surge into the lead. After all, even if the 2017 Martin Schulz spike reversed very quickly and the Green rocket came back down like the proverbial stick, the SPD is holding a lead of between three and six points into the final week, so if anything’s going to reverse it better do it sharpish.

A lot of commentary about the SPD uses the concept of “PASOKification”, the idea that Western social democratic parties are all doomed due to their compromises with neoliberalism. You can see where they’re coming from – at least you could when they weren’t No.1 – but the concept is a huge stretch. To state the glaringly obvious, Germany’s experience across the Merkel era was not very much like Greece’s. The comparison is positively offensive. And the SPD was in government for quite a lot of it. The party’s membership has halved since 1990, but it’s worth noting that it lost almost as many members in opposition as it did in government, and the count has levelled off since 2015 around 400,000, a little more than the CDU. In terms of its share of vote, the thesis holds up a bit better – the first grand coalition, 2005-2009, hurt much more than anything else. This ignores the regional level entirely, though. Throughout this period the party has routinely led state governments and realized shares of the vote as high as 40%. They’re not back because they never went away.

The bigger problem with this argument is the decline of the CDU and indeed the CSU. Germany, the country of the small and medium-sized business, has developed a system of small and medium-sized parties. The CDU/CSU polled 40% as recently as 2015, came close to that during its pandemic bounce, but is now struggling to keep above the 20% mark while the Greens try to establish themselves over it. The CSU’s own special powerbase in Bavaria is again under serious threat.

This is the kind of party landscape you might expect in a country with a strongly federal, parliamentary, and proportional constitution reflecting strong particularist local traditions, and of course, those things are all true of Germany, being major features of the 1949 constitution (constitutions, thinking of the states) and really of its deeper history. Politics as it is practised, though, often doesn’t look much like that. Instead, in most German campaigns until now, there were two big parties of which it was expected one would win, quite possibly taking over 40 per cent of the vote, just like Conservatives and Labour or Democrats and Republicans. Coalitions were common, but they either took the form of a dominant party plus a small party, or else of a grand coalition of the big two. Campaigns focused on the party leaders as if they were electing a president, although only the relatively few voters in each party leader’s patch would actually have them on the ballot.

This phenomenon is common in parliamentary systems – the practicalities of mass communication and campaigning tend to make for a presidential style, and so does the brute fact that the point of the election is to choose who rules – but the contradiction is more marked given how far the founders of 1949 went to design anything but a presidential two-party system. A lot of this is related to the way political techniques like opinion polling, TV interviews, and public relations spin-doctoring were introduced from the West in the post-war years in parallel with the construction of the formal institutions. So one way of looking at the German political scene is that voter, and party, behaviour is converging with the way the constitution works. A top-three party share of 60% sounds a lot more like you’d expect in a country with Germany’s constitution than a top-two share of 80%.

A party that aims to poll over 40% must be a broad coalition in itself. At 20%, though, faction is an unaffordable luxury. This shift is likely to put a premium on internal unity, and to shift the coalition-making process from within the major parties to the post-election phase. Ironically, the need to turn out the party base in order to have a chance at the No.1 slot and hence to lead the post-election phase is likely to make the parties try harder to emphasize their distinctive identities and hence their differences, which is then likely to make the coalition phase harder or at least more dramatic. (I think this is what Adam Tooze is driving at here?)

The SPD’s strength here is that it has managed to be much more compact and united – geschlossen in German – behind Olaf Scholz than any of the other parties. Here’s a poll of preferences for chancellor by party identification:

Not only would a third of conservatives and half the Left take Scholz, more FDP voters would take him than their own candidate. Meanwhile, 84 per cent of SPD voters are sticking with their guy. And the secret is pretty simple, if not easy to implement. Although Scholz is literally Merkel’s finance minister, his response to losing an internal party election to the enragé left was to stick with the style (as someone quoted here says, Scholz may have the charm of a paperclip, but in Germany that can be a good thing) but load up the policy agenda.

Zukunftsteam: the future of the Merkel coalition

Under increasing pressure from his own party and his own terrible campaign, CDU candidate Armin Laschet decided to include more faces in his campaign and present a “team for the future”. Not surprisingly, the execution wasn’t great.

The mise en scéne left him standing alone on stage for long, awkward gaps between each one, the status of the team is completely unclear, and its composition included an odd combination of apparently promising second line politicians from the states and, ah, Friedrich Merz. This points to deeper, structural issues. For a start, if the idea was to show that the CDU has a deep bench of talent, what was 66-year old Merz who’s been a politician since Dad was a lad doing there? Is it just that his notoriously enormous ego won’t let him pass up publicity of any kind? If so, is it just that Laschet is too weak to say no to him?

If they’re meant to be a shadow cabinet, there are other problems. For a start, Laschet is only going to make it as part of a coalition, and probably a three-party coalition, so he can’t really promise individual jobs. And there are, of course, perfectly good CDU federal ministers currently in office. Promoting anyone for a specific job that’s already held by a CDU minister amounts to promising to fire the incumbent and disavow everything they did.

Here’s the rub. The biggest issue for the CDU at this election has been whether to own the Merkel legacy or distance the party from it. The choice of candidate revolved around whether to go with a wholehearted candidate of continuity (Norbert Röttgen, or perhaps the post-2017 version of Markus Söder) or a clean break (Merz). The party of compromise decided to compromise and that’s how we got here.

The problem, really, is that Merkel created a new political coalition, on which her success is founded.

