Abstract

The elections for the German Bundestag on 24 September 2017 saw heavy losses for the two governing parties—the Christian Democratic Union (cdu) and the Social Democratic Party (spd)—and the rise of the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). It took almost six months for a new grand coalition to be formed in light of the extremely fragmented parliament. Despite the good economic situation and relative calm domestically and internationally, much change is occurring under the surface. Most importantly, the country is preparing for the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long tenure. Who and what will come next? Can the surging AfD be contained? Will Germany step up into the leadership role for which so many have called?

Liminal Germany

I was recently re-watching the last Harry Potter film and was struck by the scene where Harry speaks with Dumbledore in a kind of purgatory, having to decide to die or go back to the living to try to defeat evil Lord Voldemort once and for all. (Spoiler alert: He chose the latter and was successful). This depiction of that space in-between life and death seems to be a fitting metaphor for German politics right now—seemingly immobile, in a weird kind of transitional stasis, a liminal state, with everything on hold, caught in-between one reality and another.

On the surface, everything looks placid—there were even internet memes circulating about how there was no new government in Berlin for almost half a year, but no one noticed. Various international crises bubble up periodically, but nothing has been too dramatic. Syria? Brexit? Trump? The Alternative for Germany (AfD)? The economy chugs along nicely. Holidays in Mallorca, Rügen, and the Salzkammergut are as popular as ever. The politicians squabble, but Chancellor Angela Merkel will persist

There is, however, much brewing underneath the surface. Expectations are rapidly mounting for the new grand coalition government—and not just for programs and policies domestically. Responses to the simmering challenges that have been put on hold essentially for six to twelve months because of the campaign and the caretaker government will have to be dealt with soon. German policy makers will have to respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious Eurozone and eu reform proposals including a joint Eurozone budget, a finance minister responsible to the European Parliament, and a joint military force.1 Despite calls from some quarters that the British elite or public will pull back from the 2016 decision, Brexit will likely happen during the current parliamentary term. Given the ambiguous status of negotiations and the likelihood of a transitional phase, it is unclear how much of a negative impact this will have on the German or European economy—but negative it will be at one point.2 Increasingly illiberal eastern European governments in places like Hungary and Poland need to be confronted. Migration and integration are still huge challenges. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump (despite much wishful thinking) are not going away any time soon. Trade restrictions (including tariffs announced by Trump in March 2018) and a transatlantic trade war are quite possible. The energy transition (Energiewende), wave of automation, and aging population are rapidly advancing realities.

More existentially, many have observed that German power has been rising for years. Notable instances include imposing policy preferences during the Eurozone crisis and the migration crisis in 2015. Millions of people are waiting to see if Germany is going to take on a bigger leadership role abroad—whether it can or will help to fill the vacuum—of shrinking American leadership. Nevertheless, the country has denied its newfound influence and has shrunk from more conventional power projection as with the 2011 decision not to support allied efforts to oust Gaddafi in Libya. It cannot even bring itself to commit 2 percent of gdp to defense spending—despite a budget surplus. It is the ever-reluctant hegemon. Yet, as much as Germans might not want to take up the mantle of leadership, the alternative—a power or leadership vacuum—could be much worse with proliferating bad actors filling the void and doing substantial damage to the interests of Germany and the liberal democratic community more broadly. Until now, Germany under Merkel has been able to delay a reckoning or a clear acknowledgement of the reality of its increased power, as well as the obligations that come with accepting such a role. It is a kind of luxury to take your time, deciding not to decide. The luxury of Germany’s liminal moment is soon coming to an end.

