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Germany's shift to the right

Dennis Nottebaum
28 September 2009

The election results in Germany are the latest example of the decline of Europe’s traditional parties and the crisis of the social democratic ideology. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) remain the largest party in the German parliament despite losses in Sunday's elections, winning 33.8 percent of the vote. She secured a mandate to form a new coalition with the pro-business Liberal Democrats (FDP, 14.6 percent), which will succeed a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats (SPD). Focusing on economic reform, tax cuts and a return to nuclear power, the new government will mean a shift to the right in German politics.

At the same time that the centre-right reunites the political left remains divided. The Social Democrats got slapped in the face by voters earning a devastating 23 percent of the votes, an all-time low for Germany's oldest party and another step in its continuous decline since it entered government in 1998. The radical Left Party, largely a spin-off of dissatisfied social democrats who joined elements of the former Communist Party of East Germany, scored 11.9 percent with 10.6 percent going to the Green Party.


The result is especially surprising against the backdrop of a financial crisis that has been ascribed to the neoliberal ideology by many. However, the FDP won the elections with a program based on neoliberal ideas of deregulation and tax cuts and returns to power 11 years after the end of the last conservative-liberal alliance under former chancellor Helmut Kohl. But this time the coalition will be different: never before has one of smaller parties in a government coalition outside a "grand coalition" attracted more votes than the FDP this year. Unsurprisingly, FDP chairman and likely the next foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle was the happiest of the party leaders on election night. The strong performance of the FDP puts it in the position to demand more than the four ministries usually assigned to a smaller coalition partner during the negotiations on a coalition agreement and the composition of the next government.

Guido Westerwelle finds himself in a fortunate situation: In his campaign he had committed himself to a coalition with the conservatives and ruled out all other options for the formation of a governing coalition; a move that might have sent his party into opposition for another four years and possibly ended his career. Now he is the overall winner of the election, which will allow him to take a strong stand in coalition negotiations.

At the same time the pressure on him to deliver results will be intense. An outspoken critic of the lack of bold ideas and innovative policy making of the "grand coalition" he will now face high expectations and intense scrutiny from his electorate, mainly consisting of pro-business, relatively wealthy electorates. The FDP focused its campaign on the creation of a simpler and more efficient tax system in order to overcome the efficiency losses of the notoriously complicated current system. Already in 2005 CDU and FDP had run a campaign based on neoliberal economic reform, which brought the conservatives to the verge of a defeat by the incumbent and at the time largely unpopular SPD, which forced them into a "grand coalition". Subsequently the conservatives left the path of large-scale economic reforms. It is one of the most interesting questions whether the FDP will be able to sustain its plans in a coalition with the conservatives this time. At any rate, these undertaking will stir up great debates in a society that still adheres to a strong belief in social security and income redistribution.

A confrontational phase to come

Unpopular welfare cuts carried out by the Social Democrats in the early years of this decade have alienated many in their traditional voter milieus, the working class. This led to a constant decrease in support over the last years, which culminated in the founding of the Left Party. It is to be expected that the SPD faces strong internal debate about its future orientation, probably leading to a shift to the left and the expulsion of senior personnel. Despite prevailing differences the right shift of the government may cause the left-of-centre parties to rejoin forces throughout the next four years.

The result may be a stronger confrontation between a right-leaning government and the opposition. Besides economic reform the most intense debates foreseeable today will be around job protection and minimum wages, social security, and nuclear energy. As the CDU and FDP have campaigned for a return to nuclear energy despite strong disapproval in the population, this policy is expected to lead to protests both inside and outside the Bundestag. Another uniting factor for the leftist parties will be the debate about general minimum wages, which has proved to be one of the most controversial issues in German politics over the last years.

A topic that most politicians tried to keep out of the campaign, but which will take a prominent place on the agenda for the next months is the widely unpopular deployment of German troops in Afghanistan. Pressure on the government to present a plan for withdrawal is increasing steadily. The debate gained considerable ground after a large number of civilians where killed in an air strike ordered by the Bundeswehr. Although at present only the Left Party demands a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan, the new government won't be able to avoid the question of when and how the military should leave.

Moreover, terrorist threats by Al Qaeda against Germany in the run up to the election have brought the issue of national security back to the table. The FDP opposes any sort of increase in government-run observation and data collection while CDU Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, is notorious for his desire to increase the competences of police and intelligence organizations. This will be one of the major controversies within the new coalition as Schäuble is likely to keep his office.

Foreign policy strategies have proved to be comparatively stable over government changes in Germany. Nevertheless, the shift to the right will have some implications for the outside world. Angela Merkel is expected to remain her strong presence in external relations making it hard for Guido Westerwelle to develop his profile as foreign minister. Merkel will continue her efforts to balance between all major partners within and beyond Europe without taking a strong stand as her predecessor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) did with his close ties to Russia and opposition to the Bush administration.

The most notable consequence will be an increased opposition on the part of the German government to Turkish EU membership. The Social Democrats have long been outspoken supporters of the accession process and thus balanced the reservations of the conservatives during the "grand coalition". The CDU opposes the membership option while the FDP has been noncommittal. It is therefore expected that Germany will join France in its tough stand on the matter.

An alteration of German politics

Both mainstream parties lost significantly in the election, partly due to a lack of polarization in their campaign when two senior members of the government (Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier) were running against one another. However, the shift towards the smaller parties (none of which scored more than 10 percent in 2005) also underlines a structural problem of the mainstream parties. In a society where traditional cleavages lose their importance they cannot rely on a large number of relatively obedient followers any longer. Both need to realize that every vote needs to be won anew, a fact that poses a great challenge to parties that try to cover all issues simultaneously. The smaller parties benefit from the niches they grew into over the last several years. They have outgrown their initial status as single-issue parties, but still cater to a certain electorate: FDP voters react to the party's focus on pro-business topics, the Greens attract environmentally conscious citizens, and followers of the Left are attracted by the party's calls for redistribution.

Demographics play a central role in the decline of the mainstream parties. Their electorate mainly consists of older voters while the smaller parties seem to be especially attractive to young people. In the group of under 30 year olds the FDP drew level with the SPD. The traditional parties seem to have lost touch with the younger generations. This in turn benefits single-issue parties embracing topics that are important for young people but largely disregarded by the established parties. Online regulation and copyright is a case in point. The Pirate Party won an overall two percent of the vote by mobilizing young voters with these topics.

The CDU has not yet had to realize its decline as a mainstream party. Conservative voters are still a relatively stable electorate, especially as long as there is no viable alternative for them. The situation looks much darker for the Social Democrats, whose traditional electorate, the working class, is declining in number. The SPD has not yet found a way to reinvent itself in order to attract voters who have moved to the Greens or the Left. The party faces an intense internal debate over a new programmatic orientation in order to ensure its persistence as a sizeable party. The election has in this sense been a caesura for the SPD. The party will use the next four years in opposition to redefine itself. It needs to answer the question whether there still is room on the left for a mainstream party.

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