Geschlossenheit

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:

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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.

Superwahljahr: Green Leader

So Markus Söder says the Greens are the most intellectually interesting party, and that they’re the CDU/CSU’s main competitor while the AfD is its enemy, a somewhat ambiguous statement. They’re the leading political party in Germany, going by the current polling. And they had to pick a candidate, too!

Essentially everyone commented on the contrast between the drama consuming German conservatism and the absolutely unremarkable nature of the Greens’ choice. So will I. Co-leader Robert Habeck agreed to step aside, their federal executive signed off, Annalena Baerbock is the candidate, something they literally announced while the CDU and CSU presidia were busy eviscerating themselves. Baerbock signalled, and as far as I know everyone assumes, that Habeck has been promised a major ministry, possibly finance. That was that.

The new candidate’s personal polling is pretty great, and the party is experiencing a wave of new members, while even a poll of 1500 business people put here first (or possibly second after “don’t know”). The CDU tends to be very attached to its status as a “Volkspartei”, even the last one in Western Europe, compared to the small and medium-sized parties around it, but at 28 per cent and going higher there’s absolutely no reason why the Greens can’t clear whatever arbitrary hurdle defines this.

Habeck spoke about his emotions in standing down and confirmed incidentally that the Greens were determined to have a woman as the candidate. If there’s a good argument against Baerbock it’s unquestionably that, unlike Habeck, she has never had ministerial or executive responsibility for anything. An interesting point here is that the Baerbock/Habeck era at the Greens has often been marked by dealing with one of the party’s identity conflicts by being more ambitious on the others – for example, trying to transcend the realo/fundi split by running to the left on social and economic policy and arguing for the exclusion of capital investment from the so-called debt-brake – and picking Baerbock could be understood in this light.

In a cynical electioneering sense, the best counterargument to the point about experience might be this extraordinary SZ interview conducted through the medium of mime, which hits off exactly that tone, of being new and young and exciting but just conventional enough to come off slightly cringey to those of us with a twitter-jaded palate, that the most infuriatingly successful politicians master.

Superwahljahr: the K-Frage is definitely maybe resolved

In the last thrilling instalment we left Germany waiting for a meeting of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group that was going to “recommend” a candidate for chancellor. What happened next was an astonishing week of extremely public in-fighting, as part of the CDU tried to find a way to pick the CSU’s Markus Söder as candidate, more of the CDU tried to block them, and quite a few tried to get Söder picked without letting on that was what they were doing.

A major part of the problem was precisely that the “CDU/CSU” doesn’t really exist. There are two separate political parties in a form of permanent coalition, but they have their own identities, organizational structures, and legal personalities. The decision was one that could only be taken separately. The CSU, obviously enough, supported its own guy, but the only way he could prevail would be for the CDU leader, Armin Laschet, either to step aside voluntarily or be forced into it by his own side. Söder’s supporters in the CDU pointed to his polling – he’s considerably more popular than Laschet, whose poll numbers are positively terrible – while his opponents countered that the CDU membership had voted and their opinion must be respected. After all, they had elected Laschet, and were being asked to see him pushed aside at the behest of top leaders in favour of someone who wasn’t even a member of the party. They could also respond that Bavarian politicians rarely do well outside Bavaria, and that the CDU base offered more of a foundation of democratic legitimacy.

To begin with, the CDU leadership offered a “recommendation” for Laschet, which satisfied nobody. Söder responded by saying that he would be willing to run, or to stand down, if a “broad” majority wanted him to, leaving the definition conveniently vague. This led to a week of frantic canvassing down to the district level. Söder upped the ante by denouncing “backroom manoeuvres”. This Tagesspiegel ticktock fills in much of the detail – although, for example, the party chief in Rheinland-Pfalz, Julia Klöckner (another person who used to be a Merkel successor) apparently called all her district chairs and very few wanted Laschet, when it came down to it, 9 out of the 31 members of the federal executive committee were willing to vote for Söder.

This may be down to Wolfgang Schäuble, for it is he, who was the penultimate speaker and the first to demand a roll-call. Schäuble apparently feared an even more divisive solution in which the joint parliamentary group – the only institution that binds the two parties in a formal sense – would pick a candidate, probably stacking up a whole lot of side-deals in the process. The only other option, really, would be to ask the membership to vote – although everyone claimed to know the members’ minds, as pointed out here, nobody wanted to risk consulting them.

With the decision made, this SZ piece argues, the best thing Söder could do would be to seize the brief remaining window of opportunity to be a team player and step back with both good grace and the promise of a major federal ministry. Astonishingly, though, he’s continuing to rock the boat. Having promised that he would support the winner without making a fuss (“ohne Groll”), he’s giving newspaper interviews saying that the party doesn’t need a “Helmut Kohl 2.0 from the 1990s”, while also setting a target of 35% of the vote, ruling out a three-party coalition, and declaring that the Greens are the most intellectually interesting competitor.

What Söder is up to isn’t clear. It’s possible he still hopes Laschet, or the regional barons on the executive committee, will crack and give in and he’ll eventually get it. Or he may be positioning for the blamestorming exercise after a bruising defeat. Or perhaps he’s effectively running as a spoiler candidate out of spite. Both parties are making noises about recruiting members in each other’s territory, the nuclear option in their relationship, and Söder has gone so far as to drum up custom on Twitter.

If it’s a spoiler it’s quite the spoiler. The whole drama is doing the CDU incalculable damage. A first polling shock landed with Forsa’s survey on the 20th of April, putting the Greens in first place on 28 per cent and the joint CDU/CSU on 27 per cent. The much respected pollsters from the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen responded by saying that this was unrealistic, whereupon it promptly happened again in Kantar/Worldpanel’s survey. As I keep saying, given the CSU’s special powerbase in Bavaria, this implies frankly horrific numbers for the CDU in the rest of Germany.

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.