The return to the four- (or even three-) party system? An outlook on Germany's political landscape after the federal election

In Germany's current post-electoral forging of the coalition set to govern Europe's biggest country for the next four years two options are probable at the moment: a Grand Coalition of Chancellor Merkel's CDU with the Social Democratic SPD party, or a coalition of the CDU with the Green party.

The CDU/CSU (Conservatives; black/blue) have gained 311, the SPD (Social Democrats; light red) 192, the Left Party (dark red) 64 and the Greens (green) 63 seats in the 18th Bundestag (Federal Diet) of Germany 

The SPD, the oldest party in the current party system, existing for 150 years and having been the senior government party in Germany for about twenty years in the 1970s to early 1980s and late 1990s to mid 2000s, has almost been reduced to a second-rate political force in Germany in recent years. It has overall lost about 10% (at least a few million) of their voters since being voted back into power in 1998 after sixteen years of constant CDU reign. These losses were mainly due to the party's swing towards the centre under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (compare to British “New Labour” of PM Tony Blair from 1997). This paradigm change, coming at a time of economic crisis in Germany at the beginning of the last decade (2001/02), led to the most significant reforms in economic and social policies in post-war Germany; they, dubbed “Agenda 2010”, were of a neoliberal character that couldn't be accommodated completely with those truly and ideologically committed to the century-old tradition of Social Democracy. Thus, a breakaway faction of the SPD in the former West Germany (WASG, “Electoral Alternative for Social Justice”) split off and aligned itself with the Socialist Party in the former East Germany (PDS, “Party of Democratic Socialism”) to form a strong new party, prosaically named “The Left” party (“Die Linke”), today the only truly economically left party of the major parties of the country. 

The Greens, for their part, are the youngest party in the current system. Their roots lie in the civil rights, ecological, pacifist and social justice movement of the late 1960's, that led to “alternative” political movements now established as “Green” or other parties in many countries. As a party, they were founded in the late 1970s in the then staunchly bourgeois and conservative state of Baden-Württemberg; they already gained seats in state parliaments in 1980 and in the Bundestag in 1982, just a couple of years later. Not considered a serious party able to participate in government for a significant time after that, they were gone from the Bundestag in the first election after the accession of East to West Germany (until today dubbed “re-unification”) in 1990, but themselves in 1998 at the latest, twenty years after their foundation, when they formed a coalition with the SPD on federal level that ruled for seven years. During this time, similar to the SPD, they themselves lost some supporters due to their initiative for German participation in military action in the Kosovo 1999 and in Afghanistan 2001 under foreign minister Joschka Fischer. They lost many left-wing voters in those years and only recovered in the late 2000s, when they increasingly became attractive for more bourgeois, but ecologically-minded conservative voters from the CDU's and FDP's milieus. Ecological matters became “mainstream” in the late 2000s, even among the CDU – e.g. the broad support for the decision to cancel nuclear energy in Germany, a debate the Greens had already started in the 1980s; Angela Merkel has taken on the “energy revolution” from nuclear to renewable energy (“Energiewende”) as a major project of hers. This dynamic and the ecological debate, e.g. on climate change being strong in Germany, brought broad support for the Greens, leading them (back) into several state governments (some of which they were voted out of in the early 1990s), even being the senior, stronger partner in a coalition with the SPD in their “home state” of Baden-Württemberg since 2011, with the first Green MP (State Prime Minister) ever. They almost seemed to be a third “Volkspartei” (major party with support among many strata of society) in the early years of the 2010s.

What is the state of the (centre-)left parties in Germany? The SPD hasn't really recovered from its worst result in a federal election ever in 2009, and the Greens, with a few exceptions on the state level, couldn't continue their winning streak of the mid 2000s and early 2010s recently, but, on the contrary, have dropped from the higher double digits (Baden-Württemberg 25% in 2011) to just below 10% (now 8% in the federal elections). They have lost many supporters either to the right (CDU) (they had gained those before, specifically in bourgeois Baden-Württemberg in 2011) or the left (to the Left Party or the newly-emerged „Pirate Party“) (for the specific reasons see “Merkel's pyrrhic victory”, 24-09-13). However, the two parties (as a coalition dubbed “Rot-Grün”) still hold a significant number of seats in the second chamber of parliament (the Bundesrat), that can block major legislation; the SPD is even part of 13 out of 16 state governments. The “Linke” has been constantly between 5 and 10% nationwide, with significantly higher results and government participation in several states in former East Germany (with the SPD). In the Western states and on the federal level, they have suffered from generally being excluded from government coalitions, with the SPD and the Greens opting to coalesce with the CDU (or FDP) instead. This has also been due to their ideologically more heavy-handed and radical wing in the West, whereas the Left in the the formerly Communist East Germany is more pragmatic (and also still has an old supporter base from the Communist era there); it is thus able to participate in most state governments there. “Die Linke” is the second-strongest party in many parts of the country there, taking in much of what would be SPD or left-wing Green clientele in the West; the (centre, bourgeois) Green and ((neo-)liberal) FDP clientele of Eastern Germany is mostly absorbed by the Conservative party CDU (as it was in these elections, where the CDU had record results there).