This long-repressed reckoning both domestically and internationally is now at hand. Merkel knows this, as revealed in her 2018 New Year’s address: “Because the world will not wait for us. We must act today to create the conditions for Germany to thrive ten and fifteen years from now.”3 Yet, Merkel—the greatest survivor in German politics—seems increasingly tired at the age of sixty-three, chancellor going on thirteen years, and Christian Democratic Union (cdu) party leader for the better part of two decades. As intelligent and perceptive as she is, she surely senses her weakening position. She might last until the next scheduled elections in 2021, but probably not. The country has started to think seriously about who will come next and what kind of leader the country needs. Rivals are starting to circle the wagons and overtly conspire.4

Certainly, the Federal Republic has had many other moments of transition with a fin de siècle feeling. The waning years of Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl come immediately to mind. Nevertheless, something feels different currently. At those previous moments, there was a clear, exciting (to many at least) alternative—leaders who articulated a new vision, or joint project—younger politicians like Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder with vigor and momentum. This time, however, there is nothing and no one like that on the horizon. The current crop of politicians preaches more of the same—only with a different face and perhaps better management at the margins. That, of course, is disregarding the Alternative for Germany—which has momentum, but with a pessimistic, dystopian, and retrograde vision.

No one seems to want to step up and articulate a clear vision for the country, continent, or world for which so many have been calling. It is indeed the twilight of Merkel (Merkeldämmerung), but what dawn (Morgenrot) is on the horizon? These are the issues surrounding the 2017 Bundestag election and its aftermath that this special issue of German Politics and Society confronts.

The Campaign

As expected, the campaign was short on drama, although it was perhaps not quite as boring as recent electoral cycles. There were two big developments in the nine months before election day in September 2017. First was the saga of Martin Schulz and his Social Democratic Party (spd). A prominent social democratic politician in the European Parliament—a mep from 1994 to 2017 and parliamentary president from 2012 to 2017 (although also involved in the domestic party leadership), he was selected as spd chancellor candidate in January 2017, and then replaced Sigmar Gabriel as party leader in March of that year. He seemed like an ideal choice—experienced but not sullied by a leadership role in the red-green or later grand coalition governments. Unlike any prominent minister or parliamentary leader, this would allow him to criticize the out-going government and differentiate the spd from Merkel’s cdu. At first, Schulz had massive support within the party and the electorate. In fact, he was elected party chair with an unprecedented 100 percent of the delegates and (re-elected with 82 percent in December 2017).5 Polling from February to April 2017, had the party at or above 30 percent—at one point even with or slightly ahead of the cdu.6

But, from May onwards the party began to slip in the polls. Its electoral program was full of classic social democratic themes, emphasizing justice (Gerechtigkeit) for all. Full employment, more jobs as part of union-negotiated wage agreements, expanded European governance, eliminating gender pay differences, and continuing a humane, but Europeanized migration policy were all in there.7 Observers considered these campaign messages to be lackluster, although better than the vague 2013 slogan (“Das Wir entscheidet”—“the we decides” for readers who had forgotten). Common posters included “Time for more justice. Time for Martin Schulz” or a picture of a woman with the message “whoever works 100 percent, should not earn 21 percent less.”8

But, this emphasis on social justice and inequality did not resonate. The party tried to pivot towards a focus on migration and integration closer to election day, but this was too little too late. The many compromises that came with almost continuous governing for fifteen of the last nineteen years have taken a toll—as has competition from the other leftist and populist parties. Numerous spd politicians expressed frustration that so many of their issues have become policy (e.g., minimum wage), but that Merkel typically got all the credit.

The second big campaign development was the strengthening of the AfD—despite all of the factional in-fighting and the leadership carousel. It had barely missed the 5 percent threshold in 2013 when it was a more euroskeptic party and seemed to be on a downward trend after that. But, the migration crisis and Merkel’s August 2015 decision to admit over a million people into the country brought the AfD roaring back. It had also done quite well in Landtag elections. Currently, it is in every state parliament except for Bavaria and Hesse, both of which have elections in fall 2018 and where the AfD is currently polling well over the electoral threshold at 10 and 11 percent respectively.9 All polls in the months before the Bundestag election had the party well over the 5 percent threshold. Thus, the success of the AfD and its entrance into the Bundestag—the first new party to enter since reunification (excluding the transformation of the Party for Democratic Socialism (pds) into the Left Party in 2007)—was no surprise.

