German elections: the view from the chalk face

If you clicked on this hoping for some in-depth political analysis from a seasoned commentator drawing on the full range of German daily newspapers – then stop reading here. Hardbitten politico I am not; my grasp on the minute-by-minute situation as a time-pressed mother of a toddler with no voting rights (as a UK citizen) is tenuous. Nonetheless, in these pre-election weeks, it would be hard not to pick up on the political vibes in the air and catch some of the excitement; even the discussions round the sandpit in our local park have been touching on party politics in recent weeks.

The highlight of this week has been Sunday night’s TV duel between Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel and her SPD (social democrat) challenger for the job, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The article in Tuesday’s Taz newspaper summed up the duel quite well; „Steinmerkel against Merkelmeier“. Having worked together as part of the Grand Coalition since the last national election in 2005, the two of them agreed more than they disagreed. Compared to the UK, where the leader of the opposition’s main job seems to be heckling, these two came across as harmonious as a long-married couple, with the disadvantage of only one helping of personality to share between them.

The newspapers made much of the fact that Steinmeier came across as the stronger of the two, somewhat against expectations: Merkel, while not exactly inspiring huge popularity, is grudgingly held to be quite good at her job and is difficult to ruffle in debate. But she has also long been criticised for being too restrained, too slippery with her opinions, too keen on the art of compromise, and against that Steinmeier was never going to have to work too hard to seem more personable and opinionated. (Strangely, the criticisms levelled at Merkel often puts me in the unusual situation of defending the conservative politician – not so much her personally as the principle of non-confrontational politics.)

As for Steinmeier, he’s a bit of an unknown quantity in this role. This past year or so has been a poor one for the SPD; in October 2008, party leader Kurt Beck, who presided over a series of political disasters characterised by party disunity and mud-slinging, resigned only to be replaced by Franz Müntefering, who had himself resigned the same post three years previously. The fact that a long-standing SPD politician can make a television appearance that is not marked by a catastrophe of any kind is probably partly the reason for Steinmeier’s warm reception in the press on Monday.

The interesting part of this election, then, does not lie in the personalities of the two main candidates for the role of Bundeskanzler. Rather, the way in which the new government is to be formed is the subject of endless discussion and speculation. Because of the system of proportional representation, smaller parties have much more of a role to play, and the negotiations to form a government can go on for some time, both in the guise of promises and flattery between parties in the run-up to the election and in tortured discussion and backstabbing afterwards. It is, as ever, highly unlikely that any party will come out with a clear enough majority to govern alone on 27th September. The party with the strongest majority – according to polls, this will be the conservative Union (the Christian Democratic Union, together with the affiliated Bavarian party, the Christian Socialist Union) with Merkel at the helm – will have the task of making up numbers to form a government with one or more of the other parties. In the 2005 election, this took months, resulting in the end in the Grand Coalition – the government consisting of the two major parties, the Union and the SPD, in which Frank-Walter Steinmeier is currently Foreign Minister in Angela Merkel’s cabinet.

This rather unwieldy union (imagine a coalition government made up of Labour and Conservatives) has proved serviceable, but it has also had the effect of making the policy divide between Union and SPD harder to define than ever; meanwhile, the smaller parties have used the extra leg room to cut an even clearer profile with the voters. Of the smaller parties, it is the FDP (the Liberals), the Green Party and the newly-formed Linke Partei (literally Left Party) who will be jostling for a place in the new coalition. (While the NPD – the counterpart to the British BNP – is worryingly still gaining votes, no mainstream political party would agree to take them on board in a coalition; their progress remains limited chiefly to local politics).

Against the backdrop of the Grand Coalition, the FDP has aligned itself even more firmly with the right-wing Union in the hope that the two parties together might receive enough seats to form a government, the “black-and-yellow” coalition that has been predicted as a likely outcome this month. For some reason, no one has yet started dubbing this the Honey Bee Coalition – perhaps because of negative associations with the ailing insects. The last election with its protracted wrangling to form a government saw a plethora of inventive coalition names based on the colours of the participating parties, like the Jamaica Coalition (green, yellow, black) and the Traffic Light Coalition.

