Fin De Régne: An Outbreak of Small and Medium-Sized Scandals

In a previous Superwahljahr post I said that the Wechselstimmung – the sense that it’s time for a change – Markus Söder felt in Germany might just be an ambiance de fin de régne. The German, or indeed English, phrase has positive, springlike connotations even if you’re on the wrong end of it, a sense of revival and necessary housecleaning. The French, though, implies an atmosphere of sinister intrigue and suddenly unburied secrets. Even if you welcome the prospect of a new reign, the transition is likely to be sordid and dangerous.

This spring has seen the country of the small and medium-sized business’s small and medium-sized political parties hit by a wave of small and medium-sized scandals. Like a good small-town machine-tool manufacturer, this Mittelstand of scandal promises to punch above its weight and deliver more political impact than you’d expect. Scandals are interesting because they obey their own rules; the secrets disclosed are usually not all that secret or that surprising, the impact of the scandal is rarely proportional to its seriousness on any objective test, and there is a critically important distinction between the kind that burns out and the kind that snowballs and brings more skeletons clattering out of their cupboards.

There was the whole business with Azerbaijan, for example. This oil-rich autocracy seems to have celebrated its triumph over Armenia by taking a startlingly close interest in the politics of southern Thüringen, where it has been regularly buying advertising in a CDU MP’s self-published local newspaper. The sums are comically trivial, but an important feature of a good scandal is very often just that. If you think you’re hardened enough to expect that everyone has their price, after all, finding out that it’s €16,000 might be more disturbing rather than less. And as it turned out, Mark Hauptmann wasn’t the only one. Not only were there a whole gaggle of CDU politicians in the pay of Baku, there was a TV station in Berlin, run by none other than Peter Brinkmann, the journalist famous for cajoling the East German information minister Günter Schabowski into accidentally announcing the end of the Berlin Wall. Also, one of them, Karin Schenz, has unexpectedly died on an airliner heading from Cuba back to Germany while under investigation, the sort of thing that will always raise questions. Their Green coalition partners in Stuttgart seem to have noticed or suspected something, as they nicknamed them the Baku-Württemberg party.

(The same Azeri lobbying campaign, incidentally, seems to have recruited the disgraced Liam Fox MP, or “Foks” as his surname is spelled on the cover of the suspiciously large edition of his book they ordered.)

Then there was federal health minister Jens Spahn. Spahn didn’t help himself by going to bizarre legal lengths to conceal the price of the luxurious villa he and his husband the publisher of celebrity magazines bought. Such information is available in the land registry as a matter of routine, but Spahn both tried to lean on the local authority through administrative channels and then threatened Der Tagesspiegel with his lawyers. None of it worked; turns out the seller was later given an important job in the ministry’s gift. Spahn’s husband’s firm, meanwhile, turned out to have sold the ministry a large quantity of masks despite being, you know, a magazine holding company that probably hadn’t sewn them itself – or maybe it did, as most of them never turned up and they’re still arguing about it.

The mask thing just kept on going. A succession of CDU and CSU MPs all seem to have discovered they had masks to sell last spring, and proceeded to push them on the federal government, mostly via Spahn’s ministry. To begin with they were all individual cases and hadn’t made any profit out of it, no, sir. As the story developed there were more of them, the CSU was involved as well as the CDU, and the cases were evidently connected. Not only did they receive fees for their services as lawyers, they got a percentage commission, and the money was paid to a firm controlled by one guy’s children and its Luxembourg bank account. The transfer caused the sender’s bank to raise a suspicious-activity report, which turns out to have brought the whole thing down despite the usual last minute promises to let one’s offices ruhen or literally rest for a while and to give the money to a (suspiciously) local charity. This eventually reached Alfred Sauter, a hugely important CSU figure, who further turned out to have been paid to lobby for a brand of rapid lateral-flow tests with Markus Söder’s office.

Sauter resigned rather than become the first person to be expelled from the CSU parliamentary party, but there was more. His day job outside politics is a law firm he runs with fellow CSU MP Peter Gauweiler, for it is he. Gauweiler managed to trump the mask business by being exposed for accepting €11 million in fees from 91 year old billionaire ice-cream tycoon August von Finck. Von Finck’s grandfather was a co-founder of Allianz and Münchner Re, his dad acquired the German Rothschild bank during the Nazi era in the way you’d expect, and younger von Finck probably made more money from real estate, but I can’t help stressing that his family owns Mövenpick, because the whole idea that European history was bent out of shape by the sinister influence of Big Sundae is too grimly hilarious. At least it’s an improvement on Krupp and Thyssen – butter rather than guns, even if his politics are seriously weird.