The AfD ran a highly professional campaign—help from the U.S. (Harris Media, which worked for the Trump campaign)10 and perhaps Russia did not hurt. Their electoral program had the expected right-populist elements with a German twist: more referendums, less lobbying, no more Euro. Moreover, they advocated for a foreign policy based on interests, eliminating public support for wind energy, and social conservatism (“gender ideology is unconstitutional,” “children need fathers and mothers”). Above all, they called for migration and multiculturalism (“Deutsche Leitkultur statt ‘Multikulurismus’”) to be stopped—“Africa can’t be saved in Europe” and “Islam does not belong to Germany.”11

Unlike the other parties that had unified messaging campaigns throughout the country, the AfD micro-targeted its slogans and posters quite effectively in different states and types of communities albeit with a coordinated theme: “Trau dich Deutschland!” (Germany, dare yourself!). Deep in the rural eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, their posters proclaimed that the constitution had to be protected from Merkel (“Grundgestez vor Merkel schützen!”)—referencing a conspiratorial right-wing belief that Merkel’s decision to admit the refugees and migrants in 2015 was unlawful and unconstitutional.12 In Bavaria, most of the posters went for the Christian Social Union’s (csu) jugular: “Wir halten, was csu verspricht” (We’ll deliver what the csu only promises). An especially controversial poster depicted the legendary postwar csu leader proclaiming “Franz Josef Strauss würde AfD wählen” (Franz Josef Strauss would vote for the AfD). In Berlin, by contrast, ads depicted two white women in swimsuits with the text: “Burkas?” Wir steh’n auf Bikinis” (Burkas? We prefer bikinis). Another had a picture of women in traditional regional costumes, proclaiming: “Burkas? Wir stehn’ mehr auf Burgunder” (Burkas? We prefer Burgundies) or “Bunte Vielfalt? Haben wir schon” (Colorful diversity? We already have it). One poster depicted a pregnant white woman with the text: “Neue Deutsche?” Machen wir selber” (New Germans? We’ll do that ourselves). Belying their denials of right-radicalism, they constantly parroted such themes and images. There was an image of a male same-sex couple holding a non-white baby with the “new German” message. Another contained an image of a piglet, proclaiming “Der Islam? Paßt nicht zu unserer Küche” (Islam? Doesn’t fit into our kitchen).

As for the other small parties, the liberal Free Democratic Party (fdp) garnered wide praise for its campaign performance. Its young (thirty-nine) party leader since 2013, Christian Lindner, was an especially exhilarating stump speaker, who seemed to hit a chord with many voters. As one psychologist concluded: “There was a real love for Lindner … The fdp’s candidate is seen as a modern tv star, even like a kind of 007, who can engender change. A kind of dream team is the result: the proven Merkel and a mini German Macron that gives her a helping hand.”13 The party’s campaign platform diverged some from classically liberal emphases on lower taxes, although abolishing the solidarity surcharge (known as the “Soli” and put in place in the early 1990s to pay for the costs of reunification in eastern Germany) and fostering entrepreneurship were mentioned. Instead, a variety of reforms to the state administration, education, and the European Union were highlighted. The most attention, however, was devoted to digitalization and preparing for the next phase of economic development.14 This last theme permeated their ads and posters, which heavily profiled Lindner in various gq model poses—black-and-white, in a suit and no tie, or suit jacket off. Messages included “Vererben wir nicht Schulden sondern Chancen” (We should not bequeath debts, rather chances), “Bildung: Unser Jugendwort des Jahres” (Education: our youth word-of-the-year); “Digital First: Bedenken Second” (First digital, reflection second), and “Die Digitalisierung ändert alles. Wann ändert sich die Politik?” (Digitalization is changing everything. When will politics change?).15

The Green’s pink and green advertisements with the yellow sunflower logo were somewhat memorable and certain better than the warped cardboard posters and forgettable messages of the 2013 campaign. Playing with Willy Brandt’s famous phrase, one poster stated: “The Environment is not everything. But everything is nothing without the environment” (Umwelt ist nicht alles. Aber ohne Umwelt ist alles nichts)16 Others included “Nobody gets more from less Europe” (Von weniger Europa hat keiner mehr), “Healthy food does not come from a sick nature” (Gesundes Essen kommt nicht aus einer kranken Natur”), and, striving for middle class votes “There should not be an ‘or’ between the environment and the economy” (Zwischen Umwelt und Wirtschaft gehört kein oder).17

