Pictured: Olaf Scholz. Photo by Oboneo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Setting the scene

On September 26, Germans elected a new Bundestag. The stage for this election was set in October 2018, when Angela Merkel announced her resignation as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her decision not to run again as federal Chancellor. Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known by her initials AKK, was able to secure a narrow 52 per cent majority in the December 2018 party convention, but resigned a little over a year later, her fate sealed by the regional CDU branch in the state of Thuringia. In government formation following the 2019 election for the Landtag (state assembly), the state CDU cooperated in February 2020 with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in electing Thomas Kemmerich of the small centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) as Minister-President. The collaboration of the CDU and FDP with the AfD provoked loud protests since it was considered a first breach in the firewall that the democratic parties had agreed to construct around the far-right grouping. Along with other federal politicians, AKK asked the regional party to agree to new elections. However, Christian Democrats in Thuringia refused to dissolve the Landtag, and AKK resigned.

So with an election due in 16 months, another leader for the party Merkel had led for more than 18 years had to be found. What made the situation worse was that because of the COVID outbreak and subsequent lockdowns, the party could not hold a national convention until January 2021. In the interim, the party endured a year of infighting that finally brought Armin Laschet to the party leadership. It was hardly a resounding triumph: Laschet finished second in the first round and needed a runoff election to secure his victory. With only eight months left until the Bundestag election, this poor start in his new office also meant that Laschet was off to a poor start in the emerging election campaign. Moreover, there was uncertainty over whether he would emerge as the party’s candidate for Chancellor. Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria and head of the CDU’s sister party in that state, the Christian Social Union (CSU), made it clear that he wanted to run as the joint CDU-CSU candidate. But while Söder was supported by of a majority of party members and was more popular than Laschet in the polls, Laschet prevailed with the backing of the CDU’s national council.

Despite its ragged start in 2021, Laschet’s CDU looked like the sure winner of the Bundestag election – not because of its own performance but mostly because of the unpopularity of its main competitor, the Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD’s historic defeat in the European Parliament election in May 2019 had left it with less than 16 per cent of the vote, and it remained at that level of support in the polls. It faced internal divisions over its participation in the third Grand Coalition led by Merkel. Following the European election debacle, its leader, Andrea Nahles, a supporter of the coalition with the Christian Democrats, resigned after only 13 months in office.

The party then decided to switch to a dual presidency and, for the first time in its history, organized an internal primary to replace Nahles. The primary, held in October 2019, resulted in the selection of the widely unknown Saskia Esken and former North Rhine–Westphalia Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans. Most observers interpreted this team’s victory as a humiliation of the SPD’s most prominent figure, federal Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was part of the team that Esken and Walter-Borjans defeated in the primary. Rather than encourage internal opposition against the new leaders, Scholz stepped back and accepted the decision. In return, in August 2020, a now united SPD nominated Scholz as its candidate for Chancellor for the 2021 federal election.

Still, entering the campaign, the SPD consistently remained low in the polls. The SPD’s weak position and the unpopularity of the CDU under Laschet created an opening for the Greens. The Greens secured close to 20 per cent in the 2018 Hesse state election, increased their vote by nearly 10 per cent in the 2019 European Parliament election and, in March 2021, improved on their already impressive result in Baden-Württemberg, reelecting Green Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann. At the federal level, the polls at one point had the Greens in first place in the leadup to the Bundestag election. These positive trends motivated the Greens to nominate, for the first time, their own candidate for the federal Chancellor’s office. Even though there were two potential candidates for the job, the Greens managed to come together and, in April 2021, nominated Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for the Chancellery. This decision reflected a shift in public opinion: Germans were now telling pollsters that the most important election issue was the climate crisis.

Climate change becomes the campaign’s focal point

Global warming had become a major concern since the 2017 Bundestag election, with the environment replacing immigration as a key issue (see figure 1). In May 2019, polls for the first time identified climate change as the most important problem Germans faced. Overshadowed by the pandemic for two years, the environment made it back to first place in August 2021, just in time for the election campaign. During this period, the movement fighting climate change, Fridays for Future (FFF), which had originated with the actions of Greta Thunberg in Sweden in the summer of 2018, quickly gained ground in Germany as well as internationally. In December 2018, the first school strikes were organized in northern Germany. By February 2019, FFF counted more than 155 local groups in the country. Participation in Germany in the first global strike on March 15, 2019, was estimated at 300,000 people.¹

In the context of rising concern over environmental issues and the climate crisis, the German Constitutional Court rather unexpectedly added a legal argument to the severe criticism of German climate politics advanced by FFF. In March 2021 the Court ruled that the federal law on climate protection, passed in late 2019, potentially breached the constitutionally guaranteed rights of future generations. The court stated that the law, which sets out specific carbon dioxide reductions and expenditures for each branch of the economy until 2030, lacks a clear plan for subsequent years. This, the judges said, could lead to excessive carbon dioxide pollution until 2030 which then will have to be compensated for by rigorous measures in the following years, measures which could severely restrict civil liberties protected by the constitution.