What von Finck wanted from him was a constant stream of lawsuits against the European Central Bank, and, well, that’s what he got. If you read this blog through the Eurozone crisis you probably remember Gauweiler as the most intransigent opponent of anything like a transfer union or really any action at all. After all the complicated theorising about the Freiburg school, ordo-liberalism, the importance of returning to the final settlement of trade transactions, well, it was von Finck’s euros or more likely undeclared Swiss francs at work. The same goes for all the arguing about the inner workings of TARGET-2, as it further turns out Gauweiler paid Hans-Werner Sinn for his expert testimony out of the ice-cream money. Hey, and you could read this blog for nothing!

Well, that was fun. But scandal theory tells us something important. It’s all dropping now for a reason. That might be because nobody fears the people involved any more, or nobody expects to get anything from them in exchange for continued silence. It might be because a news story about important people isn’t news if they’re not important people any more. It might be because change is coming, and the question is now what and who that change will be. In that light, the scandal outbreak implies there’s going to be a new government, and plenty of people have it in for Söder. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the von Finck/Söder link described here, as another important question in any scandal is who’s protected and who isn’t.

Meanwhile, the chancellor and the provinces are at daggers drawn having managed – uniquely – to decide on an Easter lockdown and then realize the additional public holiday involved was illegal. Fin de régne, indeed.

Reset The Reset: Superwahljahr Blogging

Just before the pandemic I was mostly blogging here about the political crisis in Thüringen, a consequence of Angela Merkel’s exit, which was itself a consequence of the Green breakthrough across Germany. Then, other matters demanded our attention, such as masks and queuing for toilet paper.

That was roughly what happened in German politics, too – in the face of the crisis, Merkel’s authority shone through and the CDU surged forward in the polls, reversing the losses to the Greens, while the far-right cut itself down to size – from pushing 20% to a steady 10% – with a succession of increasingly ridiculous acts of street theatre, culminating with a faith-healing drummer in unlikely dreadlocks trying to storm the Bundestag. It was as if a reset button had been pressed. Outside Germany this was usually ascribed to Merkel herself, while inside Germany the boast was that “die CDU kann Krise”, obviously a more useful argument for her potential successors.

Today, with Germany having made a start on its Superwahljahr or mega-election year, the political scene looks remarkably like it did immediately pre-pandemic. Back in the winter of 2018, when the original Green surge was on, I estimated that the Greens were gaining votes at a rate of half a million a week. This was the phenomenon that reversed in the spring of 2020, but coming back to Merkel was clearly a very weakly held opinion – the very speed with which the reversal happened might have been a clue. Current polling puts the combined CDU/CSU between 25 and 27 per cent and the Greens between 21 and 23 per cent. In mid-January, the CDU/CSU was on 36 per cent.

It’s crucial to remember here that the structural CSU bonus in Bavaria means that the gap between the CDU as such and its rivals is much smaller in the rest of Germany – we are back at the kind of levels where the Greens can reasonably hope to overtake the CDU as such. With Bavaria accounting for 15% of the electorate and the CSU on 40%, a CDU/CSU score of 27% means the CDU is on 21% of the vote in the rest of Germany, 3 points ahead on the same basis. I’ve used the latest poll here, a YouGov survey; Kantar’s poll issued on the 27th March had the CDU/CSU on 25% and the Greens on 23%. At those levels, it’s happened – the Greens would be ahead.

Not surprisingly this has given risen to feverish political activity. Although the CDU has settled on a party leader it still needs to pick a candidate for chancellor, as in fact do the Greens. One of the most likely options, Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Markus Söder, said about the Kantar poll that he fears a Wechselstimmung im Lande, an atmosphere of change.

So far, we’ve had two of the major elections planned for this year, in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz. The calendar is here; we’ve got Sachsen-Anhalt to come in June and some local council elections before the big bang on the 26th of September, when there are state elections in Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Thüringen as well as the federal general election.

Ironically, neither election led to any change but both confirmed that change is indeed coming. In B-W, the Green minister-president Winfried Kretschmann was re-elected with 33 per cent of the vote, a record for any Green and something of a surprise in a country that has small and medium-sized political parties as well as small and medium-sized businesses, making his CDU coalition partners very much the junior partner in the coalition. In Rheinland-Pfalz, SPD minister-president Malu Dreyer’s so-called traffic light coalition of social democrats, liberals, and greens was re-elected fairly comfortably. Any good news is welcome for the SPD at the moment, but this is mostly interesting because the current state of the polls suggests that such a coalition could be a majority at the federal level. That would require the FDP to walk back its march towards populism for rich people, but it’s important to note that FDP principles are rarely particularly robust and also that they have been cooperating with the state-level SPD in R-P for years, both in Dreyer’s government and in Kurt Beck’s.

Very interestingly indeed, polling evidence suggests that both Kretschmann and Dreyer won big with the over-60s, breaking through an important generational firewall. As I’ve pointed out before, Kretschmann especially has succeeded by addressing the dense network of clubs and associations that is such a feature of German society, and this effect is likely a pay-off from this. Médiapart has a very good interview (in French) with Der Tagesspiegel‘s Ulrich Schultze on how Kretschmann did it. The key point, really, is that nothing really stands in the way of a Green-CDU coalition – except whether or not the CDU will have anything to offer.