The Left Party utilized the same kinds of ads as in previous campaigns (at least there is brand consistency) with a unified message centered on respect. Examples included “Respeckt: Rente mit Niveau” (Pensions at a high level); “Miete und Energie Bezahlbar für alle” (Rent and energy affordable to all); and as a reminder of the spd’s earlier alleged policy sell out of poorer Germans “Respekt: Mindest-Sicherung statt Hartz IV” (A guaranteed minimum income instead of Hartz IV).18

Finally, the cdu’s effort disappointed. Unlike 2013, when the campaign fetishized images of Merkel and her hands (the famous Raute), the cdu/csu de-emphasized the chancellor. It appeared that she had suddenly become a liability at least for advertising purposes. Indeed, never a fan of campaigning, she was even more absent than usual from the campaign trail. One of her last big rallies in Munich was marked by extensive protests and heckling. The cdu also “innovated” with a gimmicky campaign venue in central Berlin full of interactive, digital displays (“the pulse of the German economy” replete with a large beating heart) and high-tech information touting their successes, especially with the economy. This “accessible and interactive platform” (das begehbare Programm) did not really work and must have cost a fortune.19

Their campaign platform rested on previous achievements and a record of good management. Given their good—even exemplary—stewardship of the economy, one could understand why the Christian Democrats made this choice. Indeed, such an economic record is what politicians’ dreams are made:

Table 1German Economic Performance, 2009-2019
YearReal gdp Growth Rate (%)Budget Deficit/Surplus (% gdp)Public Debt (% gdp)*Unemployment Rate (harmonized)
Sources: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics
2009−5.56−3.2375.387.64
20103.95−4.2284.686.97
20113.72−0.9683.985.83
20120.69−0.0386.525.38
20130.60−0.1481.505.24
20141.930.3381.924.99
20151.500.6477.894.63
20161.860.8274.704.13
20172.541.20**71.673.60***
20182.2968.663.73****
20191.90  3.66****

In their planned government platform for 2017–2021 they listed goals such as good jobs and fair pay, strengthening internal security, pushing for free trade, and fostering innovation and digitalization (obviously a big buzzword in this political cycle).20 Otherwise, the slogans were “For a Germany in which we live well and happy” (Für ein Deustchland in dem wir gut und gerne leben) and, simply, if a little heavy-handed: “Successful for Germany” (Erfolgreich für Deutschland).21

In sum, the campaign was a relatively short, low-drama affair. The eventual outcome was mooted for a while, or at least since the spd started its slide in the early summer and the AfD’s support ticked upwards. The television debate between Schulz and Merkel in early September had the two candidates mostly agreeing—one newspaper’s headline even read “Two Candidates, One Opinion.”22 Again, the spd candidate had a real problem trying to differentiate his party from a government of which it was a part. There were some interesting exchanges about the refugee crisis, but overall concurrence. Notably, Merkel made it clear that large numbers of migrants would likely not be admitted in the future, but stood by her 2015 decision.

Two final notes about the campaign are pertinent. First, the term Wutbürger (enraged citizen) frequently surfaced. Although this was an older formulation (2010 word-of-the-year), it seemed to capture the mood of much of the electorate in 2017.23 Indeed, there was a pervasive sense that segments of the population (especially men and eastern Germans) were quite angry and vocal with expressions of their bitterness—especially regarding migration/ integration, but also about stagnant incomes and growing in equality despite the good economy over the last decade. Again, this was not just a German peculiarity—similar sentiments in most western countries have been observed and largely explain the rise in support for various populist movements.