The Merkel government’s immediate reaction was to amend the law. Germany is now supposed to be climate neutral in 2045 instead of 2050 and the law stipulates carbon dioxide reductions for the period after 2030. However, the government did not propose practical measures that would help the country reach the new reduction goals, an obvious lacuna that was essentially blamed on the Christian Democrats, who had always opposed stricter measures in the past. So not only the Greens but also Olaf Scholz’s SPD campaigned on climate issues, both calling for a historic economic transformation to rapidly attain climate neutrality.

COVID and its ramifications

As figure 1 shows, COVID quickly dominated the public debate after March 2020. While overall the German health system responded relatively effectively, lockdowns led to concerns that the economy would suffer. Olaf Scholz, as Finance Minister in the coalition government, was in a good position to demonstrate his abilities as a crisis manager in responding. He flooded the economy with subsidies, suspended the constitutionally mandated debt limit and allowed the European Union to issue COVID bonds that were guaranteed by all member states. All this would have provoked outrage in normal times but passed without significant criticism during the pandemic.

For their part, Laschet and Baerbock had a harder time during the crisis. For one thing, the crisis shifted the focus of attention to the executive, leaving Baerbock out of the limelight. On the other hand Laschet, as Minister-President of North Rhine–Westphalia, the most populous German state, participated in all the pandemic crisis meetings among the 16 state governments and the federal government to coordinate the fight against the pandemic. This placed him at eye level with Scholz, but he was undermined by the rivalry with Bavarian Minister-President Söder. Compared to Söder’s tendency to take authoritative decisions and his determination to resolutely fight against the virus, Laschet’s deliberative approach appeared weak in this moment of crisis.

Another campaign issue that emerged as a result of the pandemic was social justice. While many white-collar workers worked at home, with any reduction in income generously compensated by the finance and labour ministers (both Social Democrats), many workers – often badly paid – serving the public in health care, geriatric care and public transport as well as in retail were regularly taking risks. This experience in large parts of the working population resulted in Scholz’s campaign theme of a “respectful society.” His promise to increase the minimum wage to €12 proved
especially effective.

Scholz’s deft campaign and his opponents’ missteps

In addition to thematic issues, election campaigns are also decided by candidates’ (perceived) personal attributes. Scholz, though still seen as somewhat colourless, ran a well-planned campaign. Baerbock gave the impression of not being well prepared. For his part, Laschet committed one faux pas after another. Following a disastrous flood in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine–Westphalia, he was filmed laughing behind the back of federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who offered his sympathies to those who had lost family members, homes and possessions. When a reporter asked Laschet to tell her about the three most important projects he would undertake as Chancellor, he spontaneously named digitalization of public administration and the fight against climate change, but was unable to name a third issue that he would tackle immediately after taking office. This led to a perception of his being maladroit if not incompetent, a public image reinforced in many of his public appearances, especially on social media channels.

Map of Germany
Map of Germany, via Traveler100, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Annalena Baerbock, who was the youngest candidate for Chancellor since the FDP’s Guido Westerwelle in 2002, was quickly confronted with her lack of experience. A member of the Bundestag since 2013, she had never served in government at any level. Pointing this out was criticized as misogynist by many observers, but her mistakes during the campaign confirmed that she was unprepared for the office she sought. For example, while she was campaigning for transparency in Bundestag members’ incomes, it turned out that she had failed to declare part of her salary as president of the Green Party to the Bundestag administration. Also, press reports on questionable entries in her official CV forced her to issue amended versions. And finally, when a lack of references in a book that she published in June 2021 led to suggestions of plagiarism, she agreed to add references in a second edition, and was then criticized for not justifying her initial approach as a way of making the book more accessible.