The hope, from the CDU’s point of view, is that picking a candidate like Markus Söder who might inject some energy into the campaign and at least looks generally modern will keep them far enough ahead of the Greens to claim the leadership of such a coalition. But another way of saying Wechselstimmung is fin de régne, and there are plenty of things that might yet wreck this plan.

Germany: What if the coalition breaks?

One obvious question, now the CDU succession is open, is whether an already creaky coalition government can go on with both constituent parties suffering in the polls. Gerhard Schröder has already suggested that Merkel should call a vote of confidence in herself, while many SPD voices (notably its deputy leader Ralf Stegner) are calling for the party to walk out of the coalition.

This Der Tagesspiegel piece is therefore really useful. The Green co-leaders rule out the idea of using a confidence vote to replace the CDU/SPD coalition like the Liberals did in 1982. On the other hand, they leave open what might happen if the SPD walks out. The question would really be whether to try another attempt at the so-called Jamaican option, a CDU/Green/Liberal coalition, or to push for new elections.

It’s a good problem to have, being a choice between getting back into office or cashing in their surge in the polls into seats in the Bundestag. However, the surge makes it more complicated – the original Jamaica concept was one of rallying minor parties to put a CDU-dominated government over the top, but an election today would have the CDU and the Greens as near-equal partners. A major motivation for the Jamaica talks was also the fear that the AFD would win big if there was another election, but the Bavarian and Hessen elections have provided a well-defined estimate of the AFD threat. If they had made it over 20 per cent, nobody would dream of risking new elections, but instead it was the Greens who broke through. The whole thing also speaks to the tension between their pride in civic responsibility, the mayor’s chain in every activist’s Fjallraven rucksack, and the risk of looking like a bunch of unprincipled office-seekers.

A follow-up piece asks the co-leaders themselves. These say that they can’t imagine why Greens would want to involve themselves in this chaos. However, they have also been scenario-planning various possibilities. If Merkel was to call a confidence vote, they would vote against, being after all in opposition. Before going to new elections, though, they would be willing to consider joining the existing coalition or forming a new one with the CDU and SPD. Jamaica, however, is out. This reminds me that the Greens’ internal consensus rests on a realist leadership swinging to a more radical position on social and economic policy. The SPD is important to the legitimacy of any coalition, within the Greens. It’s a pretty sad role for the SPD, but it is a role.

At the same time, the whole thing interacts with the CDU leadership transition. Everyone is at pains to deny that individual names are important, but Spahn is harder for the Greens, who say they expect European policy and immigration to be the most difficult issues. Friedrich Merz has never had any ideas about the environment, and his idea of Leitkultur now seems a bit quaint. AKK would be the easiest.

Merkxit Rollup!

We repeatedly warned you about believing people who said Merkel was finished, but on the 30th of September, it was time to sound the alarm:

However, the interesting bit is precisely that the challenge came from the perfectly normal, EU-and-NATO Christian Democrats of northern and western Germany, Angela Merkel’s bedrock support. Had it come from ultra-conservatism, Saxony, or Bavaria, you would expect this classical CDU to rally round Merkel, just as it did unanimously against Horst Seehofer back in June. This time, the call is coming from inside the Ludwig-Erhard Haus. This is a bigger threat and one different in kind.

It was, and the point that the Hessen state elections might be more significant than the Bavarian ones also stands up rather well. On the other hand, my Twitter summary of Hessen’s election night was that the river came up to the top of the dyke, but no further. As in Bavaria, the Greens surged, the AFD hit their mark from the general, and both the SPD and CDU suffered. As in Bavaria, it wasn’t quite enough to flip the statehouse, and in fact it wasn’t even enough to change the coalition.

Unless, of course, it was. Incredibly, the state of Hessen didn’t manage to organise a proper election within its own capital. Not only are they having a recount, but urgent talks are going on between the parties in case it becomes possible to put together a traffic-light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals.

You might wonder if the CDU had a good idea from canvassing data or exit polling that Hessen was going wrong, but on the other hand, this Der Spiegel story says that Angela Merkel consulted with her old political buddy Annette Schavan as far back as the summer about quitting after the Hessen elections.

At the end of the day, though, even if the river didn’t quite get over the dyke, the key issue is that the core CDU vote is eroding and it’s doing it across the centre. The polling data is clear – the most recent poll puts the Greens only three points behind the combined CDU/CSU. As we pointed out here, the effect is worse for the CDU as such ex the CSU. My rough estimate is that the Greens are gaining half a million votes a poll, which puts a potential crossover weeks away.

So it’s absolutely no surprise she pressed the button to initiate an orderly succession.