On the left, meanwhile, the accident-prone SDP has suffered from being both government and opposition, and the confusion has led to voter gains both in the well-established Green Party – which formed the government with the SPD under Schröder 1998-2004 – and the brand new Linke Party, an improbable but so far successful alliance between various left-wing fractions, including the descendent of the old East German communist party. The Linke is bolstered by the charismatic career politician Oskar Lafontaine, who defected from Schröder’s SPD in 1999 and became leader of the re-branded Linke Partei in 2007. In the last round of local elections, the Linke went from being the almost universally spurned black sheep to a tacitly accepted coalition partner in regional elections; not because of any relaxation in its hard-left policies, but due to the inglorious scramble by the other parties to get in on the power-sharing by hook or by crook. Accepting the Linke as a third party (in some places in former East Germany even a second party) has meant that the SPD and Green forces can hold on to power in various regional parliaments, something which was predictable in the old East German counties but which is now looking set to happen in the western county of Saarland too. It is unlikely that the Linke will be included in any coalitions on a national level this time round, but their popularity with voters make them increasingly a force to be reckoned with. If things continue as they are (the most recent polls all give the Linke more than 10% of the vote), the Linke will be strong contenders for government in 2013.

So with less than two weeks to go, there is still a lot at stake. If the conservative voters stay true, then the Honey Bee Coalition (remember, you read it here first) will become reality. For a red-green coalition as under Schröder, the left would need to rally more behind the SPD; with the Linke strong enough to draw votes away from the SPD but unwelcome aboard the red-green alliance, red and green forces will almost certainly not be strong enough. If however the conservative parties narrowly miss their majority, then the colour of the next government is anyone’s guess. The Jamaica allegiance (conservatives, liberals and green party) is one alternative; the return to a Grand Coalition another. And while the Grand Coalition has not necessarily been bad for Germany as a whole, the effect of another four years of main party torpor in government could end up bolstering the smaller parties further and lead to a real change in Germany’s political landscape.

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8 Comments

  • I too am a German-based expat of very long standing, definitely not Libdem but I would probably vote FDP here. Nevertheless I find your analysis compelling and realistic; I feel sure the FAZ would translate it and print it if it were brought to their notice. I will be looking for “(Honig)biene Koalition” in the German press.

  • Martin Land 17th Sep '09 - 9:07pm

    The FDP has always seemed to me to be a party of difficult people determined to use the German electoral system to gain power. My Liberalism has difficulty accepting them as anything more than a cynical bunch of centre-right careerist. German énarques.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '09 - 12:43pm

    Continental liberalism tends to be more right-wing than British liberalism. As an extreme case, Austria’s FPÖ was the Austrian Liberal party, though its notorious former leader, Jörg Haider, first prompted a split of more classically liberal elements away from his party, and later he himself left to form a more outright nationalist party, but the FPÖ seems to be surviving and the breakaway parties are not.

    The German FDP, so far as I know, doesn’t have the nationalist stream which the FPÖ has, but like most continental liberal parties tends to place a strong emphasis on “economic liberalism”. At one time there was quite a substantial stream of opinion within the UK Liberal Party which was unhappy about being allied with economically Thatcherite parties in the rest of Europe, the counter-argument was always that these parties were strong on civil liberties issues and the like.

    Historically, the continental liberal parties owe their origin to organisations of businessmen and nationalists against the power of the Church and aristocracy. Nationalism was then seen as liberal against the internationalist Catholic Church. By the 20th century they had essentially won their battles, so settled into comfortable conservatism. They showed their liberalism by their anti-clericalism, which remained quite a big thing in the Catholic countries of Europe. Christian Democracy was a new thing, founded in the 20th century once the Catholic Church had modernised sufficiently to recognise democracy – it might have been socially conservative, but it was to the left of the liberals in economics.

    In Britain, in contrast, the movement of the Church and aristocracy organised into a successful political party in the 19th century, meaning the liberal party had to survive by building a stronger challenge from the political left, and no Christian Democrat party came about. So, the rise of socialism in the 20th century pushed the more conservative elements of the 19th century liberal movement into what was the 19th century church and aristocracy party, and the remains of the liberal movement absorbed some of what in the rest of Europe went into Christian Democracy. It was significant too that the established religion in Britain was nationalist rather than internationalist as in the Catholic countries, and that British liberalism was closely associated with nonconformist Christianity rather than anti-clericalism of the continental form.

