Fourth edition

On German Elections 2013

王 子 Wong Tsz 

The German Bundestagswahl (parliamentary election) ended on 22 September. The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), led by Angela Merkel, won with 41.5%; the main opposition party SPD (Social Democratic Party) got only 25.7%, The Left (Die Linke) 8.6%, The Greens (Die Grünen) 8.4%, the FDP (Free Democratic Party), the AfD (Alternative for Germany) and Pirate Party (Piraten), got 4.8%, 4.7% and 2.2% respectively[1]. But what can we tell from the German election?

Wong tsz fig 1

Fig.1[2]

Merkelmacht, The Merkel power

Other than CDU/CSU’s victory, it is worth noticing Angela Merkel’s winning for the third term as Bundes Chancellor, the Chancellor of Germany. Merkel was Germany’s first female Chancellor and let’s not forget that she began her political career in the East German party Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening). She was later in the male-dominated CDU. At the beginning of Merkel’s career, Germans were not aware of her power in solving political crises until scandals were exposed concerning crucial CDU/CSU members.  Two notable examples were the corruption conspiracy scandal concerning the former President of Germany Christian Wulff, as well as plagiarism in the doctoral theses of former Federal Minister of Education and Research Annette Schavan and former Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Merkel first tried to keep them in their positions, yet due to the potent force of public opinion, she accepted their resignations.

Fig.2[3]

Fig.2[3]

“Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance…”

The realistic approach of Merkel’s politics can be found not only in personnel assignments, but also in her political platform. “Merkel takes all of the energy out by bear-hugging her opponents and absorbing their issues,” said Andreas Kraemer, the director of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin[4]. Merkel manages to grab the will of the people early enough to make appropriate political decisions, even if it means turning stance. For instance, she abided by a decision made earlier by her former coalition partners, the SPD. When the SPD was in government from 1998 to 2005, a law phasing out all nuclear power plants by 2021 was supported by the government, and the schedule was also accepted by the majority of German people. Yet, later in 2010, when Merkel was re-elected for the second term of Chancellor, she did a U-turn by prolonging the service of nuclear power plants, until a “bridge technology” is developed to rely on renewable energies[5]. On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster erupted, and public opinion soon demanded instant cease on all nuclear power. Merkel made another U-turn, in order to save the CDU from mayhem in the state election of Baden-Wüttemberg, to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country in due course.

Merkel has been well known for her strong-stance on EU matters, especially during the Eurozone crisis; yet back in Germany, she was nicknamed Mutti (mummy). With Germany’s lead in economic achievements, and with a record low unemployment rate, the nation has gained enormous importance in European politics. This year the CDU won the greatest victory since the German reunification. After the election, Merkel said in her victory speech: “Heute wird gefeiert, ab morgen wieder gearbeitet”[6] (Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work again.) The calm speech she made may have reflected her Mutti character.

Other than Merkel, there is still much to talk about concerning the election. First – the left wing parties.

Peer Steinbrück and the SPD’s failure

Wong tsz fig 3

Fig.3[7]

 “Steinbrück’s immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames…”

SPD chair Peer Steinbrück’s performance in the TV election debate was widely reckoned as “not outstanding”. There was very little eye contact between him and the camera, probably due to the fact that he failed to locate where the cameras were[8]. Steinbrück also failed to gain popularity throughout the election campaign, with 25% of an approval rate compared to Merkel’s 63% in April 2013[9]. On a more personal level, you don’t have to be a political scientist to tell the difference between Peer Steinbrück and Angela Merkel. Unlike Merkel’s Mutti character, Peer Steinbrück is known to be outspoken, but was also undermined by a number of blunders he made. For instance, he commented that the Chancellor salary was too low, and the German public interpreted his comment as a potential self pay-rise if he is elected. There is also the issue with Steinbrück’s personal income. He is reported to have made €1.25 million between November 2009 and July 2012 for public speeches, even though he was receiving a salary as an elected member of parliament at the time[10]. His immaturity in politics earned him various nicknames: Pannen-Peer, Problem-Peer and Peerlusconi (see fig. 3), after the former Italian Prime Minister.

As for the number of seats, the SPD gained only 30.5%, compared to the CDU’s 40.5%. The CDU won a remarkable victory over the SPD. This could be explained by the fact that many SPD supporters did not cast their vote, and they did not want to vote for The Left or the CDU, nor did they trust the SPD to do a better job than the current CDU-led government. In fact, although the turnout rate of this year’s elections is higher than last year – 71.5% compared to 70.8% in 2009[11], it is the second lowest in history.

The SPD became passive after the elections. On the one hand if it chooses to form a grand coalition with the CDU, it could lose some loyal supporters, and even worse, history may repeat itself as in the 2009 elections, where the SPD was marginalised by the CDU; but if the SPD refuses such a coalition, it could be blamed for being a troublemaker. The SPD is indeed in a dilemma.

Between Red-Green-Red, the SPD, Die Grünen and Die Linke

The CDU/CSU needs a coalition partner. We may ask ourselves if there is any possibility of forming a coalition between the Left, the SPD and the Greens. The answer is: highly unlikely, due to three main reasons:

  1. Technical difficulties. First, Die Linke was separated from the SPD in 2007 after former SPD chair Oskar Lafontaine left the SPD in 2005; which explains the friction between SPD and Linke supporters. Therefore, even though both parties have left tendencies, there are still clear differences between them, especially concerning the Eurozone crisis. In fact, there was such coalition between the three parties during Landtagswahl (state elections) in 2009 and 2010, and it was indeed a threat to the CDU, yet no attempts of forming a coalition between the three parties were ever seen on a parliamentary level. This is probably due to the fact that they all worry that their own support rate may drop after doing so.
  2. Die Linke and the Stasi’s past. The Left has certain historical connections with the East German Secret Service, where several members were connected with the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security), which made the party unfavourable among liberal voters.
  3. Lack of popular support. According to opinion polls in 2005 and in 2008, most Germans didn’t wish to see a Red-Green-Red coalition. Those approving it was only 10%, and 67% regarded it as a bad idea[12]. In fact, most Germans prefer a grand coalition to any other coalition.