The bells are ringing in the CSU, too – here’s the federal minister responsible for international aid calling for Horst Seehofer to resign and specifically demanding a turn to the centre. Müller says that the CSU has become obsessed with refugees and law-and-order and needs to remember it has a broader mission, notably the protection of God’s creation, the fight against hunger, and the question of social justice in Germany and the world. (I told you the Greens manage to speak to the churches; here’s an example of the opposite.) Seehofer himself is unwisely congratulating himself on not being in Merkel’s cemetery of men; there’s plenty of time for that.

The party rules require a special congress to be held on the 7th of December in Hamburg. Before then, they have agreed to stage a succession of regional conferences, to which all members are invited. Big halls are suddenly in demand. Deutsche Welle has English-language profiles of the candidates here, but they have already sorted themselves into the following three:

Friedrich Merz. This is the guy Merkel beat to get the party leadership. That’s his best selling point but also his worst; he’s been out of politics for more than a decade. The audience he wants is the business world, and what he will offer them is a tax gimme. Back in the day he was famous for wanting to get the tax code on a beermat, but who now believes in that early 2ks/late 90s shiny stuff?

Also, his business career isn’t necessarily an asset. The Marxist blog Nachdenkseiten offers a profile of it that’s savagely hostile but not inaccurate; they share much of their critique with the German finance ministry, which sent policemen to search his employer BlackRock’s offices this week for evidence of tax evasion. It’s really not what you want in the middle of a campaign.

He’s widely seen as Wolfgang Schäuble’s candidate (see here) but Schäuble denies this, offering praise for all the candidates and saying very clearly that there’s no going back on the Merkel era’s changes.

Jens Spahn. The current federal health minister, he speaks to the desire to swing to the populist right and win back the AFD voters, in so far as they ever voted CDU. In case anyone wanted a new Pim Fortuyn, he’s gay and he really hates refugees and people who speak English, yes, really. His biggest problem is simple: nobody actually wants him to be party leader and still less chancellor, on 9 per cent in the polls.

Annegret Krampf-Karrenbauer. Would it astonish anyone that Angela Merkel planned carefully for the succession? Having been picked out herself by Helmut Kohl, she picked out a succession of successors. As in all the best successions, though, they failed to live up to her standards or indeed anyone else’s.

First there was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the aristocratic defence minister disgraced as a plagiarist. Then she turned to a woman, education and research minister, personal friend, and CDU apparatchik Annette Schavan. She also turned out to be an academic fraud, despite a huge and deeply embarrassing effort by the chancellor and a range of academic establishment figures to make it not happen. Merkel lined up her new defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, who is still there despite being yet another plagiarist. Tellingly, she isn’t a candidate.

At the fourth attempt, Merkel eventually picked out the Saarland minister-president, dipped her in a ministry, and sent her to be the CDU general secretary. AKK is the blindingly obvious candidate of continuity and that rare bird, a CDU leader from a working-class background. She is either slightly more popular than Merz or in a tie with him, and in any case much more popular than Spahn. And she is considerably more popular with Germans than the party. She also opened the door to Merz, either as a minister or to head a major project.

There is just the faintest crack of light for another candidate, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung points out. Anyone who wants to take part in the regional congresses has to be put forward by a local CDU branch or one of its national, vertical organizations. But this doesn’t hold for the final, decisive congress. Any delegate on the day in Hamburg can nominate any other delegate or indeed any party member, so the possibility of a coup de theatre exists up to the whistle.

Flip It And Reverse it: CDU vs Greens Beyond Bavaria

Here’s some more interesting Bavarian elections data. What if we looked at this the other way up?

The parties of the Left, broadly defined, have been on about 30% in Bavaria since the dawn or rather rebirth of democracy in 1946. The CSU hegemony is a thing! Even if the Right is down to only a two-thirds majority depending how you cut it.

If we hoist this in, though, it leads to another thought. Bavaria’s conservative majority has been both reduced and reshuffled. This switches the balance between concentrated strength in direct mandates and distributed strength in the proportional ones. The CDU can’t count on the CSU to deliver 50-odd direct mandates come what may any more, so how’s the CDU itself doing?

Current federal opinion polling puts the CDU/CSU – it is always polled as a unit – on between 26% and 28%, down 10 percentage points from election day. The Greens’ score has more than doubled, from 8% to 18%. How much of this is down to the CSU’s crisis in Bavaria? How much is a wider phenomenon between the Greens, the SPD, and the CDU on the wider federal level?

Well, we know that the Bundeswahlleiter counted in 30.2% of valid votes for the CDU and 7% for the CSU, total 37.2%. We know that the polling is ~27% for both combined. And we further know that the CSU won 36.7% of a Bavarian first-ballot electorate that represents 14.6% of the 2017 federal first-ballot electorate, hence the CSU is 5.4% ((0.367*0.146)*100) of the federal poll. If the total CDU/CSU is 27% of the national vote and the CSU is 5.4%, the CDU alone must be 21-22%.