    This history also suggests a reason why the British Conservative Party doesn’t fit in too well with the European Christian Democrats, to the point of now breaking away from them. Much though we may revile David Cameron for the alternative allies this has forced him to pick, it does make a kind of sense.

    The German FDP seems to me to illustrate how our party might be damaged by proportional representation. Being continually called on to be a minority coalition partner hasn’t really made it the strong party our opponents claim we want PR to become. Rather it has become a comfortable vehicle into ministerial posts for a few people at its top, at the expense of losing any sort of strong identity or enthusiastic support lower down.

  • As a long time observer and student of German politics, far from being careerists, the FDP have always struck as far more ideologes than their UK liberal equivalent. Martin Land’s views are probably shaped by the early 80’s shift from withdrawing support for Helmut Schmits SPD and effectively putting Helmut Kohls CDU in government in the SPD’s place. This was a defining moment for the FDP and the party has been pretty consistent since then on its centre-right neo-Thatcherite orthodoxy but far from being just a purely opportunist moment it represented the victory of one school of liberalism over another.

  • Like I said, Mike, it’s just a feeling. When you are a long time observer and student of French politics you become VERY cynical!

  • Just coming back from Germany: here’s the thing.

    The FDP are liberal in all senses. Automatically, without question, my first and second votes.

    Die Grunen were a bunch of loons on the far left. However, being in government and a new generation have taken over the leadership, things have changed. And therein lies the problem for Lib Dems like me.

    The FDP, though great on social issues, civil liberities and the enviorment, are neo-Thatcherite ideologues. The economic programme is right in some quarters (job growth will come from small companies, though the problem has been that its incredibily expensive to employ someone and burdensome to let an employee go).

    However, my main worry is the threat to the social-market of Germany being broken up in haste – which is the impression I have formed. Take a good look around – you don’t get the wide gap in poor and rich like the UK!

    Whereas, Die Grunen have steadily moved to the centre left and now trumpet themsleves as the defenders of small businesses, campiagning to lift the burden, ableit whilst maintianing the social-market.

    Whilst I don’t like the nuclear energy stance of Die Grunen or their daft pacifist stance (although they as junior partners holding the Foreign Affairs spot in the federal cabinet they did put troops into Afghanistan), for the first time my erstimme will go to Die Grunen (a tactical vote to turf out the SPD in our Berlin constituency) and go FDP for the list.

    Coalitions: don’t be surprised by a continuation of the Grand Coalition, and this will be only the third occasion this has happened in this, the third or ‘Berlin’ Republic. A Black (CDU-CSU) and yellow (FDP) coalition makes sense for Germany, though the polls suggest the numbers required are on a knife edge.

    The best outcome, many I know share the same viewpoint, is a Jamaica Coalition (CDU-FDP-Grunen), then we get the reforms so badly needed for the economy but achieviing the right balance to maintain a social-market and action on the environment and perserve a deep committment to the European project.

  • Bruce Wilson 20th Sep '09 - 8:59pm

    I also don’t understand Martin Lands’ concerns. Matthew Huntbach does write long essays. I also follow German politics. They have just held a conference and their views are clearly available on youtube. Guido Westerwelle is a convincing public speaker. No lack of passion. I would not describe him as careerist. They are Liberal. Similar, in policy terms, to the LibDems. The parallels with the UK are striking.
    And some Tories seem to think that the British are not European?!
    Ignorance.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Sep '09 - 4:49pm

    I am suggesting that the party political system has evolved differently in Britain than it has in the rest of Europe. As a consequence, there is not an exact equation between the British Liberal Democrats and continental Liberal parties, nor between the British Conservative Party and continental Christian Democrat parties. That is why there is a block of political opinion which in Britain has found itself in the Conservative Party and in continental Europe in Liberal parties. It might be called “economic liberal”, though in Britain we called it “Thatcherism”.

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