His opponents’ mistakes opened a path for Olaf Scholz. He had never been enthusiastically welcomed by either the public or the party, and his calm and disciplined manner had earned him the nickname “Scholz-o-mat.” But his style was widely perceived as close to Merkel’s, which the public had become used to – and for the most part liked. By late July 2021, two months before the election, Scholz for the first time outperformed Laschet as most popular Chancellor candidate in Forschungsgruppe Wahlen’s regular polls.²

By election time Scholz had an impressive lead in the popularity poll (48 per cent vs. 22 per cent for Laschet and 15 per cent for Baerbock), but when it came to support for their parties the polls’ message was less clearcut. In the end, the SPD won the election with 25.7 per cent, against 24.1 per cent for the CDU-CSU. The Greens finished third with 14.8 per cent, followed by the FDP (11.5 per cent) and the AfD (10.3 per cent). The Left, with 4.9 per cent, only secured entry into the new Bundestag via its performance in three single-member districts that allowed it to circumvent the 5 per cent threshold. Scholz and his SPD negotiated a three-party coalition with the Greens and the FDP, and Scholz was sworn in as federal Chancellor
on December 8.

This article was published as part of a larger elections feature for Inroads 50. To check out the rest, go to Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).

Continue reading “An Unexpected Change in Germany”

Compared to elsewhere in Europe, the electoral scene in Germany is the least altered by recent developments. The two major parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD), predominate and could end up forming another Grand Coalition after the Bundestag election that will take place on September 24. However, amid this overall stability there are elements of uncertainty. These elements can be seen in recent Landtag (provincial parliament) elections which, more than provincial elections in Canada, reflect wider political developments; in the prospects of the new populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD),1 which failed to break through the 5 per cent threshold in the 2013 Bundestag election but has done so in all Land elections since then, gaining representation in 10 out of 16 Land parliaments; and finally, in the possibility of Russian interference.

The Social Democrats’ strong start

In the precampaign period at the end of 2016, the Social Democrats appeared to be on the rise. The then–party leader and Minister of the Economy Sigmar Gabriel managed to impose his party colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the Grand Coalition’s joint candidate for the federal presidency. Gabriel looked like the natural candidate to challenge the CDU/CSU’s Angela Merkel for the chancellor’s position. Then, in the ensuing reshuffle of party and cabinet positions, Gabriel surprised the party and public by nominating Martin Schulz to be the SPD candidate for chancellor. What happened?

Until a few months ago, Social Democrats’ approval rates had not risen from the last Bundestag election of 2013, when they scored a low 25.7 per cent.2 At that time, the Christian Democrats, and in particular Chancellor Merkel, were also losing support in the polls, mainly to the right-wing populist AfD, which was gaining continuously in Landtag elections in east and west and was also scoring well in the polls at the national level (see figure 1). Faced with this situation, in the late summer of 2016 Sigmar Gabriel proposed Foreign Minister Steinmeier for federal president in the election for that position that was to take place in mid-February 2017.

While many observers doubted the cleverness of Gabriel’s move at that time, it turned out to be a strategic masterstroke. The Christian Democrats, who hold a plurality in the Bundesversammlung, the body that indirectly elects the federal president, should have been the ones to name a joint candidate – except that they lacked a convincing candidate. Even though Angela Merkel herself apparently tried to convince potential candidates in a number of phone calls, the CDU/CSU failed to present a viable alternative to the highly reputed SPD minister Steinmeier. This represented a defeat for both the Chancellor and her party.3

This victory, combined with his success in winning a number of internal party debates, strengthened Gabriel’s position. However, Social Democrats faced a dilemma: while their leader was a gifted and effective politician and thus the natural SPD candidate for chancellor, the polls showed him unable to win public trust. The media speculation about potential more popular alternative candidates – the most prominent among whom were Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz – gave the party a good deal of needed attention and credibility.

In this context, at the end of January 2017 Gabriel resigned as party leader and nominated his close personal friend Martin Schulz to succeed him and to challenge Merkel. Gabriel announced that he would stay in government and keep his post as Vice Chancellor but switch from the ministry of economy to the less politicized ministry of foreign affairs, where he succeeded Steinmeier.

The ensuing “Schulz effect” gave much needed inspiration to the SPD, bringing a positive dynamism to its campaign launch. Against Schulz, who is an experienced politician at the European level but a new face on the national scene, Merkel now looked exhausted. Moreover, because Schulz has never been a member of a Grand Coalition cabinet, he was able to convincingly promise a fresh start. He did not carry the burden that weighed on the 2009 SPD campaign, when the party had also been a member of an outgoing Grand Coalition and faced difficulties campaigning against a government in which it had borne a great deal of responsibility. Thus the SPD succeeded in reaching its first objective in advance of the Bundestag campaign.