What of the Greens? Well, their score in Bavaria represents 2.5% ((0.1753*0.146)*100) of the federal electorate, while the party is polling 17 to 19% federally. This can only mean that the Greens outside Bavaria are about 15.5% (18-2.5) federally, or only a startling six points behind the mainline CDU. This might well explain why Brinkhaus went for it. Further, nine points of their 10 point gain since election day 2017 are from outside Bavaria, which matches the CDU’s net loss precisely.

Not the October Revolution, but a Revolution in October

Bavarian elections! The short news is that the CSU hit that concrete abutment, but maybe only going 90 rather than 120 kilometres an hour. The Greens won big. The AfD got in, but underperformed their result at the general election. The SPD did badly even in a state where they always do badly.

Who’s going to be in charge? Well. The CSU has a choice between a coalition with the Greens and one with the third-placed Freien Wähler or Independent Voters.

This last is yet another Bavarian exception, a protest movement against the CSU itself that’s strong where the CSU was back in the day, in the countryside and away from Munich to the north. The FAZ covers their conditions here: they’d like a tax cut to look after old Mittelständler, some complicated things about schools, and they’d like to NIMBY some projects that the CSU love and some projects that the Greens love.

The main argument for picking the FWs is that they’re very like the CSU and it might not hurt as much. The main argument against is that they would offer less of a majority, that they are defined by rebelling against the CSU, and they don’t offer any federal perspective. The Greens, on the other hand, could offer a stronger majority and important future opportunities in Berlin. Going into coalition with the CSU, though, would be a highly symbolic event for them and they would set a high price in policy and in heads, probably demanding the party repudiate Horst Seehofer and his policy on refugees. It’s a tough decision.

How did it happen? Like this:

The CSU lost 180,000 voters to the AfD. It lost exactly as many to the Greens. It lost 170,000 to the FWs, and interestingly, 40,000 to the Liberals, who are hanging out to know if they made the 5% mark. Its slightly less bad performance comes down to picking up 100,000 from the SPD, and above all, a last minute drive for turnout, getting an extra 200,000 from nonvoters.

The point that strikes me here is that for every vote lost to the far-right, they lost 2.2 across the centre ground. The FAZ‘s data analysis makes an important related point. 75% of voters who switched away from the CSU gave their “obsession with asylum-seekers” as a reason. 65% accused Horst Seehofer of acting out of personal ambition. 60% of all electors were dissatisfied with the CSU’s performance in government and half of them thought minister-president Markus Söder was untrustworthy.

The SZ has an interview with the Green parliamentary chairman who points out that precisely Bavarian local governments, churches, and civic institutions looked after huge numbers of refugees, and that this Vereinsleben responded to the party’s appeal. If this is so it promises seismic change across the former west Germany.

The Greens picked up the 180k from the CSU, 210k from the SPD, mobilised 120k non-voters, gained 10k from the Liberals and lost 10k to the AfD. The main point to note here is that they are gaining from all directions that have scale – the centre-left, the centre-right, and the disenchanted. The SPD lost people in every direction, in size.

The AfD’s biggest single source of voters was previous voters for “others”, in size 220k, bigger even than the CSU. Across the other political parties, overwhelming majorities think the AfD is infested with Nazis, suggesting that the potential in their direction has its limits:

A crucial issue within the CSU is what impact this has on their federal role. The votes cast yesterday account for 14.64% of the federal electorate in 2017. At the 2017 elections, the CSU’s performance in Bavaria got it 7% of the federal vote. Yesterday’s showing puts it on 5.38% federally – agonizingly close to the 5% mark that would wipe out its federal representation and end its usefulness to the CDU. This may explain why they are arguing about Söder, Seehofer, and company – if it had been closer there would be no arguing.

As for the K-frage, well. On one hand, another enemy floats past down the river, the CSU pays the price for getting caught on the wrong side of the new organizing diagonal between Europeans/cosmopolitans and nationalists/provincialists.

On the other hand, the long term deal between the CDU and the CSU was that the CSU could be Bavarian particularists in a way that had gone from the rest of Germany, and more conservative and Catholic than was acceptable elsewhere, as long as they supported the republic and helped the broader conservative cause. Their super-hegemony in Bavaria helped a lot as they delivered a big block of seats that they held with direct mandates, i.e. with an absolute majority of votes cast. This made them very safe seats, a reliable factor in events.

If this block is now cut down to size it could have big consequences.

German Links

I have decided to up our coverage of Germany. I was talking in the previous post about the potential for a Green breakthrough in this month’s state elections, and I mentioned that the conditions for this seem to be everywhere but the former East Germany. In fact, although east-west tension has been a theme for as long as there hasn’t been a wall in the way, it has been a huge force this year.

