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.
1 See my analysis of the emergence of the AfD, “Germany’s Academic Tea Party,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2014, pp. 39–48.
2 For all election and poll results used in this article see wahlrecht.de
3 “Steinmeier reagiert ‘gefasst’ auf Nominierung – Schäuble spricht von ‘Niederlage,’” Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 14, 2016, retrieved here.
4 The coalition agreement is accessible here.
5 “Lucke und der Auszug der Gemäßigten,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 6, 2015, retrieved here.
6 “Hackerangriff auf den Bundestag,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 28, 2017, retrieved here.
7 “Vergewaltigungsvorwürfe in Berlin: Russische Regierung mischt sich ein,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, January 26, 2016, retrieved here.
8 “BND: Keine Beweise für Desinformations-Kampagne Putins,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 6, 2017, retrieved here.