German Elections on Sunday

Some thoughts about Germany’s election this Sunday, hoisted from comments over on Facebook. They’re more about personal preferences, and maybe not anything new for the three readers Fistful still has after Brexit broke the blog. (By the way, there’s still a media niche that could be filled by Brexit Jones Diary, if anyone has the stomach for that task.)

Martin Schulz [the Social Democrat] is not bad. I’m of several minds. Merkel absolutely did the right thing with refugees in 2015, against the trend of her party, and it made a huge difference for Germany and for Europe. And I want to see that kind of choice rewarded. Certainly, if Germany has to have a government led by the conservative party, having a female scientist from the East, who is also a pastor’s daughter, as the head of that party is the way to go. On the other hand, an additional term of office would be years 12-16 of a Merkel chancellorship. Governments get to be long in the tooth; the people in them forget that they have ever not been in power; scandals accumulate; stagnation can set in. Maybe Merkel’s next government (she is likely to be the head of the largest party still after Sunday) will beat those odds, I don’t know.

[comment from friend]

[Me again] Well, it’s proportional representation, so everybody is in the running. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) are likely to come in first, with the Social Democrats (current coalition partners) also likely to come in second. One of the tricky parts comes afterward: putting together a coalition that can command a majority in the parliament. Right now, there’s a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties. They don’t really want to work together, but that’s how the math turned out last time.

Her main opponent, Martin Schulz, is the top candidate of the Social Democrats. Previously he was head of their faction in the European Parliament (Brussels and Strasbourg), and in fact president of the European Parliament. His candidacy is a good thing for a number of reasons, though I will be surprised if he and the Social Democrats win by becoming the largest part in Germany’s parliament.

The far-right party, AfD, also looks likely to get into the national parliament. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons; on the other hand, it’s not surprising that far-right voters make up something like 5%-10% of the German electorate. If anything, that’s pleasingly low. But! It will be the first time that a far-right party has made it into parliament (despite what some people say about the Bavarian part of the Christian Democrats), and that’s disappointing enough. It may also mean that there are six parties in parliament, which makes putting together a coalition challenging. Not least because the Social Democrats are still holding fast to their pledge not to work with The Left at the national level. (The Left are, several name changes later, the successors to East Germany’s Communists. Back in the old days in East Germany, the Communists went after Social Democrats with special vigor, sending some to Siberia and putting others in camps that had recently been vacated by the actual Nazis. So one can see why the Social Democrats would not want to work with them.)

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, isn’t it?

[friend says no, please go on]

One of key things about refugees is that every — *every* — family in Germany has a refugee story of some sort. Grandparents had to leave the Baltics after the war, uncle so-and-so fled East Germany before the Wall went up, sister-in-law was a Transylvania Saxon and left Romania after the fall of Communism, babysitter is Jewish and from Ukraine, and on and on. Merkel told everyone here to remember, and people did. It was hugely important, all the more so coming from a conservative party, from a German conservative party. The repercussions are still playing out, but it was and is a genuine big deal.

Between the wars, there was a party called the Catholic Center, and they did not discredit themselves as badly during the rise of the Nazis as the other conservative parties did. After the war, the Center and some Protestant groupings essentially fused into the Christian Democrats. There are numerous Christian Democratic parties across Europe — Italy’s essentially ran the country for the better part of 40 years, and they have formed governments in Holland and Belgium, maybe parts of Scandinavia as well. With national conservatism discredited by ties to fascism and collaboration during the war, these parties emerged as an acceptable face of conservatism. (They also embraced democracy, which pre- and inter-war conservative parties often had not.) Their ties are to established churches, so they are a lot mellower than your Alabama Bible thumper.

Yes, the Social Democrats (SPD – Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) correlate most closely with the Democrats. By some measures, they are older than Germany, as some of the organizations that became the SPD were founded before Bismarck pulled off his unification trick. They are generally leftier than the US Democrats; they were an out-and-out Marxist party until 1958, and they are still observers in the Socialist International (and were members until 2013). On the other hand, they have been part of a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU for eight of the 12 years she has been Chancellor. So they have the tricky task of needing to campaign as opposition while being a part of the government.

I think we are about to find out how well proportional representation (PR) serves Germany. For the first few decades after the war, there were basically three parties at the national level: CDU, SPD and the Free Democrats (FDP). One of the big parties governed in coalition with the FDP. Changes in government came about by changes in the coalition in parliament, and they were ratified afterward by the voters. West German improved on Weimar’s setup in two important ways (well, more than that, but two for now). First, parties had to win at least 5% of the national vote to be represented in parliament by PR. That kept the number of parties low; a fractured parliament had been a big problem under Weimar’s constitution. Second, a government could not be brought down by parliament without its replacement being proposed. This “constructive vote of no confidence” is different from the practice in most other Western European parliamentary systems.

In the 1980s, the Greens found a permanent place in national politics, making it four parties in parliament. These had a rough left-right breakdown, with SPD/Green on the left and CDU/FDP on the right. It’s interesting to note that the first time that German voters actually turfed out a government on their own was in 1998, when they voted SPD/Green in to replace CDU/FDP. In the mid- to late 1990s, the former communists returned to political importance in Germany, as they did in all other post-communist countries in Europe. (That Germany is also a post-communist country is underappreciated, not least in Germany itself.) They mainly get votes in the former Eastern Germany, out of a combination of regional identity, old loyalists, and protest voting. So that meant five parties in parliament, and made the left-of-center’s task of assembling a majority trickier because the mainstream left would not go into coalition with the further left. (Because of the persecutions mentioned above. The SPD is serious about this, too. They have failed to gain power in some states because in secret ballots state legislators won’t vote for a left-left coalition. In at least one case, iirc, SPD legislators had relatives who had been repressed by the communists, and could not bring themselves to vote for ruling together with the communists’ successors.)

On Sunday, if the AfD gets in (and polls suggest they will), there will be six parties in parliament. Nobody will work with them because they are Nazi assholes taking Russian money, but their presence will make coalition building more difficult, in that there will be fewer mainstream seats available to reach an absolute majority.

I think Germany’s parliament works better together because there is still respect for the informal norms (not least because of historical memory about what can happen when norms are trashed for partisan gain), and because all of the parties really do want to govern. There are also fewer veto points than in the US system (although there are more than in, say, the UK). Further, there is no real expectation that it will be necessary to work across party lines. A government has a majority, and it pursues its program. There is some tinkering around the edges because (1) a junior partner may wish to keep its options open for future coalitions; (2) Germany is federal, and the upper house is shaped by the make-up of state legislatures, so the government will not necessarily have a majority in the upper house; (3) Germany’s courts place a noticeable role in shaping how legislation is applied; and (4) other things I haven’t thought of right now.

True story: In 1998 or so, I told a young producer for 60 Minutes that Merkel had no chance of becoming Chancellor because she had negative charisma. So count me among the many, many people who have underestimated her. My only defense is that seven years (several eternities in TV time) did in fact pass before she became Chancellor, so I was correct at the time if wrong in the long run.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

2 thoughts on “German Elections on Sunday

  1. Thanks!

    Who knows if it will last. Brexit really has broken the blog. I keep thinking there’s a media opening for Brexit Jones Diary, but keep not starting it.