How about the right-wing parties?

The FDP’s epic fail

In the party’s 65-year history, this is the first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament. Considering the fact that the party actually produced some chancellors in earlier times, this year’s election was indeed an epic fail for the FDP. Philipp Rösler, the former party chair, and also vice chancellor of Germany, is now jobless. He resigned after the failure.

“The first time the FDP got kicked out of the parliament…in 65 years!”

If we compare the figures of approval rate of the CDU/CSU and the FDP, we would notice a sharp drop for the FDP; it was 14.6% in 2009, and only 4.8% this year, while the CDU/CSU had 33.8%, and 41.5% this year[13]. No wonder so many critics commented that the FDP was being sacrificed by the Merkel-led CDU. The same fate may happen again to Merkel’s next coalition partner, and the FDP may plan its revenge in the next elections.

The AfD’s shocking success in its first elections

On small parties, I have to mention the Euro-sceptic AfD – a new political party established barely more than half a year ago. The AfD gained a surprising 4.7% of the vote in its first-time elections. The AfD has a rather narrow agenda when compared to other parties. With its strong anti-euro stance, the party’s main agenda is the elimination of the euro and the restoration of a strong German national currency. The success of the AfD has shown that many Germans are indeed unhappy with the euro, and despite Germany’s participation in Europe’s debt crisis, the problem of explaining the euro to German people remains. The performance of the AfD in the future is definitely worth observing.

So now what?

The victory of the CDU/CSU has shown that most Germans approve Merkel’s conservative economic policy. Meanwhile, the Merkel government has begun the negotiations on forming a coalition with the Greens, or a grand coalition with the SPD. The Greens later turned down the invitation[14], leaving the SPD the only one reasonable option. Despite the dilemma faced by the SPD, it is clear that the Social Democrats will demand concessions in exchange for governing together with the CDU. The SPD would also wish to introduce minimum wage and a better social welfare system. The SPD and The Greens would also use their advantage of seats in the Bundesrat (Upper House) to counter Merkel’s government when necessary.

Many may thus note that the conventional definition of ”left wing parties” in European politics, especially that of the British, does not really apply to major left wing parties in Germany. The conventional definition of ”right wing parties” does not really apply in Germany either. For instance, when comparing the election platforms between the SPD and the CDU/CSU, we would not find so many differences, especially concerning Eurozone issues.  The right wing’s new star – the AfD – has nothing but opposition towards the euro, but not towards the European integration process. Their country being a founding member of the EU, German politicians are in general supportive of the idea of European integration, and therefore support the Eurozone austerity measures. So there is a tendency of major political parties shifting to the centre. For the left and far right parties, redefining their own stances could be a major challenge in the coming years, especially for the right wing FDP and AfD.

“Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform…”

It is worth noticing if Merkel will reinstate the plan for reforming the EU, a plan which she did not emphasise much during the election campaign in order to gain maximum domestic support. Merkel’s victory may give Germany an upper hand in the negotiations for EU reform, especially in response to the UK’s reform claim[15].

One interesting thing I have noticed is that both Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and François Hollande, president of France, immediately sent their congratulations to Merkel after the CDU/ CSU’s victory. The heads of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) all kept silent. For Germany it is very likely that it will remain the most important economic and political leader in EU for some years.


[2] Picture from ‘Die Tagesschau‘, Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD), http://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/0000-TIMELINES/charts/TIMELINE-BT-BT-DE/chart_2471175.png

[3] Picture from Merkel glued her fingers together, Funny Junk, http://static.fjcdn.com/pictures/Merkel_508cd5_1670425.jpg

[5] Merkel Pays Political Price for Shift on Nuclear Power, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/europe/22iht-letter22.html

[10] Amateur Hour at the SPD: Merkel Challenger Steinbrück Fails to Find His Feet, Spiegel Online International, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/spd-chancellor-candidate-peer-steinbrueck-goes-from-gaffe-to-gaffe-a-876157.html

[13] Merkel’s refusal to help FDP will come back to haunt her, The Conversation,  http://theconversation.com/merkels-refusal-to-help-fdp-will-come-back-to-haunt-her-18533

[15] Merkel may push Cameron to start early talks on EU reform, The Times,  http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article3842595.ece

Wong Tsz new profile Wong Tsz, Contributing Writer

Wong Tsz, from Hong Kong, moved to Europe for MA Euroculture (2010-12) after obtaining his BA in Language and Translation. Currently, he’s a PhD student in Musicology under DFG Research Group ‘Expert Cultures from the 12th to the 16th Century’. Wong Tsz played in various orchestras in Hong Kong and in Europe, including the Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra, Open University of Hong Kong Orchestra, Göttingen University Orchestra, Groningen Students’ Orchestra MIRA, and currently in Academic Orchestra Göttingen AOV. He’s not only keen on playing music but is actively engaged in academic research. His Master’s thesis gives an in-depth study of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under the scope of Orientalism theory by Edward Said. His current PhD project ‘Matteo Ricci in East West Music Exchange’ gives a detailed analysis to trace the early models of music exchange between China and Europe in 16th century.

Contactwongtsz@gmail.com

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