Roundup: The Others

One point well made in here is that the CDU/CSU’s consuming crisis leaves a lot of space for fringe politics. With that in mind, what’s become of the off-diagonal parties?

The Right: the AfD and the Independent Voters

The furthest right party that’s considered acceptable can only have been disappointed with its showing. They picked up 150k votes from the Left party and lost in size to everyone else. The best it can say for itself is that it’s developed a strong regional base in the southern end of the former DDR, although on the flip side of that, it’s failed to deepen its base by making progress in the regional-level elections that would give it actual power. The net-gain data tells a story of competing for a very specific niche and failing on everything else. As such, they’ve moved from the acute phase to the chronic, installed firmly around 10% of the national vote and likely to get €50 million in state funding for their party foundation.

As well as the running fights between the relatively respectable bits of the party around Alice Weidel and the openly neo-nazi ones around Björn Hocke, their biggest problem is the emergence of new competition post-pandemic, with a range of new options offering a stronger extremist kick than fiscal conservatism and culture-war themes and a helping of bizarre wackiness besides. The following chart, from this Süddeutsche Zeitung feature, illustrates a major part of their problem:

This shows the leading parties that didn’t make the 5% cut in each constituency. There’s a remarkably clear geographic dividing line from Stettin to roughly Saarbrücken. To the north, two animal rights parties (there are quite a few) did best. To the south, the Independent Voters stand out, having morphed during the pandemic from being a specifically Bavarian phenomenon as the CSU’s Mini-Me into a national anti-vax protest group. The interesting thing here is that they compete directly with the AfD and seem capable of operating across much of Germany while the AfD has become progressively more Saxon, so they are a serious problem for the far-right.

The Left: The Left

The Left party came out of the election with absolutely nothing to shout about. Its vote was halved, pouring out in every conceivable direction, and it only avoided missing the 5% cut thanks to having a couple of weird outlier direct constituencies. The breakdown reveals the magnitude of the problem – as a party with multiple, quite distinct constituencies it’s failing with all of them.

The party exists as such because a chunk of core, working-class SPD people were angry enough about Hartz-IV to jump the historic divide between social democracy and communism. The SPD itself now wants to abolish Hartz-IV and 590,000 of them have churned back. The other half of the party, the continuation of the SED, mostly exists to act as an eastern lobby and not only did the SPD win big in the east, the AfD took 110,000 votes off them as well on a poor overall showing. Left-wing people outside Germany tend to think the party is cool, probably because it does well in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg for historical reasons, but it did poorly in its diverse-urban seats too, losing 470,000 net votes to the Greens. Bafflingly, it also managed to lose 100,000 votes to the FDP and if you do sociology fieldwork on those people I promise to read your dissertation. That said, they’re back in government with the SPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and hung on to their one statehouse in Thüringen, although it looks like they’re out of the coalition in Berlin.

Fortunately they know just what to do about it – first, order everyone to shut up while the leadership discusses it behind closed doors, like in the good old days, and then look pathetic as Sahra Wagenknecht’s ego goes thundering across the country like some sort of gigantic experimental tank. Apparently concerns like climate change and racism are mere lifestyle issues, and the candidates who brought in the all-crucial direct wins in Leipzig and Berlin should listen to her after she led the list to losing horribly in Nordrhein-Westfalen. As she has been trying to do since 2009, she wants the party to concentrate on a) her and b) serving up something indistinguishable from AfD populism to its ex-DDR clientele. We’ve had the swing to hard-money total opposition to doing anything about the Eurocrisis, we’ve had the new “movement” dedicated to the national state, it’s high time the Left party’s fanbase in the English-speaking world hoisted this in.

If you want to do some populism these days you’ve got to do some COVID-19 denial or you’re not really competing, so it was no surprise but still a disappointment when she did an astonishingly cynical appearance on Anne Will’s talkshow in which she (falsely) claimed that vaccines only protect you and nobody else, suggested that the mRNA vaccines had unspecified dangerous side-effects, and argued that she would be willing to take a “dead” vaccine. This last is a falsehood in itself, as an mRNA vaccine by definition doesn’t contain live viruses or indeed dead ones, and refers to a conspiracy theory that there is in fact live SARS-CoV-2 in the vaccine. As a finisher she pointed out that her husband Oskar Lafontaine is in fact vaccinated, taking out some insurance against looking like someone from The Base by sticking to soft-denial. Ewww. Everyone’s furious but Wagenknecht is too big a media darling and too vicious a backstairs operator for the party to get rid of her, and the party is by far the biggest platform available to her, so they’re going to stick together.

Even if people have started writing horseshoe theory slash fiction with Wagenknecht and Alice Weidel.

The Unclassifiable

Our favourite among the odds-and-sods is by far the South Schleswig Voters, and their guy is settling into his new life as a federal legislator, announcing that he intends to stick up for minorities in general, including the Roma, and beyond that he is open to discussions with all parties that accept the liberal-democratic order. I imagine him practising that last one in front of the mirror, like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver but spießig.

