Germany’s elections: um… what?

Germany is having elections for the Bundestag at the end of September!

But you’d never know it. Walking through the village, driving to the county seat, I haven’t seen a single sign or poster. It barely gets mentioned on TV news. Newspapers, some discussion, but it’s mostly below-the-fold stuff. Nobody’s that excited.

I haven’t lived in Germany long enough to know if this is perfectly normal, or if this is just a particularly drab and dull election. On one hand, maybe it is? We’re in a recession, but neither of the major parties seem to have good solutions. It’s not like the election is going to make a big difference. The parties of the left are so far behind that Merkel is almost certain to be Chancellor again.

On the other hand, it is very much an open question whether we’ll be stuck with another Grand Coalition. My very tentative guess is yes. If the election were held today, the polls say that Merkel and the CDU/CSU would win a mandate to rule (along with their junior partners, the FDP). That’s because the Socialists are way, way down right now — polls show them as low as 20%, which is truly horrible. That’s a recent Stern poll, BTW, which showed the CDU/CSU with 37% and the FDP with 14% — just enough to form a government.

It seems really strange to me that, in the middle of a harsh recession, voters are abandoning the center-left party in droves. Wouldn’t the Socialists normally reap the benefit of voter unhappiness and fear? Yet it’s the stubborn, none-too-charismatic center-right Prime Minister who’s prospering; the worst-case scenario for Merkel is four more years of the same.

That 20%… just brutal. But surely it’s going to tighten as election day approaches? That would be normal, right?

— Okay, I admit that after more than a year here, I still don’t understand German politics.

Comments? Can someone explain this to me?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Governments and parties and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

20 thoughts on “Germany’s elections: um… what?

  1. Well, first better not call it the “Reichstag” in Germany, it’s the Bundestag! I think Reichstag it was called during and/or before the war.
    Personally (I”m german), yeah, I think it’s a particularly dull election, both because of lack of ideas from politicians and because people (especially young ones) feel especially disappointed by politicians, who more and more seem to treat their constituents like stupid sheeple.
    If you know german, there’s an interesting article about this on the website of the weekly “Die Zeit” (from a reader I think) about “Die Dummheitsvermutung”
    So, as explained above, none of the established parties brings forward anything new, instead they either try to pass stupid laws in the time before the election to hope to get some popular (and yellow press) votes, say they will bring full employment back (Steinmeier, which everyone should know is utopian, especially now), or try to just ride on their popularity (zu Guttenberg). Guttenberg actually seems quite o.k. (at least he was critical of just bailing out every stupid company) but he just is in the wrong party for some people, because of their conservative and christian roots. (like me)
    So I hope/think that where possible it’ll be like with the european elections, meaning me (and many of my friends) will vote for the pirate party, at least they have one issue that they really care and know about. Otherwise I would be most likely to go for the liberals I guess, but they just always partner with the Christians, so that’s one reason not to vote for them.

  2. about the 20%: apart from general utter cluelessness, a big issue is that many people say/think that after the last election it would have been better for the SPD to go into Opposition, thus being able to stay more true to the values their party members/voters care about, than when being in a coalition with the CDU. Muentefering said something like “If you’re opposition, you’re nothing” or something like that, thereby disregarding that the Opposition is an important part of the political System.

  3. Reichstag? Jeezus, Muir, get with the program here. 🙂

    It’s worth remembering that in 2005, CDU held astronomical leads in pre-election polling, only to be fought to a draw by the SPD on election day. I’m not saying the same will happen again, but it’s not at all impossible that SPD’s support proves more sturdy and CDU’s more ephemeral than polling indicates.

    Moreover, the real reason neither bloc was able to form a coherent majority in 2005 was the emergence of the Left Party, a new-old conflagration of the old East German Communists and SPD rebels. They won enough seats to deny either bloc a majority, but were not considered a viable governing partner, not even for the SPD (that despite the existence of several Red-Red coalition at state level).

    I should add that I understand why the SPD would be reluctant to enter a full-bore coalition with the Left, but I’m surprised some kind of external support to a SPD-Green minority government wasn’t considered.

    Anyway, my feeling is that as the election draws near, the numbers will even out. CDU still wins but lacks the numbers to make up a majority with the Free Democrats. The Grand Coalition will continue, but with a new agreement, and a distribution of cabinet seats that favours the CDU more than the current 8-8.

  4. “Reichstag” thing corrected. My bad.

    One thing that baffles me is, a fifth of the CDU/CSU support is the CSU here in Bavaria. But in the Bavarian state elections last year, the CSU got brutally spanked. Yet countrywide, the CDU/CSU is doing fine.

    Have the CSU rebounded so fast? Or is the CDU just that strong in the rest of the country?

    Doug M.

  5. “It seems really strange to me that, in the middle of a harsh recession, voters are abandoning the center-left party in droves”

    In France it’s the same, the left is not more popular since there is a recession.