This is a really excellent piece on Sachsen’s history since reunification. In many ways, if you’re looking for a reason why the province (sorry, free state) is the centre of German populism, a short answer is that it’s a microcosm of reunification with the intensity turned up to 11. Was it governed by carpet-bagger elites who swept in from the West? Why yes. Did the new elite set up a patronage network and rule in a way that fostered an insider-outsider culture and Untertanmentalität? Well, they took to calling the minister president the king, and the main way to interact with the authorities was to petition him via the chancellery run by…his wife. But I thought the economy did relatively well and it attracted a lot of foreign direct investment? Yes, it did, but in important ways this was allowed to create a hard division between the new economy and the old. All the elements are there, and they’re not things you only find in Germany.

Chemnitz’s populist leader seems to be more a Saxon separatist than anything else and claims to feel more in common with Poland and the Czechs than the rest of Germany. He is also, weirdly, a lawyer who makes most of his money fighting immigrants’ cases, a Russophile, and surrounded by Germans who migrated from the Soviet Union (more here).

For comparison, here’s polling on what exercises people in Hessen. CDU minister president Volker Bouffier may be in trouble, but the choices are gloriously normal.

Ned Richardson-Little discusses the rise and fall of the SPD in the East. Schröder’s triumph came with a surge of both SPD voting and electoral participation in the ex-DDR, but the let-down was already noticeable by 2005 (you could have said the same thing about New Labour) and the postcrisis elections of 2009 saw a collapse in turnout. This left the CDU as the hegemonic party, and may have resulted in the AfD breakthrough out east.

Gerhard Schröder, you say? What’s he been up to?

Der Tagesspiegel covers his fifth wedding, a small and intimate ceremony for 150 guests in the Hotel Adlon’s Palaissaal. Technically it was a private function because it didn’t appear on the President’s diary, but Frank-Walter Steinmeier did show up in a private capacity. The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers were invited but didn’t show. Russian state oil company Rosneft, however, congratulated the happy couple by commissioning a life-sized portrait of supervisory director, Gerhard Schröder.

Merkel’s Diagonal Politics and the Green Revival

The CSU’s horrible autumn goes on. The party is now down to 33% in the polls, and its leaders are deep into the blame game. Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder is blaming “Berlin”, when he is not pretending to be Buzz Lightyear, and when he says it he means party leader and federal interior minister Horst Seehofer, who for his part announced that he is satisfied with his work in the job.

The beneficiary, though, looks to be the Greens. They are now on 18 per cent in Bavaria, overtaking the SPD. In Hessen, where they are in government and where elections are coming up this month, their co-leader and deputy minister-president, Tarek Al-Wazir, has the best personal rating of any politician. Der Tagesspiegel‘s Cordula Eubel puts forward five reasons for this.

The first is quite simply that they are the absolute opposite of the AfD. This is an important and interesting point. Since 2016, I have the impression that the only politicians who have successfully opposed populism are the ones who have chosen full-throated confrontation rather than compromise. Unlike the CDU, CSU, SPD, or the Left party, the Greens have never tried to compromise on migration or Europe.

A while ago I wrote this piece for POLITICO about Merkel’s choice to draw a new dividing line between globalists or Europeans on one side and nationalists or provincial particularists on the other and how it had both disoriented her opponents and put the Greens in the centre of politics. I wanted to situate this in a history of so-called diagonal politics going back to Bismarck, but oddly, the Pol editors chose to keep the modern dance references and cut the ones to Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron. (The raw version is here.)

Defining the party landscape around this new organizing division has had interesting consequences for the Greens in particular. Where they were once undeniably part of the Left, competing with the SPD, they are now part of the broader European camp and as a result they can now compete with all the parties whose voters they would actually want. This is expressed in practice by the Greens’ willingness to operate in a wide variety of coalitions. Even though the 2017 federal elections were a poor showing, the party is represented in no fewer than nine state governments. An uncharitable reading of this would be that they would sign up with nearly anyone to get into office, but a more positive one would be that one of today’s most important divides is between the wonks and the trolls, and one side of that divide deeply values the willingness to take on responsibility and the capacity to exercise it.

Part of the story here is that the Liberals have vacated the centre and morphed into a populist movement for rich people. This isn’t going too well for them; at the federal level they are around 10 per cent, but in Bavaria and Hessen they are only just scraping over the 5% mark to get any representation at all. Richel, Stauss sums up the problem: the FDP core electorate is in many ways even more conservative than the conservatives, but it’s a tiny and shrinking group, and the party’s efforts to appeal to its conservatism are crassly incoherent with its tragic efforts to seem hip.

But there’s more here than mere centrism. Rather, successful centrism requires an awareness of where the centre actually is, rather than just behaving like either big party with 50% of the intensity. Historically, the party has been contained by a cultural barrier to its right and an economic barrier to its left. The cultural one was defined by its social policy and even more so by its style and tone. A major part of its 1968 heritage was its critique of bourgeois ways in general, while the CDU often seemed to be a positive temple of all things bougie. The problem for the CDU here is first of all that the Greens won the culture wars. Everyone who can afford to lives roughly like that, even if they consume media that endlessly mocks them for doing so. The FDP’s lame efforts at hipstership are a comic homage to this. Tellingly, this is not much different anywhere in the developed world.