The Christian Democrats’ alienation from Merkel

When Christian Democrats were confronted with Schulz as Merkel’s SPD contender, they had already passed through a long vale of tears. In the 2013 Bundestag election the CDU/CSU’s coalition partner in the outgoing government, the Free Democrats (FDP), had failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold and thus were excluded from parliament. Therefore, and even though they remained the dominant party in the Bundestag, the Christian Democrats were forced to form the third Grand Coalition in the history of the Federal Republic, with all the policy concessions this entailed.4 Notably, the Social Democrats were able to impose a minimum wage, strengthen rent controls and loosen restrictive rules on the naturalization of foreigners’ children who were born in Germany. At the same time as having to implement such clearly left-wing and liberal policies, the CDU/CSU was under pressure from the right. The 2013 Bundestag election had seen the rise of a new populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland or AfD.

This then was the situation in 2015: many inside the CDU were concluding that faced with the AfD challenge, the party’s right-wing profile was being blurred by a Protestant, female and eastern German Chancellor leading a government that made considerable policy concessions to the centre-left. At this point, on September 5, 2015, Merkel decided to open the borders to refugees who were living in extremely bad conditions in Hungary. This gave rise to growing popular discontent, which led to open resistance against Merkel inside the CDU and continuous friction with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.

The first regional election following the opening of the borders was held in Baden-Württemberg, usually considered a Christian Democrat stronghold in the prosperous southwest. In this election the party lost more than 12 percentage points, finishing second after the Greens, with whom it was forced to enter a coalition as junior partner. Next, in Sachsen-Anhalt, an eastern Land, the AfD finished second to the CDU with nearly one quarter of the votes. In the regional election in Berlin in September 2016, the CDU lost its position as junior partner of the Social Democrats; its 16.6 per cent of the votes represented just 3.5 percentage points more than the AfD. The most traumatic CDU experience, however, was the regional election in Mecklenburg–West Pomerania, Merkel’s home Land, on September 4, 2016: the Christian Democrats came third, two percentage points behind the AfD.

In contrast, the regional election in Saarland in late March 2017 has to be seen as encouraging for the conservatives. Despite positive poll numbers and the expected “Schulz effect,” the Social Democrats failed to take over the minister-president’s office from the popular CDU incumbent. In fact, the final result was an increase in the CDU vote by more than five percentage points to above 40 per cent and a slight loss for the SPD, which ended up with 29.6 per cent. Polls indicated that the “Schulz effect” faded as discussion of a potential SPD coalition with the Left party became public. Moreover, had the Christian Democrats also won the 6.2 per cent of the vote that went to the AfD, they would have secured an absolute majority, enabling the party to govern alone.

This year’s second regional election, in Schleswig-Holstein on May 7, saw the three parties that made up the governing coalition – the Social Democrats, the Greens and the SSW, the party of the Danish minority – lose a combined 5 per cent of the vote and their majority in parliament. At the same time, the Christian Democrats with a 1.2 per cent gain and the Free Democrats with a 3.3 per cent gain were not able to win a majority of seats either. AfD, a first-time participant, obtained 5.9 per cent of the vote and thus enters its 12th Land parliament in its short history. And again, it is able to force the other parties to form either a coalition made up of three parties (SPD, Greens and FDP) or yet another Grand Coalition. This result does not give the expected boost to the Christian Democrats’ campaign for the September federal election, but it doesn’t sustain Social Democrats’ hopes of a Schulz effect either.

After Schleswig-Holstein, observers looked to the May 14 election in the most populous Land, North Rhine–Westphalia, to set the dynamics of the federal election campaign. The surprising result can be interpreted as a disaster for the Social Democrats, who lost close to 8 percentage points in the Land that was their traditional stronghold. The Christian Democrats came out only 1.8 percentage points higher than the SPD, but since the FDP also gained 4 percentage points and the SPD’s former coalition partner, the Greens, lost 4.9 points, a new CDU-led government with the FDP is the most plausible constellation. The wider message is that, at the federal level, a government without the conservatives is unlikely. What of a government without the SPD? To answer this question we need to look more closely at developments among the AfD and the other small parties.