Second, in a surprising move given her years of opposition, Merkel allowed the Bundestag to vote on same-sex marriage in late June 2017. The Greens, followed quickly by the fdp and spd proclaimed earlier that month that legalizing same-sex marriage would be a condition of any coalition agreement with the cdu/csu. On 27 June, Merkel unexpectedly indicated that she would allow a vote of conscience in the Bundestag (where party discipline does not apply). Three days later on 30 June, a two-thirds majority of deputies voted for marriage equality. Merkel’s play eliminated a sticking point to eventual coalition negotiations and neutralized a potential wedge issue for the “hot” phase of the campaign. Incidentally, a very large majority of the German population (75 percent and even 73 percent of cdu supporters) supported marriage equality at that time.24

An Uncertain Outcome

Unlike the campaign, election night on 24 September 2017 was rather more dramatic. The banner headlines were the entrance of the AfD with 12.6 percent of the vote and ninety-four seats (13.3 percent) of the total. Despite surveys long predicting its entrance into parliament, the AfD over-performed its polling averages, ended up winning three direct mandates in southeastern Saxony, and became the third-largest fraction in the new parliament. In light of the new grand coalition (GroKo), it is also the largest opposition party—a position that provides some power and lever-age—control of the parliament’s influential budget committee (Haushaltsauschuss) for example. The fdp also had a good night with 10.7 percent of the vote and 11.3 percent of the seats. Lindner was definitely one of the winners and gave a stellar performance in the televised Elefantenrunde of party leaders right after the election was called (Merkel looked tired, Schulz finally showed some spunk, the Green Katrin Göring-Eckhardt was impressive; everyone teamed up on the AfD participant, Jörg Meuthen). The Liberals’ eighty seats were not enough combined with the cdu/csu total to form a repeat of the 2009–2013 center-right coalition. The Greens and Left did slightly better than in 2013, but did not significantly increase their support.

Participation was up almost 5 percent from 71.5 percent of the electorate in 2013 to 76.2 percent. The use of postal ballots continued to rise, up to 28.6 percent from 24.3 percent in 2013 and 9.4 percent in 1990. An increase in voters living abroad, especially in Switzerland and other eu states largely drove this trend. Older voters disproportionally preferred the two catch-all parties. Men expressed a greater preference for the AfD (16.3 percent to 9.2 percent of women), fdp, and Left Party, whereas women disproportionally supported the cdu/csu and Greens. Support for the spd was even from a gender perspective.25

The governing catch-all parties (Volksparteien) had a bad night. They ended up 2 to 5 percent below where they were averaging in polls in the weeks and months before election day.26 Pollsters did record a rather precipitous drop in support just in the days before the vote—to the benefit of the smaller parties, particularly the AfD, which went from a longer-term average of 7 to 10 percent up to over 12 percent. There is no clear explanation for why this late-breaking development occurred. Some argued that certain media outlets had increased coverage of issues like migration, crime, and integration, which then boosted the salience of these concerns and thus support for the AfD. No one observed substantial meddling by the Russians or other actors. Some commentators even noted that there was more intervention from U.S. right-wing actors than from Russia.27

Table 2Bundestag Election Results, 2017 and 2013
 2017 Percent 2nd VoteSeatsPercent Seats2013 Percent 2nd VoteSeatsPercent SeatsPercent 2nd Vote Change (2017 v. 2013)Percent Seat Change (2017 v. 2013)
Source: Bundeswahlleiter
* in 2013 All <5 %=15.7%
cdu/csu3324634.741.531149.4−8.5−14.7
spd20.515321.625.719330.6−5.2−9
fdp10.78011.34.8+5.9+11.3
Greens8.9679.48.46310.0+0.5−0.6
Left9.2699.78.66410.2+0.6−0.5
AfD12.69413.34.7+7.9+13.3
Others5 6.2*  
  709  631   

in 2013 All <5 %=15.7%

The decline of the two Volksparteien is a trend that has been on-going for decades, but was temporarily masked by the anomalous 2013 election result. With the demise of the fdp and the near miss from the AfD that year, a record high over 15 percent of the vote went to parties below the 5 percent threshold. This artificially inflated the parliamentary delegations of the parties that did make it in, particularly the two catch-all parties. But, in 2017, the long-term decline continued. The csu went from 7.4 to 6.2 percent of the national vote, but from 49.3 to 38.8 (a 10.5 percent decline) in Bavaria, the only state in which it competes. cdu support fell from 34.2 to 26.8, a 7.4 percent decline. Put differently, both the cdu and csu lost over 20 percent of their 2013 support level. At 20.5 percent, the spd had its worst outcome since 1949 or 1890 when it got 19.8 percent (in May 1924 it achieved 20.5 percent, and November 1932 20.4 percent). It lost 21 percent of its 2013 support. To be just a bit melodramatic, the party has not seen such a poor electoral performance since Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws were in place before 1890!