What is the outlook and what could this mean for the future of the German party system? Much depends on which of the two parties, SPD or Greens, will be in government as a junior partner of chancellor Merkel's CDU.

If it will be the SPD, at the moment still favoured by most in the CDU, also due to the experience the two parties have governing together in the mid 2000s, the Greens, if they improve their performance on the federal level of the last couple of years again, could recover in opposition, as some on the left might turn to them again in the face of an overwhelming, so-called “grand” centre-right (as the CDU is much stronger) CDU-SPD coalition which would have a 75% majority in the Bundestag and a majority in the Bundesrat for a significant number of years. Such a coalition would thus be very stable as far as the majorities are concerned. For the SPD, it would be a chance to pull the CDU even more to the centre, but if they fail to do so or if Merkel, as she did in 2005 to 2009, in her cunning way and with support of the major and powerful right-wing boulevard press, manages to appear stronger and claim every success for herself while blaming the SPD for the failures, this could mean that the SPD continues to stagnate at 20% to 25% and the left wing of the German party system at 40% to 45% (if the Greens don't recover and the Left stays stationary). Much depends on the leadership of the party, so far no one appears that could face Merkel as a counterpart in such as coalition; even the quite charismatic and cosmopolitan chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrück, failed to present himself as someone who could do so, but also because he has not been (at least perceived as) a very strong figure in the last Grand Coalition and has been a polarizing figure among the left wingers of the party. 

If it will be the Greens, at the moment unlikely, but some signals have already been sent out from CDU leaders to them, the situation would be much more unstable, not only due to many positions, especially in the energy policy, the educational policy and the tax policy, where the two parties are still diametrically in opposition to each other, but also because they wouldn't have enough votes together in the Bundesrat. In terms of their future electorate, the Greens face the danger of stagnating at their current low levels if they join this coalition, as they will surely not gain any left-wing voters back by doing so, and the bourgeois right-wing voters would probably see themselves represented by the CDU anyway. Additionally, the CDU would bend over backwards even more from their old, i.e. pro-business, pro-nuclear, anti-ecological ways and try to become even more “green” (they are already following the green “mainstream”, with Merkel dubbed “Klimakanzlerin” and Seehofer, Bavarian PM of the CSU, until recently pro-nuclear, dubbing himself “champion of the Energiewende”) and thus gain from or keep those more ecologically-minded from the bourgeois voter clientele that they share and compete for with the Greens. This could mean all but the end of their existence as a major party for the Greens and certainly would not bring them closer to the left, but could lead to them being completely absorbed by a large, all-encompassing, ecological-bourgeois-conservative centrist Merkelian greenish CDU. The “black-green” coalition would, or could, mean the “kiss of death” for the Greens; they might be “embraced”, stifled or absorbed to death by the CDU (as the FDP was). But, as with the SPD's future, the Green party's also depends on the future leadership of the party and on their steadfastness in the coalition (but so far, no truly charismatic leader such as Joschka Fischer in the 2000s is to be seen).

Would this mean, with the fifth party, the FDP, gone, the end of the four-party system in four years (if one excludes the return of the FDP to significance, which might well happen, though), with the Linke as the only small party remaining? This depends on the Greens and on another smaller party, one in the right-wing camp. There, a new eurosceptic party is waiting in the wings to possibly gain access to state parliaments, replacing the FPD. But this party, the “Alternative für Deutschland”, is being excluded from cooperation as anti-European by the CDU and as neo-Nazi by the left wing. If it makes its way into parliament and if the “Linke” is still excluded from any participation in a future government, then only two (with the Greens three) parties remain as partners availabe for a coalition. A truly left-wing government would then be impossible, as would a clearly right-wing government (if the FDP doesn't recover significantly, and there is no sign of that); Germany would be locked in a permanent Grand Coalition, for the better or worse, but at least with no perspective of radical reforms towards either side of the political spectrum, but even less likely towards the left (as the CDU will remain the strongest party, and pro-business and financial lobbys will remain strong). Therefore, with an SPD-Green-Left coalition impossible and unwanted by the SPD, a Grand Coalition for the next four years, with the perspective of a clearly left-wing government afterwards, is the better option with regard to a participation of the SPD in government (in comparison to the Greens strong enough to avoid absorption by the CDU), the survival of the Greens as a (still more) left-wing party in Germany and the role of the Left party as the then only social democratic opposition force strengthening the left wing. 

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