This coalition runs diagonally, as the Germans say, across politics including a chunk of the SPD’s traditional voting bloc and mobilizing women, immigrants, and non-Catholics, groups with whom the CDU usually struggles. I wrote about this here, arguing among other things that the coalition’s organizing principle was that it set its own European or global outlook against nationalists or even local particularists. Diagonal coalitions in Germany go back to Bismarck, and the importance of particularism much earlier, but despite this transformation of the CDU electorate, there was no such transformation of the CDU as a party. The three candidates for the succession, all men, all Catholics, and all lawyers, all came from a 90km triangle in in the northern Rheinland.

Keeping this coalition together requires owning the Merkel legacy, which shouldn’t be that hard. Albert Funk writes that the team showed the CDU as Merkel left it – more liberal, more diverse, and more open to the world. The problem, though, is that the party is unwilling to fully own this even though it remains popular. To take the limiting case and the one Merkel initiative everyone asks you about, 62% of Germans think the country will cope just fine with another wave of refugees:

Statistik: Wenn wieder deutlich mehr Flüchtlinge kommen: Kann Deutschland das verkraften? (Anteil der Zustimmenden; nach Parteipräferenz) | Statista
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And if you’re in the Merkel coalition, there’s an obvious choice. The SPD was often criticised for being too close to the coalition, but with Merkel gone and the CDU unclear about whether it really believes in what it’s been doing since 2005, that logic now cuts both ways. The coalition exists, and you can run towards it!

Sommerloch ade: what happened in Germany since our last episode

We left the German election campaign with the Greens in the lead under Annalena Baerbock, an outbreak of small and medium-sized scandals, and Armin Laschet ambiguously triumphant as CDU/CSU candidate. Over the silly season, the so-called Sommerloch, stuff happened.

Here’s some polling for the last 7 years from Der Tagesspiegel‘s aggregator. You can see the slow decline of both major parties, the SPD’s 2017 false dawn, the rise of the Greens, and the pandemic reset. You can also see the CDU/CSU’s crisis in the spring as the pandemic boost wore off and the Greens spiked, and then its reset.

A sommerloch is defined by the absence of serious content, and that was how it started. The CDU/CSU campaign management responded to the Green breakthrough by shaking out everything they had in their opposition research file. That turned out to mean getting very angry about Annalena Baerbock’s CV, which was inaccurate in places on trivialities, and claiming that not all of her insta-book (a campaign essential, one of the American tropes imported into German political practice) was wholly original. Some of this was risible – one of the quotes in question was a list of the EU’s member states, not the sort of thing where originality is usually prized, while a lot turned on insinuating that a master’s degree from LSE was somehow not real – and some of it wasn’t, but the main point was that it was at least something. Following politics in a foreign language can provide a kind of Verfremdungseffekt where the half-truths are more glaring and the vacuity of the talking points more obvious, and it was very clear that the CDU management had an option set up to do a bit of dirty and now they were pressing the button.

There was some blowback – it turned out Armin Laschet’s own campaign book wasn’t any better – but the CDU also had a big ad drop set up complaining about “Anna and the 10 Bans” (Verbote – similar to Gebote or commandments) and its outriders were ready to start complaining about cargo bikes (this is a culture war thing for some reason). Some people speculated about swapping Robert Habeck back in as candidate (see this savage TAZ piece), but the Greens chose to tough it out. The CDU’s blitz worked, up to a point, knocking the Greens back to around 18 per cent and briefly reversing the CDU’s descent.

And then there were events.

Germany experienced a major flood disaster – mostly around areas with old mine workings that could fill up and fail, a telling reminder of the country’s relationship with coal – the Taliban conquered Kabul, and there were some more small and medium-sized scandals. Laschet, meanwhile, launched an astonishing series of campaigning disasters. First up, he was caught on camera laughing uncontrollably as President Steinmeier conveyed the nation’s condolences to the flooded. Then he spoke to one of them, in pouring rain, as a underling held an umbrella over Laschet’s head but pointedly not the flood victim’s. Going for the hat-trick, Laschet then delivered a major speech in front of a gigantic and unavoidably symbolic pile of rubbish. Not satisfied with that, he challenged his rivals to an “inhaltliches Wahlkampf”, a campaign over content, and followed up by announcing a three point plan for Germany’s future consisting of digital, less bureaucracy, and…what was the other one? The whole performance was powerfully reminiscent of Theresa May’s 2017 party conference speech with its coughing fit, irrepressible heckler, and that sign that lost a letter until it announced a country that orked for everyone. It’s probably worth taking a moment to appreciate the visual side of this, as it was precisely the visual quality of the thing that bit so hard. Images are from the round-up here.

So, the laugh:

The brolly (is it even possible to use one with dignity?):

The rubbish (if it wasn’t everywhere):

The three-point plan:

You might object that this is mere froth, but then that’s what a sommerloch is like. Further, if Laschet wanted a campaign about content, he could have damn well come up with some. In a genuinely important sense, the campaign has been dominated by CDU/CSU internal backstabbing, whether or not MLA or APA citation rules apply to a general-audience book, and Laschet’s inability to carry out a simple photocall without humiliating himself precisely because he’s offered so little either in terms of policy or personality.

And even the consummately well-executed blitz campaign against the Greens should be seen as part of the same phenomenon. Raking out the bottom of the oppo-research drawer won the CDU some political space and headed off the immediate crisis, but at the end of the day it was far from the worst allegation an oppo-research team has ever come up with and Laschet did nothing to follow up. Further, the smear dump could be done once, and once only. You can’t unring a bell, but neither can you redrop a bomb, and once the bomb bay was empty there were still three months to go until polling day. In hindsight, it looks like they acted out of panic and wasted a move better used in the last week before the polls closed, which doesn’t say anything good about Laschet.

Although, neither does that time he taught a course at the Rhein-Westfalen Technical University, lost the grades, made them up, made up more grades than he had students, and lied about it repeatedly to the university’s increasingly sarcastic administrators. Maybe German politicians should just keep away from universities.