The rest of the picture: Four small parties and an uncertainty

The AfD’s chances in next fall’s election have suffered somewhat recently (see figure 1). One factor is that it still appears to be divided, two years after the split it underwent in June 2015 when founding party leader and economics professor Bernd Lucke was voted out, left the party and formed a new one.5 Meanwhile, the two current Bundestag opposition parties, the Left and the Greens, score between 7 and 8 per cent, while the Free Democrats, after their setback in 2013, can expect to return to the Bundestag with around 6 per cent in the polls. And the more parties enter parliament, the more difficult it will be to form a government other than a Grand Coalition – even though all political forces including the two major parties publicly proclaim that this would be the worst possible outcome.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the party landscape and government formation process that will follow, there is another uncertainty that could affect the upcoming Bundestag election and its outcome: interference by Russian hackers and secret service forces. Three security breaches in the Bundestag’s data network have been exposed.6 Little has been published about the first one but we do know that Marieluise Beck, a Green MP who works on human rights in Russia, has been one of the victims of an attack allegedly carried out by a Russian hacker group called APT29. The second, and seemingly massive, attack in May 2015, once again ascribed to Russian hacker groups, resulted in a 16-gigabyte leak from Bundestag computers. The most recent attack in February 2017 targeted at least ten members of the Bundestag, among them Marieluise Beck. Given the experience in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, there is reason to fear that these attacks are an attempt to gather incriminating information to be used in the upcoming Bundestag campaign.

This type of information could be used to destabilize the country, the key pillar of of a weakened European Union and partner in the Atlantic alliance. The same seems to be the case for reports on a German-Russian girl published by Russian media. In January 2016, Russia’s RT network claimed that the girl had been abused by a group of immigrants and that the police has proof of this alleged abuse. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement asking German authorities not to suppress the affair, even though the videos that Russian TV stations used to prove their claim have been shown to date from the year 2009 and the girl in question, “Lisa,” admitted that she had made it all up.7 Hence it seems likely that a campaign orchestrated or at least tolerated by Russian authorities aims at influencing the coming German election by helping populist right-wing forces like the AfD. It should be noted, however, that the German secret service issued a statement declaring that it had no proof of a Russian disinformation campaign.8

Could this campaign affect the outcome of the election? This is difficult to tell. What we know, however, is that social networks are gaining importance in classical election campaigns and that these networks are particularly sensitive to information of this kind, which can be shared in seconds and is difficult to take back once it is out. Missing is the traditional filter of responsible journalists who check whether the information provided is plausible and reliable. As we head into the fall, we have reason to fear the beginning of a dirty campaign at least partially riddled with fake news from various sources, be they hackers, Russian media or populist social networkers. Continue reading “Germany’s political landscape: Uncertainty amid stability”

The Bundestag election in September 2013 produced both stability and astonishing change in the German party system. While neither the relative vote shares of the two major parties nor the east-west divide in the party system have seen any alteration, the 2013 election still witnessed historic change: the plummeting of the Free Democrats (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) and the amazing rise of a new formation, the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD). The AfD is a unique mix, combining pro-market economic orthodoxy, traditional values and opposition to immigration with an academic style of argumentation.

The upsurge of the AfD and fall of the FDP can be understood as an interplay of changes in the German electoral system with the more usual factors of political program and strategy. The election results raised the question of whether the venerable FDP could really disappear, allowing the AfD to establish itself as a right-wing populist outlier in the German party system.

The German electoral system and its recent changes

The Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, is elected through a mixed-member proportional system with a nationwide 5 per cent threshold. Voters cast two votes, one for a candidate in a single-member district and a second for a closed party list at the Land (province) level. This system used to produce roughly proportional outcomes (see figure 1) since the allocation of seats to parties depends on the national aggregate of party list votes. Distortions in the votes-seats relationship were relatively low until 2009. Disproportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold resulted mainly from surplus seats (Überhangsmandate), which were relatively rare before unification in 1990 and exclusively benefited the two major parties, the Social Democrats (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU, along with its Bavarian “sister party,” the Christian Social Union ).

These surplus seats are a result of the allocation of extra seats at the Land level when a party gains more seats in the single-member districts than it would be entitled to according to its vote share on its Land list, the extra seats temporarily increasing the total number of seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.1 The smaller parties objected to the fact that these surplus seats only benefited the major parties and successfully challenged this practice before the Federal Constitutional Court. As a result, parties that did not receive surplus seats are now allocated compensatory seats, effectively restoring overall proportionality beyond the 5 per cent threshold.

This seemingly minor change had a significant effect when it came into force in the 2013 federal election, because it affected the strategic calculations of the two major parties. Previously, they had an incentive to urge voters to vote strategically by splitting their two votes – the single-member vote for the candidate of the major party and the list vote for a prospective smaller coalition partner (see box). This strategic advantage of vote splitting disappeared with the compensatory seats introduced in the latest electoral reform, a change that especially affected the fortunes of the minor parties.