Figure 1
Figure 1

spd Share of the Vote since 1890

Source: Verwaltung des Deutschen Bundestages, Fachbereich WD 1; Deutscher Bundestag, Historische Ausstellung des deutschen Bundestages

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 1; 10.3167/gps.2018.360101

The nineteenth electoral period (2017–2021) will have the most fragmented Bundestag in the post 1949 period, with six party fractions and seven parties (distinguishing between the cdu and csu, which are legally distinct parties but always caucus together). According to the effective number of party calculation,28 the parliament now has 4.64 effective parties based on seats (5.07 based on votes)—a figure not seen since the Weimar Republic. Even the first election of 1949, when a new party system was emerging, produced only 3.53 effective parties based on seats. This is cause for concern because the country is rapidly approaching the extreme (rather than moderate) multiparty category. Given the almost six months without a new government, it is evident how difficult this fragmentation is making coalition formation. Moreover, two fractions—the ideologically radical and possibly anti-system Left Party and the AfD—are currently not considered acceptable coalition partners (koalitionsunfähig). Together they comprise almost a quarter of the Bundestag (23 percent), and, with 163 seats between them, have more than the spd. No wonder it is difficult for the four mainstream fractions to form a coalition when a government needs 50 percent of the seats, but can work with only about 75 percent of the total. This is reminiscent of postwar Italy where the Christian Democrats (dc) ruled seemingly in perpetuity because 20–40 percent of the legislature was controlled by antisystem parties (communist or neofascist). This was also a recipe for endemic corruption, which led eventually to the dramatic demise of the colloquially deemed “First Republic” in the early 1990s. Another parallel would be Austria, with its long history GroKos (forty of seventy-three years since 1945, but twenty-three of the last thirty-one years) and how this has empowered the right-populist Freedom Party.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Effective Number of Parties Based on Votes (Nv) and Seats (Ns) over Time

Source: Bundeswahlleiter (author’s calculation)

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 1; 10.3167/gps.2018.360101

Unsurprisingly, electoral volatility has also increased considerably as of late and is now well beyond the 8.6 long-term average.29 Yet, note that the increase has really only been marked since the early 2000s. The decline of the spd and the splintering of the left was largely a consequence of neoliberal red-green government policies in the early 2000s. Ironically, these reforms contributed greatly to putting the economy on a better footing, ending the declinist “sick man of the euro” narrative, and laying the basis for the export boom of the last decade. Given the strong economy and public finances, one would think that the parties presiding over this situation would benefit and volatility would be moderate. But, that was not the case.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Volatility Based on Votes and Seats over Time

Source: Bundeswahlleiter (author’s calculation)

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 1; 10.3167/gps.2018.360101

Figure 4
Figure 4

Vote Splitting over Time

Source: Bundeswahlleiter

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 1; 10.3167/gps.2018.360101

One driver of increased volatility is the increasing propensity of voters to split their first (constituency) and second (party list) vote. Although the trend goes back to the 1980s, it has really taken off since reunification and especially this century. A record 27.3 percent of voters split their ballots, a boon to the smaller parties, especially the Greens and fdp. In fact, 56 percent of those who gave their second vote to the Liberals, chose another party with their first vote—likewise for 48 percent of Green voters. This unprecedented incidence of tactical voting behavior shows declining loyalty at least to the two catch-all parties.