    I think the left globally, in at least in the western World is intellectually bankrupt.
    And in the meantime the neo cons, neo-liberal (or neo-classical) ideology too.

    Generally the West and Japan is economically bankrupt, intellectually too, there is no idea nowhere, and morally too (look at finance everuwhere Iceland, UK, France (Socgen), USA )everywhere we are manged by criminals, intellectuals have nothing to say, and physically are population is very old , and look at the fact more and more people use drug and are overweight.

    I think we are living the end of something like in the 30s.

  6. Same thing in Finland, the support for the SDP is going down, down, down and, well, down. And meanwhile, the right-wing Coalition is fat and happy, and maintaining the confidence of the people. It’s a normal phenomenon everywhere in Europe.

    Considering that Douglas made one blog post commenting on that Newsweek article “Lame Left” back in the last autumn, he’s familiar with this already.

    As for the “voter unhappiness and fear”, I don’t know how things are in Germany, but in the country that I live in, those unhappy and fearful voters are rallying under the banner of the new populist, nativist movement, the “True Finns”. Anti-EU, anti-immigration, hyper-patriotic, morality from the Christian right, social and economic policy choices from the Old Left.

    So far, the recipe seems to be working.


    J. J.

  7. Writing as a Dane, I can only say that in Denmark the voters tend to vote for the SDP only when the country can afford it. In bad times where austerity is needed the conservative parties take over.This pattern has been broken the last few years, but this is only because our centre-right government moved very much to the left.
    What baffles me about the German election is the total absense of debate about Germanys role in Europe in the years to come. To my mind we have a situation where EU is holding the Baltics, Southern Europe and all the other trouble spots together with money, scotch tape, chewing gum and anything else they can think of. This is to prevent anything from blowing up before Mrs. Merkel has been safely re-elected and has formed another grand coalition. The reason is, again to my mind, that any solution of the European financial problem will entail a massive transfer of money out of Germany to all and sundry; something which 70% of Germans are against according to a recent poll. If I am right in this supposition, why is it allowed NOT to be a major topic in the election ? I can understand why the politicians avoid it like the plague, but where is the responsible press ?


  8. Here, in and around Berlin, billboards are popping up, and I have the feeling that things start moving in the media, and in particular in the internet. Documentaries on the candidates are popping up, the SPD candidate Steinmeier has just presented his “Competency Team”, the Pirate Party story remains viral on web discussions etc.

    But it is true, it is not the big hype we were experiencing in the past. There might be three main reasons explaining this:

    1) With the European Parliament elections in June, there has already been a national fight for voters. Although these elections were rather low key, it gave the parties a pretty good impression on where they stand, so they might not be willing to experiment too much ahead of the polls.

    2) In past elections, the two major parties SPD (social democrats) and CDU (centre-right, christian democrats) were in a true competition for power, with very different types of candidates and distinctive political options. This time, the candidates for the post of the chancellor are in the same coalition, with two quite similar (pragmatic) candidates who are not personalising the campaign to an extend this was the case in 1998, 2002 and 2005. And they still have to govern together, i.e. in the case of the Lisbon Treaty by-law that will allow Germany to ratify this treaty.

    3) The five-party parliament makes two-party options apart from the existing grand coalition (CDU/CSU – SPD) less likely than in the past (although in the opinion polls christian democrats and the liberals have a joint majority), which lowers the will of the parties to compete to heavily against each other, because this could lower their ability to form a coalition afterwards. This is the first election campaign for decades where non of the parties has made absolutely clear statements about their future coalitions. In addition, there will be some regional elections before the main parliamentary elections whose outcomes might influence the strategies of the national parties for their main campaign.

    But apart from that, I see the parties being fully engaged in the co-ordination of the campaign, and I expect it to pop up intensively very soon.

  9. I think that there are local rules about campaign posters only allowed n days before an election and must be removed by m days after. I’m not sure how standard n & m are

  10. I do not keep abreast of Swedish politics the way I perhaps ought to, but here it seems that as a whole the left-wing opposition are actually doing better in the polls than the governing right-wing coalition (things have been going back and forth over the years, if memory serves).

    Not that things are going terrifically for the Social Democrats (SAP), who have fallen far from the days when they were more or less synonymous with the state: their numbers in the polls are at an all time low, and they may be hampered by a lack of confidence in their new leadership (though I have little beyond anecdotal evidence to confirm this), and so the Left Part and the Greens have become more important for any prospective victory in the elections next year. The fact that the SAP for the first time seems open to the prospect of forming a cabinet coalition with the Greens and the Left Party, rather than relying on them for parliamentary support, is very telling.

    Predicting the final numbers for the SAP, and the left, is however complicated by the fact that at present both the Sweden Democrats (right-wing xenophobes), and (I kid you not) the Pirate Party are polling at numbers enough to just squeak past the 4 %-threshold required for receiving seats in the Riksdag, which might alter the balance of power significantly. But that, of course, is a topic for another time.