The 2013 federal election results: Continuities and changes

German elections traditionally take the form of a two-party struggle for executive power, represented by the chancellery. Historically, only Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were able to successfully compete for the chancellor’s office, though needing the support of a coalition partner to form a majority coalition (given the elite consensus ruling out minority cabinets). Since unification, there has been an east-west divide in the party system.


Following a rather uninspired campaign, the clear winner of the 2013 Bundestag election was Angela Merkel’s CDU. The 41.5 per cent of the vote won by the CDU and the CSU – which do not compete against each other and have always formed a single parliamentary group – gave them 49.3 per cent of the seats, only six seats short of an absolute majority. Their aggregate gain amounted to 7.8 percentage points over the previous federal election in 2009 (see figure 2).2 In contrast, the second major party, the SPD, was not able to significantly improve on its historically low result in the 2009 election, increasing its vote share by only 2.7 percentage points to 25.7 per cent in 2013. The vote shares were anticipated by the pre-election polls, which showed that there was no popular desire for change in the chancellery. Yet the CDU/CSU’s near–absolute majority, resulting from a comparatively high number of wasted votes and a significant increase in disproportionality between votes and seats, came as a surprise.

The strong showing of the Left Party (Die Linke), now the third largest party, was also expected. As successor party to the former East German Socialists, it has gone through a number of transformations and name changes, the last of which was a 2007 merger with a left-wing western German dissident group from the SPD headed by former SPD chair and finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. Before this, in 2005, the party fell short of the 5 per cent threshold in the west, but was able to enter the Bundestag as a result of its strong result in the east.

Since the merger, the Left Party has gained enough votes in the west as well to be considered a genuine national party. Yet, as we can see in figure 2, its deeper roots in eastern Germany are still clearly visible in the 2013 election results (east: 22.7 per cent; west: 8.6 per cent), placing it well ahead of the Social Democrats in the former (East) German Democratic Republic. The strength of the other parties varies by region as well, with both the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Grüne) and the FDP much weaker in the east, and the AfD significantly stronger there, even surpassing the 5 per cent threshold.


When we look below the surface of these continuities and examine the minor parties’ results more closely, some fundamental changes emerge. First of all, for the first time since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, the liberal Free Democrats failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold. Second, the newly founded right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, fell just short of this threshold. While the significance of these closely interconnected developments was largely missed in media reports on the election, I suggest that there is much to be learned from a closer inspection of this change and its political, programmatic and structural foundations.

The decline of the FDP

With the FDP’s failure to pass the 5 per cent threshold, the Bundestag loses one of the pillars of (West) German democracy. No party has participated in as many federal governments for as many years as the FDP, which was often the pivotal player in government formation. Holding the balance of power, the FDP played kingmaker for practically every government formed before 1998.

Strategic factors constitute one element in explaining the FDP’s historic defeat. These factors go back to its outstanding showing in 2009, largely due to its firm campaign promise to support Angela Merkel. The context for the 2009 election was extraordinary in many respects. Voters were tired of the grand CDU/CSU–SPD coalition that had governed the country since 2005. The only way to avoid another grand coalition was to support a minor party in a position to form a majority coalition with one of the major parties. Viable majority coalition possibilities were very clear-cut in 2009. Besides a grand coalition, there were only two: either a centre-right coalition of the CDU/CSU with the Free Democrats, or a centre-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.

It appears that the voters well understood the situation. Both major parties lost ground, while all the smaller parties gained votes. The Social Democrats lost more than 11 percentage points compared to 2005, their worst result since the Second World War; Christian Democrats lost 1.4 percentage points, their second-worst result since 1949. At the same time, all three minor parties improved their results significantly, with the FDP’s share rising to 14.6 per cent, 4.7 percentage points higher than 2005 and its best score ever. The voters’ desire to avoid another grand coalition while keeping Angela Merkel in office translated into support for the CDU/CSU’s only potential coalition partner, the FDP.

Therefore, the FDP’s heavy losses in 2013 can partly be explained by its unusually strong performance in the previous election. Merkel’s supporters who had deserted the Christian Democrats in 2009 now returned in large numbers. This move can be shown by examining 2013 data collected in exit polls by Infratest Dimap.3 These polls indicate that while the Free Democrats lost votes to all parties, the largest group of their former voters (more than 2 million of 6.3 million in 2009) went to the Christian Democrats.