We’ve got to talk about the Base, though. The party that has officers such as “Visionary”, “Deputy Visionary”, and “Pillar Commissioner for Considerateness”, that denies the existence of COVID-19, and that claims the federal government is planning something worse than the Holocaust, whose leading members include that hatter practising law under a stiff name, how couldn’t you.

Well, it’s still going through the related “corona committee”, where they continue to promise that the vaccine is literally deadly. The explanation is now that the first two doses were placebos and the real one is coming as the booster. Of course – the classic dynamics from When Prophecy Fails are all there. Oh, and there are live octopuses in it. This is after the party spokesman gave the party leader an ultimatum to stop denying the Holocaust, he didn’t, and the spokesman just gave up.

Reaction to their great disappointment is fascinating – some thought it was down to the requirement to wear a mask, some to the fact the majority were vaccinated and therefore presumably compromised, and it didn’t help that prominent party leaders advised people to cast a blank vote because they thought this reduced the number needed to beat the 5% rule. In the end, though, as one of them said, “I fear you have to believe in the numbers.”. That said it seems phenomena like this are here to stay, even if there’s little sign of it making progress beyond 1.35% of the vote.

But then, is any of this really any weirder than super-journo media exec Matthias Döpfner claiming that the federal republic is a new authoritarian DDR because he’s not allowed to be as much of a bullying workplace tyrant as he’d like?

Filling The Void

This excellent article on the CDU’s fiasco makes the point that the CDU and indeed the CSU’s problems are rooted in the wider intellectual crisis of conservatism. Market libertarianism is in tatters, fiscal hawkery is discredited, the Cold War is long over, the long term trend of secularisation grinds on. The solutions don’t match the problems, and if you’re not up for strident nationalism and clientele fan-service, that just leaves managerial incumbency. Few people could do managerial incumbency as well as Angela Merkel, of course, and as George Diaz points out, she chose to move the party to the ideas.

I would disagree that she filled the void with social-democratic content, though, as Diaz says. Rather she outsourced that to the SPD. For much of the Merkel era, Europe and the Euro were the key issue. In terms of political coalitions, I think the key idea was Europeanism as opposed to nationalism or provincial particularism, and Merkel created a new diagonal coalition along those lines. This had some problems – you can’t eat the European Union – but in hindsight perhaps the biggest was whether or not the CDU/CSU itself had fully hoisted in the commitments its own hero, Helmut Kohl, had made back in the 1990s during the building of the Eurozone architecture. It is a cliché that the CDU’s iconic achievement, reunification, involved a trade-off with integration into a single currency, but the problem was whether this had been fully accepted. Ironically, this is similar to the British Tories’ inability to cope with Thatcher’s achievement of the Single Market. Europeanism is part of the CDU’s DNA, coming from its roots in Catholic politics and the Cold War and even the Weimar Republic, but the conflict that kept breaking out was whether the party was willing to back its commitments with what counted – money. The tension along the Wilhelmstrasse between Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, the chancellor’s office and the finance ministry, dramatized the structural issue in personal terms.

The party grumbled but it eventually paid, and it did this because the strategy worked electorally. What it didn’t do was buy in beyond the level of a grudging strategic concession. You can see this in the way people like Schäuble and Friedrich Merz behave. Schäuble was insistent, pathetically, on serving on as speaker of parliament so he could stay in high office longer than Merkel. Merz’s whole engagement in politics is based on trying to pick up where he left off before he was so rudely interrupted. Armin Laschet was criticised for being a retread of Kohl without the latter’s authority.

Now, their problem is that the parties who usually sit on the European side of that diagonal won, and won big. The traffic light coalition is what it looks like when the Merkel coalition goes home. But you can’t go home, per Thomas Wolfe, and as a consequence Diaz reckons they are finished. I am sceptical. The secret sauce of conservatism is the acceptance of change. That said, for the foreseeable future there will be a lot of political space off the diagonal while the CDU and CSU bloodletting runs its course and all sorts of things might happen in it. The FDP is crucial here – not only did it flirt very seriously with a leap off the diagonal into populist territory as recently as 2017, as Ralph Böllmann says here, it’s the coalition’s effective opposition party, being the only partner that might seriously consider walking out and the one that is the most ideologically distinct from the others. A key question is whether it can grow to take on the role of the middle-class and business lobby – Böllmann notes that prominent conservatives are watching the situation in Holland where the relationship between liberals and conservatives is reversed, and Mark Rutte has been prime minister since forever.