The second problem for the CDU and CSU, which arises out of this, is that a lot of critics of the Greens always said their critique of the bourgeoisie was itself rather bourgeois. Wanting a less materialist, more culture-bearing way of life, respectful of children, concerned for the development of personal integrity and full citizenship, seeking a better relationship between women and men – all these things were themes of German intellectual, bildungsbürgerlich culture since the Romantic Era. Like a lot of things people denounce as terribly middle-class, there are good reasons why anyone who can afford to adopts them. The turn-of-the-century life-reform movements would have agreed in spades, and they deeply informed the American counterculture the Greens mined for inspiration. Ironically, in as far as this detracts from their radical pretensions it also lets them speak to values that resonate with a lot of middle-class Germans and especially with the Church.

The economic one was quite simply that it didn’t have much of an offer to workers as such, and occasionally it seemed to think they should be happy if their wages fell because they’d have to sing round the piano rather than buy stuff. Another important point Eubel picks up is that neither of the Green co-leaders has become involved in internal faction fighting. Although they both originate from the so-called realist tendency, they have avoided defining themselves by the fundamentalist side’s hostility, and in fact they have sought unity by adopting a more redistributionist economic and social policy. If this sticks it could be very threatening indeed to the rest of German politics.

Ironically, rather than creating a new docile junior partner for the CDU, Merkel’s redrawing of the lines may have unleashed a powerful competitor to both of the big parties – at least in the West. The next coalition might well be a black/green one, but its terms will be very different than anyone imagined in 2016.

On The Brinkhaus

There is a habit in English-speaking media of trying to force all political developments in Germany into the frame of whether this is the long promised end of Angela Merkel and the rise of the populists, or not. As with anything Merkel, “not” is the way to bet. This week’s election of Ralph Brinkhaus as the CDU and CSU’s joint parliamentary leader, though, is a significant moment.

The parliamentary group leaders – Fraktionsführer – are an important institution in German politics, in British terms combining the roles of chief whip and leader or shadow-leader of the House. As such they are crucial in managing the daily business of politics, organizing the work of the Bundestag, and representing parliament and the chancellorship to each other. It is no accident that they tend to be major personalities. On the conservative side, the office has been held by Helmut Kohl, Wolfgang Schäuble, and of course Angela Merkel. On the side of social democracy you could count Kurt Schumacher and Helmut Schmidt. Spilling one, as the Aussies say, is a big deal.

Volker Kauder, the incumbent, looked like to join that list, having held the job since 2005 as one of Merkel’s closest associates. As ARD reports here as part of a useful profile, it was a considerable surprise that anyone even ran. Not even Brinkhaus’ own regional party would support him openly. Yet he won, by 125 to 112, earning a classically Merkel-ish remark that “in democracy, sometimes you lose, and there’s no point trying to pretty that up”.

It would be traditional here to start talking about refugees, the EU, and the like. It would also be hopelessly wrong. Brinkhaus’ triumph is interesting precisely for what he is not.

He is not a candidate of the Bavarian CSU or an intimate of Horst Seehofer. In fact, Seehofer and the CSU campaigned for Kauder’s election, so it is as much a slap in the face for the CSU leadership as it is for anyone. He is not a southerner, an ex-East German, or a Saxon. Instead he represents his home town, Gütersloh, up in the north-west. He is an economist, a Bosch executive turned tax-adviser, and came to politics through the Roman Catholic youth movement after serving in the cold war Bundeswehr as an anti-tank gunner. This is as perfectly standard a CDU career as it is possible to imagine. He is not a Eurosceptic or a Russophile. His previous political office was as chair of the Bundestag budget committee, in which he had an important role in coping with the Eurozone crisis. Even his Twitter feed, when I last looked, showed him with representatives of the German Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of German Industries, saying that he understood their case for lower taxes but it was in the good times that a budget gets ruined. If you want to feel the sheer spießbürgerlichkeit for yourself, his parliamentary dance card is here and here is a Der Tagesspiegel profile.

One conclusion you could draw here is that this is a non-event. One perfectly normal Christian Democrat is replaced by another. However, the interesting bit is precisely that the challenge came from the perfectly normal, EU-and-NATO Christian Democrats of northern and western Germany, Angela Merkel’s bedrock support. Had it come from ultra-conservatism, Saxony, or Bavaria, you would expect this classical CDU to rally round Merkel, just as it did unanimously against Horst Seehofer back in June. This time, the call is coming from inside the Ludwig-Erhard Haus. This is a bigger threat and one different in kind.