  11. First of all, to clarify: The building is called Reichstag, the parliament is called Bundestag.

    (I had a slightly longer post typed up, but that got lost when I forgot the spam protection)

    The lack of interest in the elections I think is mostly related to the perceived lack of options for politicians over the next few years. The budget deficit means that reductions in taxes or new social programs are unlikely. And we aren’t going to get another campaign in which a party promises to raise taxes after the last results.

    I think the negotiations afterwards will be very interesting though if the CDU/FDP fails to get a majority. I’m not quite convinced that the SPD won’t go for a SPD/Greens/Left coalition in that case.

  12. Mmmh, the german pirate party isn’t as popular as the swedish one I think, but they still got some popularity, so maybe they’ll get in too or at least some more funding.
    Personally I’d just hope for a big decline in both the major parties, because in the past they acted more and more like the german equivalent of neocons, (Schaeuble, v.d. Leyen, etc.) and unless the FDP remembers what liberal means, I don’t really think they deserve any seats either. (not that that will reflect in a probable outcome, just stating personal opinion here) The greens I normally don’t support, but at least they’ll continue pulling out of nuclear power (which I support although I’m normally a science person, which might not make sense) and at least they still stand for some of their original ideas. Also I hope neither extreme left or extreme rigth get too many or any seats. But well, all of that combined would be utopia, so we’ll just have to see I guess.

  13. In Europe in general the genuine proletariat wants more welfare, protectionism and reversed immigration. The frightened middle class knows that growth at all cost is needed. Hence a party associated with regulation and strict enviromentalism won’t fare well.

    In Germany specifically both big parties are Keynesian now and the size of the public debt practically dictates most policy for the next few years.
    In addition a vote for the SPD is effectively a vote for the existing coalition and the SPD can’t argue that a government it is part of is totally incompetent.
    Neither can the CDU argue that the SPD is a bunch of nitwits as the chancellor is seen cooperating with its ministers on a daily basis.

    And the SPD hasn’t found an answer to its cuts in unemployment benefits, which now mean that middle class voters have to vote for a government that prevents long term unemployment, at almost any cost.

    By the way the needed majority is 47% or so due to the 5% hurdle. So the outcome depends on the unemployment statistics and random affairs by now.
    The interesting part will be after the elections. Either chaos if nobody gets a majority or a major reshuffle in the party system if the SPD has to face up to permanent decline.

  14. It’s rather simple. People abandon the SPD because the SocDems for a decade mostly did what you would expect a right-wing-government to do: cutting back welfare and deregulate the economy (and the financial markets). It took a SPD in government to enact reforms that CDU/CSU and FDP wished for but never were able to push through. The living standard of the employees, the SPD’s main aggregate, did rather fall than rise. It’s no coincidence that Edward calls Germany the benchmark whenever some country needs to cut wages. Those who benefited will never vote SPD. Long story short: the SPD did exactly the opposite of what its electorate would have wanted. And at the end of this economic crisis we may again have 5 million people unemployed and it’ll be obvious that these reform policies just benefited a few rich people. The SPD will only be on the rise again if it abandons its right wing policies and becomes a social democratic party again. For that, Steinbrück, Steinmeier, Müntefering et al. need to go.

  15. Schröder didn’t cut welfare. He cut spending on the long term unemployed. The significance is important. The very poorest of the poor benefited from his policies. He hit the lower middle class. That broke his party’s back.

  16. ‘Comment’ hit the nail on the head. Schröder’s politics often came straight from the neoliberal ‘think-tanks’ like Bertelsmann Stiftung. All the talk about people ‘abandoning’ the Social Democrats are a bit bass ackwards – because it is the SPD that abandoned their own core voters a long time ago. If they hadn’t, there probably wouldn’t be a ‘Linke’ party today.

  17. Just thought about “I haven’t lived in Germany long enough to know if this is perfectly normal, or if this is just a particularly drab and dull election. On one hand, maybe it is?” again and I think while maybe just maybe this election is even more dull then usual, I honestly can’t think of a really intense election like some other countries have them since I was little … even then it was basically always Kohl for example, and untill Schroeder no one had a real shot toppling him it seems. So yeah, elections in germany are kinda boring.

  18. I think it is perfectly normal that parties do not begin their campaign 2 months before the elections. I think posters started to be there about 6-4 weeks before the elections and one the whole the current campaign does not seem very important.

    None of the parties seems to have a very good plan for the future, otherwise it would have been already mentioned. However, you usually only hear the same things over and over again…

    I hoped that somebody would talk about the importance of science and how they will try to keep scientists in Germany (many leave Germany), but nobody does…

  19. I am from vancouver,canada and i wanted to comment on the elections.The different political parties in Germany are the same as the ones in canada and the usa.In the usa there is no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.
    Germany was close to a change in 1918.If Rosa Luxemburg and her organization had not accociated with the Social Democrts and armed the german people things would have been different.The working class in Germany will get another chance to take political power.

    Stan Squires

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