Böllmann also points out that there is a European dimension here. The finance minister’s role in the EU makes him or her almost a second head of government, with the Eurogroup as a kind of parallel European Council that’s even more powerful for its extra-constitutional, non-treaty nature. This was awkward enough with the Merkel-Schäuble relationship. At the end of the day, although the chancellor has the power to give orders to federal ministers (the so-called directive competence), a putative FDP finance minister would also have the power to blow up the coalition if he (in this case, realistically, it’s Christian Lindner and his pronouns are no mystery) didn’t like it. The logic implies that the SPD is going to have to keep the finance ministry if the government is going to be stable, as not only would Lindner have the power to blow it up, he would also have an interest in running to his right against his own government. Apparently nobody wants to talk about this, although the commentators are talking about little else and someone is presumably briefing them.

Fallout: the CDU/CSU after the elections

So what happened when the CDU finally found that concrete abutment it had been seeking since 2017 at least?

Armin Laschet started off by trying to make like nothing had happened on the grounds that it was technically possible to form a conservative/green/liberal coalition, or perhaps even a grand coalition plus the FDP. As pointed out here, he had his reasons – the only way such a thing could happen would be if he was the chancellor, as any other plan would have to get rid of him first, and as long as there was any hope of going into government, he had to be kept around as the formal point of contact with the Greens and FDP. This had the consequence that it was in his interest to spin out the agony. He also tried to put off internal decisions, like the choice of a parliamentary leader, and publicly said he had a claim to govern.

This didn’t go down at all well (here’s an example, asking if Laschet wasn’t at least embarrassed) and a string of his enemies, notably Markus Söder, lined up to take a whack at him. Söder, free as ever of personal ambition, had it made known that he would be willing to serve as chancellor in a new coalition. He himself then had to walk this back and admit that the next chancellor would be Scholz. Meanwhile, Norbert Röttgen came out much more directly to whack both Laschet and Söder, refusing to say he thought Laschet should get it right there on Anne Will, and a succession of embarrassing leaks disrupted what chances there were of a coalition. These were widely seen as coming from Söder as Laschet was still in charge and standing to benefit.

The real driver of events, though, was the progress of the preliminary talks between the SPD, Greens, and FDP. The closer they came to agreement, the less point there was hanging around. First of all, Laschet offered to go but left the talks open. Then a succession of major CDU pols announced that they wouldn’t even serve in parliament in order to bring about a new party leadership. This took people like Annegret Krampff-Karrenbauer and Peter Altmeier off the table and hugely undermined the leadership, such as it was. Altmeier went as far as recommending a “portion Demut” – Demut is humility, so he was saying the party should eat humble pie.

Perhaps the most damning comment of all was from the departing CSU interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who said that as the party had lost 1.4m votes to the SPD, it had clearly failed to do anywhere near enough on jobs, pensions, and housing. This is interesting as Seehofer was the biggest voice for a swing to the right in either the CDU or CSU, going as far as to rename the ministry the Ministry for the Homeland, and going on an extraordinary adventure in trying to have his own Bavarian foreign policy with Sebastian Kurz and Viktor Orban, before becoming the last in the long line of CDU or CSU men who underestimated Angela Merkel. As well as disavowing everything he stood for and in effect saying that the problem with Merkel’s approach was that they didn’t do even more of it, he also stabbed Söder in the front by opining that he wasn’t any more popular.

Someone had to do the clean-up and it fell to the party general secretary, Paul Ziemiak, who pushed the idea of new elections for all the party’s top offices through a stormy committee. As well as the party leadership, Ziemiak’s job is up for grabs, as is the entirety of the presidium and the federal executive committee. Friedrich Merz will certainly try again, as will Röttgen and possibly Jens Spahn, but a frantic search is now on for new candidates who aren’t quite as…CDU-y, to be honest. The former speaker Rita Süssmuth is trying to find women who want to do it, suggesting various state-level prospects.

The big operational question was whether the new leadership would be chosen by a conference of party officials or by a direct vote of the membership, and it turns out they’re going with the members. It looks like some of the party leaders, notably Laschet, are hoping to present the membership with some sort of slate they could sign off rather than have a proper contest. The problem here is that the party obviously should ask its members, but if it does they might well choose Friedrich Merz or indeed Horst Seehofer before Merkel found him a plot in her Männerfriedhof if that was possible, because they’re that kind of people, and the election result made very clear that nobody wants that.

This really excellent piece on their youth wing gets to the point – they may have over 100,000 young Christian Democrats, more than the entire FDP membership, but the problem is that they are the kind of people you’d expect in the youth wing of a long-governing conservative party, dull careerists with a tendency to get into scandals out of cynicism or entitlement. Further, their ideas are shaped by the internal selectorate they’ve spent their lives so far trying to impress. They talk about being business-oriented and pro-market, but Christian Lindner says this with more confidence, and as Horst Seehofer says, if you just lost millions of votes to the SPD and the Greens it’s not obvious that sucking up to big business even more is going to cut it. Nor, really, does having to blow up a massive autobahn bridge that’s been in need of major maintenance since 2009 because it’s in urgent danger of collapsing onto the city waterworks, a main railway line, and the dogs’ home.

As well as candidates, of course, it could also do with ideas, as pointed out here.