A twist, interestingly, is that journalists at the count reported the CSU members seemed delighted to spill Kauder. This should remind us, again, that Kauder was the candidate of party leader Seehofer, Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder, and the head of the Bavarian caucus in parliament, Alexander Dobrindt. You cannot therefore understand this as a Bavarian rebellion against Merkel. Instead, Brinkhaus seems to have appealed as much to CSU members at odds with Seehofer, watching their poll numbers deteriorate steadily ahead of October 14th’s state election. Not so long ago they were on 50%, but the latest survey puts them down to 35%. As Seehofer is now defined by his failed effort to topple Merkel, you could make a case that Brinkhaus has won partly on the back of outrage at Seehofer’s disloyalty. This Der Tagesspiegel piece makes the interesting point that a week before the vote, Hessen’s Christian Democrats voted out their chief partly because of a clumsy effort he made to support Kauder, and replaced him with a human rights campaigner and vigorous supporter of #refugeeswelcome. The spill was possible precisely because the replacement, Michael Brand, stood for continuity rather than change.

That said, everyone in German politics is now talking succession. The Hessen issue is important, as the state elections there are coming up on the 28th October while Bavaria consumes most of the attention. This excellent blog post points out that state-level elections commonly show dramatic late swings, as most voters only turn their attention to regional politics late in the day. As a result, the conservative-green coalition there might be in trouble, and losing a showpiece statehouse might trigger all sorts of things. By then, though, the CSU might have lost power in Bavaria, an October revolution that would put anything in Hessen into the shade.

Article 63: It’s the New Article 50

So what’s going to happen next in Germany? It’s worth taking a look at the mechanics of how Germany elects a Chancellor. These are set out quite specifically in Article 63 of the Grundgesetz. The text is here and an official explanatory note by the parliamentary administration is here. Article 63 foresees a step-by-step process:

1) The Federal President, currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, proposes a candidate. This candidate can be any German citizen who possesses the right to vote and to stand for election, and doesn’t have to be a member of the Bundestag. The choice is left entirely to the President, who is not required to take heed of any recommendation from the parties or anyone else. The Bundestag note says that such a candidate should be capable of a majority in parliament, but the letter of the law doesn’t prescribe any test for this. The law leaves open how long the President can take to make a decision. During this period of time, the President can require the current Chancellor to stay in office, and in practice always does. While this is the case, the Bundestag can’t vote no-confidence in them.

2) Once the choice is made, the Bundestag divides on a straight up-or-down vote. There is no debate and no other candidate at this point, it’s purely yes or no on a secret ballot. If the candidate gets an absolute majority, the President is legally bound to appoint him or her as Chancellor without further delay. Every Chancellor so far has been elected at this step.

3) If the absolute majority is not forthcoming, the Bundestag now gets 14 consecutive days from the time of the vote to elect a Chancellor, again by absolute majority. If a candidate is elected, the President must appoint them within seven days. The law leaves this phase entirely up to the Bundestag and therefore to its President, a certain Wolfgang Schäuble.

4) If there is still no solution after 14 days, a further round of voting takes place immediately. If a candidate does, in fact, get a majority at this point the usual rules apply and the President must appoint them with seven days. Failing that, though, the President has the right to either appoint the candidate with the most votes, or call a general election, which must occur within 60 days. If there is a tie, voting continues. If the President wants new elections, they must be called within the seven days or else that option is lost.

Some comments about this. First, the President’s role is quite powerful. Rather than ratifying the majority leader’s claim, the President at least theoretically makes an active choice and can in fact choose someone completely different.

Second, it’s going to be difficult to go through this process without Angela Merkel being chosen. The law leaves the President free to choose, but as the Parliamentary note points out, the President is given plenty of time precisely in order to choose someone who commands a majority. It is hard to think of anyone with a better claim. And the first Bundestag vote does not provide for an alternative candidate. It would be very difficult to keep half the Bundestag from electing her given the chance, or bringing her back in the second phase if Steinmeier was to astonish everyone by picking someone else.

Third, it’s going to be very difficult to get to new elections without cross-party agreement that they are necessary. The process defined in Article 63 sets up steadily rising pressure on the parties to agree on a chancellor. For almost any party, it would be better to come to an agreement under 3) rather than have someone imposed under 4). It would likely be necessary for one or more parties to deliberately throw several votes in order to get to new elections.

Fourth, the Bundestag is free to organise Step 3 as it wishes, so it’s probably worth having a look at that.

In the 2013-2017 Bundestag, the parliament’s own rules of procedure required a candidate to get either the signatures of 25% of its members, or else the support of a parliamentary party including 25% of the members. The absolute minimum of support required to appear on the ballot was therefore 12.5% plus one vote – a majority of a party big enough to account for 25% of the members. This rule, Section 4 of the Rules, is still in force. Now, the only parliamentary party big enough by itself to put forward a candidate is the joint CDU-CSU, with 246 out of 709 seats, 34.7%. Section 4 therefore provides that the magic number required to put forward a candidate is 17.35% or 124 exclusively CDU-CSU votes – if we get to Step 3 at all. For a cross-party candidate, it’s 177.