This shift was encouraged by the recent changes to the electoral law. Since surplus seats are now fully compensated, vote splitting does not pay any more. Nonetheless, as in former election campaigns, Free Democrats sought to convince CDU/CSU voters to vote FDP with their list vote to ensure a centre-right coalition. While in former campaigns Christian Democrats had tacitly approved of this strategy, they actively opposed it in 2013. This rejection by most high ranking CDU/CSU officials, including Chancellor Merkel, made the FDP (which was already faring badly in the polls and was perceived as being at risk of failing to garner the necessary 5 per cent nationally) and its effort to win these “borrowed votes” (Leihstimmen) look desperate.

The media drew attention to this divide between the coalition partners and speculated about Angela Merkel’s real coalition preferences, given the disappointment with the Free Democrats regularly expressed during the CDU/CSU–FDP government’s term, often compared to relatively smooth governing during the 2005–09 grand coalition. The Christian Democrats’ new position was fully understood by its voters: data from the Federal Returning Officer4 show that, in 2013, only 6.9 per cent of the voters who voted for the CDU candidate were willing to give their list vote to the FDP. This figure had been more than twice as high (17.9 per cent) in 2009.

While, as we have seen, there are institution-based explanations for the decline of the Free Democrats and the surge of the Christian Democrats, the additional factor in these developments is a political one: the rise of the newly founded AfD.

The astonishing success of Alternative for Germany

The breakthrough of Alternative for Germany, a party with a pro-market, economically orthodox program and a very academic style of presenting its positions, came as a result of the political weakness of the FDP and programmatic changes adopted by the Christian Democrats. The AfD, which was founded in February 2013 and began to gain real media attention only in May, managed to perform an unprecedented feat. No German party ever built a support base of nearly 5 per cent in less than seven months. The Green Party, for example, won a mere 1.5 per cent when it first presented a list in the 1980 federal election. And surely no other party attracted as many members and as much money in such a short time. According to press reports, by August the AfD already had about 16,000 members and €2.3 million in donations.5

The party’s policy proposals resemble those of the American Tea Party and most of the European right-wing populist parties. But to call it populist is to distort its message, or at least the way the message is presented. It has developed a unique, very calm, reasonable-sounding, academic style to promote its policies. Its primary focus has been on Germany’s position in the European Union. It opposes the euro bailout packages, going so far as seeking to reduce the eurozone to the northern European countries. These policies are embedded in a neoclassical libertarian worldview, well articulated by party leader Bernd Lucke, chair of macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg and head of the university’s Department of Growth and Business Cycles.6 His research framework in effect rejects Keynesian intervention in the business cycle.

Along with neoclassical economic orthodoxy, the AfD favours national-conservative policies and traditional family values. It is also highly critical of the free movement of people from the new eastern European EU member states, notably Bulgaria and Romania, and fearful of the arrival of poorly educated immigrants, particularly Sinti and Roma, who it says will remain stuck on the bottom rungs of society.7 These rather extreme populist assertions, formulated by Lucke as expressing a sense of social responsibility vis-à-vis immigrants so as to protect them from lifelong dependency on social transfers, are presented in the party literature and in Lucke’s public appearances in a calm, factual manner, in the manner more of a university seminar than of a right-wing populist street demonstration.

It should be noted that even though the AfD promotes a firm stance against the established political class and the traditional political parties, its leading figures nonetheless consider themselves elite, as reflected in the AfD’s emphasis on academic titles. In this sense, the AfD is not a popular movement; it is inconceivable that its spokespeople would campaign in a beer hall. Yet, at the local and regional (Land) levels,8 the party had to struggle with some members wanting to express undiluted extreme right-wing positions. While perhaps a contradiction in terms, the most appropriate label for the party is “academic populist.”

Further insight into the party is provided by the makeup of its voters. While the AfD was able to attract former Left Party (340,000) and CDU/CSU (290,000) voters, as well as nonvoters (210,000), by far the largest group came from the FDP, with 430,000 switching to the new party.9 The key to understanding these voter movements lies in recent programmatic developments in the other two German parties on the right, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats.

Systematically speaking, German policy space can be fit into two main dimensions.10 The economic dimension pits state interventionism against a neoclassical approach. Here the AfD occupies the formerly uncontested position of the FDP. The second dimension, which used to be characterized by social issues, has, in the process of deindustrialization and secularization, evolved into a conflict over authoritarian versus libertarian values.11 This is where the AfD has moved onto ground traditionally occupied by the CDU/CSU.

