Historic changes in German vote

The German elections for the upper house of parliament, the Bundestag, produced a number of unexpected and even historic results over the weekend. While many political observers and forecasting institutes were predicting a tightening electoral race during the last days of campaigning, the final verdict of the German electorate proved much more clear cut and politically significant. First and foremost, a change of coalition government is now in the making. The uncontested winners of Sunday’s vote were the Free Democrats (FDP). Their share of the vote increased from 9.8 percent in 2005 to more than 14.5 percent, giving the FDP third place in the party ranking and a historic high in post-1949 general elections in Germany. This unprecedented success for the Free Democrats provides governing Chancellor Angela Merkel from the Christian Democrats (CDU) with enough political leverage to terminate the existing and rather unpopular «Grand Coalition» between CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD). Pending the successful completion of coalition negotiations, Merkel is now in a position to switch sides in favor of her expressed political preference for a CDU-FDP governing partnership. How did this result come about, and why was it much clearer in its outcome then initially anticipated? Three aspects deserve special attention. For one, irrespective of individual parties’ performances, Sunday’s elections reinforced a growing trend toward voter absenteeism in Germany. Voter participation declined from 77.7 percent in 2005 to 71.5 percent this year, a drop of over 6 percent. The «party» of non-voters is now the second-largest in Germany. The political organization suffering the immediate effects of this voter exit most dramatically are the Social Democrats. Their share of the vote declined by more than 11 percent to barely over 23 percent. This is a historic low point for the SPD in post-World War II elections in Germany. In many ways, it can be argued that such a result constitutes the demise of the Social Democrats as a popular party capable of winning elections and forming a government. Compared to the 2005 general elections, the SPD lost more than 6 million voters, the largest share of them opting not to vote at all (some 2 million voters). Never before has a single party declined so dramatically from one election to the next in German history. Some hard thinking and open-minded discussion will have to take place within the ranks of the Social Democrats about the future of their electoral appeal. The election Waterloo for the SPD did not correspond with electoral gains for the largest party in Germany, the governing Christian Democrats. This constitutes the second lesson to be learned from the elections. Despite seemingly being in the advantageous position of fielding the ruling chancellor, the CDU could not benefit from any bonus or office advantage that Merkel hoped to carry. The CDU equally lost votes, and declined by 1.8 percent to barely under 34 percent. Only as a result of the unexpected high voter turnout in favor of the Free Democrats can Merkel remain in office, albeit at a political price that has yet to be determined in coalition negotiations. The message sent by the electorate leaves no room for second thoughts. Those voters who bothered to cast their ballot neither wanted to strengthen the Christian Democrats in government nor empower its SPD coalition partner in its new role as opposition party. Instead, it served notice that a change in coalition government was in order, while adding to the diversity and strengths of the newly formed opposition ranks. The third aspect of these elections concerns the significant gains made by smaller opposition parties. For the first time in post-1949 general elections, the combination of the two largest parties losing votes while the three opposition parties all registered significant gains materialized. Both Die Linke (11.9 percent) and the Greens (10.7 percent) increased their shares of the vote above the critical threshold of 10 percent, while the third opposition party, the FDP, which will now seek to enter a coalition government, reached a historic peak of over 14 percent. In short, the election results yielded three record winners, two parties with historic lows and an unprecedented decline in voter participation. While the Greens have become a mainstay of German politics over the past two decades, the success of Die Linke is all the more remarkable. Within a four-year span, the leftist party has steadily increased its share of the vote, mainly at the expense of the Social Democrats. The competition about who will become top dog among the three opposition parties in the Bundestag will be most interesting to follow in the coming years. The outcome of this competition will primarily determine if and when the SPD can make an electoral comeback and again present themselves as a viable political alternative. What lies ahead for German politics? The expected new coalition goverment of the CDU and FDP has a clear political mandate and a comfortable working majority in the Bundestag. Voters across the political aisle expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling Grand Coalition of CDU and SPD. A new beginning at a time of sustained economic crisis was deemed necessary. While the voters consolidated a five-party parliament, they have equally expressed a preference for political change led by two future coalition partners that are united in their belief of job creation through market forces, wholesale tax reform and less government intervention in economic affairs. Finally, can these election results in Germany possibly tell us something about the forthcoming ballot on Sunday in Greece? What could Athens potentially learn from a second look at Berlin? For one, it is high-risk strategy for any party in government to assume that the office of head of state will turn out to be an electoral advantage. As Merkel surprisingly discovered, her popularity as chancellor did not translate into any additional votes for her Christian Democratic party. Furthermore, voter turnout is critical. The capacity to mobilize your own electoral constituency is as important as making inroads into segments of the electorate who have either not voted for any specific party in past elections or stayed at home all together. The more one can combine the mobilization of your own base and reach across the electoral aisle, the higher the chances to significantly increase your share of the vote, and win elections. Finally, as left-of-center parties in Germany are discovering, with increasing political frustration, their fragmentation into three different organizations is beginning to look like a nonstarter for alternative government options. The more the SPD continues to lose electoral support, while the Greens and Die Linke make further impressive gains, the less likely is a governing coalition left of center. The latter two cannot compensate for what the Social Democrats are dramatically losing among the German electorate. Is there a message here for PASOK, SYRIZA and the Ecologist Greens in Greece? Come Sunday evening, we will know more. (1) Jens Bastian is a senior economic research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).