New colors, chances and old-style politics

As Germans prepare to go to the polls on September 27, the dynamics of the electoral campaign suggest an open contest with a variety of political outcomes. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these general elections will test the capability of parties and MPs to react to the emerging diversity of political colors and combinations that German voters are willing to experiment with. What are the issues at stake during the electoral campaign for the federal parliament, the so-called Bundestag? Do they properly reflect voters’ aspirations and the direction the country should take at a time of sustained economic crisis and large-scale debt-financed banking sector bailout programs? Early indication A glimpse of voters’ intentions and expectations was offered one month before the general elections. Three state polls, namely in the districts of the Saar (western part of Germany) and Thuringia as well as Saxony (both in the eastern part of unified Germany), provided some indications. For the governing grand coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which comprises Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), the regional elections were a mixed bag full of political ambiguity and unexpected opportunities. Will the two largest parties at the federal level get the message and draw the appropriate conclusions? The message sent by voters was threefold. For one, the conservative CDU registered unexpectedly high double-digit losses in two of the three state elections where it was governing alone. Both in the Saar (down 13 percent) and in Thuringia (down 11.8 percent), the CDU will now either have to enter into hitherto unclear coalition formations or risk losing two heads of state governments. The latter are important for the configuration of the lower chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, which is the representation of all 16 states in Germany. It has executive responsibility for legislative initiatives involving expenditure laws and EU regulations. SPD & Die Linke The second message the regional electorate sent concerned the Social Democrats (SPD). It made some gains in Thuringia (up 4 percent), albeit from a low point of departure. But the SPD continued to lose ground in its former stronghold of the Saar (down 5.5 percent) and only achieved 10.4 percent in Saxony. Hence, the Social Democrats could neither benefit from the weaknesses of their larger coalition partner at the federal level nor could they make any significant inroads with an electorate irate about unemployment levels and the social consequences of the economic crisis. Finally, and most importantly, the third message sent by the electorate concerned the new party formation called Die Linke. This leftist organization, in existence since 2007, is not just the new kid on the block. It represents the biggest challenge to the established architecture of German party politics since the emergence of the Green Party 25 years ago. Die Linke is a combination of former Communists, mainly from the electorate in the eastern parts of Germany, disgruntled Social Democrats, who disagree with the politics of the SPD in the grand coalition of Chancellor Merkel, and the large segment of occasional abstainers as well as first-time voters. The achievements of Die Linke in the three regional elections just a month before the federal ballot is nothing short of historic. In Saxony, it reached 20.6 percent and is the second-largest party represented in parliament. In Thuringia, Die Linke received 27.4 percent, again making second place ahead of the SPD, while in the Saar, it gained 21.3 percent (a jump of 19 percent compared to five years ago). What do these results and voter movements imply politically? What imprint can they leave on the forthcoming general elections? First and foremost, the German parliamentary system is very much in flux. It is fast moving toward a consolidated five-party establishment at the federal level. At the regional level, this may occasionally even involve a sixth party, since the extreme-right Nationalist Party (NPD) managed to regain entry into the representation of Saxony. The overall success of Die Linke has the potential to change not only the mathematical arrangement of coalition politics in Germany. Single-party government is increasingly unlikely. Two-party coalition formations, in whatever configuration, may arithmetically be possible. But they are increasingly a tough sell toward an electorate that is expressing with its vote a desire for deeper innovation and a higher dose of political imagination. More importantly, the outcome of forthcoming general elections on September 27 cannot be regarded as a foregone conclusion by any of the participants in Berlin. The contest appears more open and unpredictable than elaborate opinion polls and forecasting agencies may wish to suggest. Chancellor Merkel from the CDU is campaigning for a coalition mandate with the so-called Free Democrats (FDP), a pro-market, civil rights party, which would be its junior partner. But the recent losses of the CDU in the regional elections revived an important rule of post-unification party elections: While the overall vote is decided in the western parts of Germany, where over 70 percent of the total population lives, you cannot win the federal ballot if any aspiring party does badly in the eastern parts. For the Social Democrats, the challenge is more complex and daring. Its expressed preference for government is a so-called red-green coalition between the SPD and the Greens. By all accounts, this configuration is mathematically highly unlikely. The numbers just don’t appear to add up. But the SPD candidate for chancellor, the current minister for foreign affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, continues to publicly endorse such a two-party coalition. Third partner? So where are the additional votes going to come from in order to form a majority government? A third partner will have to sit in the boat and row if the SPD excludes a renewal of the current and unpopular option of a grand coalition. This is precisely the point where the federal elections in Germany could potentially become highly interesting and very contentious. Why? If grand coalitions are unpopular and other two-party arrangements difficult to agree to and hold together, then a unique development may take place for the first time in Germany, namely three-party coalition governments. As the recent regional elections have shown, the German electorate is increasingly willing to accept a five-party parliamentary system. The voters are casting ballots in favor of black (CDU), red (SPD), Die Linke (dark red), yellow (FDP) and Green. But how do the established parties, mainly CDU, SPD and FDP react to this colorful challenge? They continue to exclude what is increasingly becoming mathematically the order of the day. New unexplored three-party formations are appearing on the parliamentary horizon. They are termed with exotic names, such as a possible «Jamaica coalition» between the SPD, FDP and the Greens, or a so-called «red-red-green» formation between the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens. Even a combination of the CDU, FDP and the Greens is possible. If all that sounds unusual for German party politics, it is indeed. It appears that large segments of the electorate are way ahead of the parties they will be voting for come September 27. The German voter is ever more flexible, experimental and colorful. Are the political parties getting the message and reacting accordingly? The coming weeks will tell. Finally, do the German electoral dynamics and coalition options provide signposts for the Greeks, who go to the polls one week later, on October 4? One similarity between both electorates is obvious: their willingness to vote for new parties – Die Linke in Germany, the Greens and far-right nationalistic party LAOS in Greece. But what about coalition politics? A multiparty coalition government in Germany is a common feature of parliamentary politics. The electoral law and consensus-style policymaking support this institutional feature. In contrast, Greece does not have any built-in mechanism for this style of government. However, the forthcoming elections may challenge the established rules of the game in Athens. If none of the two large parties – governing New Democracy and main opposition PASOK – can achieve a working majority of its own, then political cooperation across the aisle may have to become the order of the day. As seen from Athens, a closer look at developments in Berlin could then be rather instructive. (1) Jens Bastian is a senior economic research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).