With regard to the first dimension, the AfD successfully exploited the FDP’s unquestionably bad policy performance in government. Having campaigned on tax cuts, the Free Democrats actually fought those cuts at the beginning of their participation in government in 2009 – with the exception of tax cuts for hotels! The media quickly linked this move to the substantial donations the party had received from hotel owners. FDP leader and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, in spite of his official responsibility for international affairs, devoted a great deal of attention to domestic politics. Most prominently, he launched a campaign against abuses of social transfers and in favour of a significant decrease in social spending. In a famous, and much criticized, article, he stated that “those who promise the people effortless prosperity encourage late-Roman decadence.”12

Westerwelle finally resigned as party president and vice-chancellor, passing both positions to Philipp Rösler in May 2011, but this changed little. The overall impression of the party’s four years in coalition with the Christian Democrats was one of continual battles with its partner with effectively no substantial liberal policy achievements. Most obviously, the FDP’s key promise in the 2009 campaign, broad tax cuts, never materialized.

In addition, the FDP’s role in government was severely tested by the euro crisis. On principle, the party should have opposed the bailout packages, leaving it to the markets to resolve the problem. But this would have meant breaking with the Christian Democrats, the majority of whom supported the bailout packages, and only a minority of Free Democrats were willing to do that.13

It was in this context that the FDP ran a bloodless campaign in 2013, opening the policy space for a new economically orthodox party, the AfD, formed as a reaction to the broad elite consensus that had developed during the euro crisis. With the FDP onside after an internal referendum against the bailout packages failed, only the Left Party remained opposed. The absence of resistance in the bourgeois camp left a gap that the AfD was able to fill – especially as its spokespeople were able to speak convincingly given their academic credentials. With the emergence of the AfD, eurosceptics had a credible pro-market alternative to the FDP.

In addition, changing positions by the Christian Democrats opened up space resulting in a considerable number of CDU/CSU voters shifting to the new formation. Traditionally, right-wing populists in Germany have fared poorly against the CDU and especially its more conservative Bavarian branch, the CSU. But the last ten years have witnessed a deep programmatic transformation, especially in the CDU. Under Merkel, it has abandoned many of its traditional conservative viewpoints. It has given up conservative family values,14 promoted the abolition of compulsory military service and, following the Fukushima catastrophe, taken an astonishing 180-degree turn on nuclear energy. These changes opened up space at the authoritarian pole of the authoritarian-libertarian policy dimension, serving as an invitation for those who sought to promote traditional values to take action to fill this niche. The Alternative for Germany was in a position to take up this invitation.

Filling a policy gap

In summary, the AfD’s rise can be explained by its successful filling of a gap in German policy space. First, none of the bourgeois parties gave voice to the widespread concerns that Germans had developed when faced with ever-growing bailout packages for Mediterranean states that many saw as a “bottomless pit.” Second, the FDP’s weak performance in government left many voters in search of an alternative pro-market party. While most of the former FDP voters supported the Christian Democrats in 2013 – in part because of the changed incentives for strategic voting under the new electoral law – many went to the AfD.

Still, the CDU/CSU did very well last fall, with its losses to the new party more than compensated by gains from voters coming from its former coalition partner. The emergence of the AfD was thus most of all a possible death blow for the Free Democrats. Had the FDP not lost voters to the AfD, the party would have been easily able to surmount the 5 per cent threshold and remain represented in the Bundestag.

Of course, this could be only a temporary setback. However, recent polls suggest that the failure of the FDP to gain seats in parliament and the rise of the new Alternative for Germany may herald a long-term transformation of the German party system. Both the Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany are at 4 per cent at the moment, with the AfD often coming out ahead of the FDP in the weekly polls.15 If this continues, the FDP could again fail to cross the 5 per cent threshold, while the AfD has a better chance of doing so.

More immediately, there will be four elections in Germany this year: the European Parliament and three Land elections (Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia). Currently the FDP has members in all four legislatures. Its long-term survival could depend on its showing in these elections. In the case of the EP election, minor parties stand a better chance than in the three Land elections with their 5 per cent thresholds. In a recent, highly debated decision, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional any legal threshold for the EP.

Since the EP elections precede the three Land elections, they could set the trend for both minor parties. The EP represents the FDP’s best chance, since all three Land elections will take place in eastern Germany, where the FDP is far weaker than it is in the west. Conversely, since the AfD is stronger in the eastern Länder, its chances of entering the three parliaments there are somewhat better. Should this occur, and should the FDP find itself newly excluded from the three legislatures, its future will be bleak indeed, and the place of this unique new player, the AfD, will be confirmed.

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