The size of this Bundestag is also massive—the largest German parliament ever. This is due to the 111 extra seats—forty-six overhanging (Überhangmandaten) and sixty-five compensatory mandates (Ausgleichmandaten). The number of overhanging mandates has increased considerably over time and especially since reunification as the number of parties gaining parliamentary representation has increased from the three that were typical from the 1960s to the 1980s. The change to the electoral law required by the Constitutional Court just before the 2013 election has made matters much worse with the addition of compensatory mandates to allow for a closer vote-seat correspondence.30 According to the cube root rule of the population to determine the ideal size of a legislature, the Bundestag should have a mere 436 members. There are deleterious consequences of having such an oversized chamber—it makes it too easy to represent niche preferences and decreases the ability of parties to aggregate interests and formulate overarching legislative agendas.31 Moreover, these additional deputies will cost taxpayers an extra euro 51 million over the duration of this parliamentary period.32

Figure 5
Figure 5

Overhanging and Compensatory Mandates Over Time

Source: Bundeswahlleiter

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 1; 10.3167/gps.2018.360101

Long an exemplary mixed member proportional electoral system, combining single member constituencies with closed list proportional representation, the law has evolved into an over-engineered mess. Even the sacrosanct 5 percent electoral threshold—which has done much over the decades to disincentivize small, often radical parties—might also be in jeopardy. The Federal Constitutional Court invalidated a 3 percent hurdle for European Parliament elections in 2013 and some Land courts have done likewise for local elections.33 Such a development would further exacerbate the splintering of the Bundestag. It might be time to contemplate changes along the more majoritarian lines of Britain or France in order to engineer an advantage for larger parties. Germans would have to accept the price of lower proportionality and fewer parties gaining validating parliamentary representation.

These developments—increased volatility and the splintering of the Bundestag—represent a rather novel political context for government formation. Postwar and earlier postunification electorates were not renowned for radical course shifts and suddenly changing preferences. Things evolved slowly, even glacially and governing coalitions remained in power for long periods of time. Since 1949, the Federal Republic has had only eight chancellors. By contrast, over the same period of time, the United States has had thirteen presidents, the UK has had fourteen prime ministers, and France has had eight presidents (and seventeen prime ministers) since 1959. In fact, the only time in almost seventy years that German voters have thrown the rascals out and completely replaced a government (complete partisan alteration) was 1998. All other changes in government have been partial with a coalition partner being replaced with another, but one staying in power (as in 1966, 1969, 1982, 2005, 2009, and 2013).

But, the fragmented Bundestag and the shrunken catch-all parties means that the traditional coalition options are not possible. Previously, one of the catch-call parties would govern with a smaller ideologically affiliated partner, as the spd did with the fdp from 1969–1982 and then with the Greens from 1998–2005 or the cdu with the fdp from 1982–1998 and 2009–2013. This time, such an option was mathematically impossible, so Merkel initially looked to form a three-party “Jamaica” coalition—named after the colors of the Jamaican flag and the traditional colors of the German parties—cdu (black), Greens, and fdp (yellow). This attempt, however, fell apart before it was even fully negotiated, scuttled by the fdp at the end of November 2017 after several weeks of exploratory talks (Sondierungsgespräche). Reports pointed to an inability to agree on migration (specifically family reunification), as well as Green demands to move more quickly away from coal power. Lindner proclaimed that “It is better not to govern than to govern wrongly.”34 “Jamaica-Aus” (Jamaica failure) was selected the word of the year—just ahead of “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all).35 The fdp has taken a reputational and polling hit (currently down in the 9–10 percent range). There is even a new word: lindnern—to lindner, to back out at the last minute with the whiff of treachery and bad faith.36

This meant that another grand coalition was the only possibility besides a minority government, which is deeply taboo and has never been attempted in Federal Republic. Frequent minority governments in other parliamentary democracies have been surprisingly resilient. But, Germany is not Sweden and the dynamics of minority government are harder to accommodate in such a large country with its clout in Europe and abroad. Thus, despite Schulz’s deep reservations (he had stated that the election result rejected another grand coalition) preliminary talks started in January 2018 and formal negotiations were concluded in early February, and then voted on by spd party members. Despite intense opposition particularly from Young Socialist (juso) leader Kevin Kühnert, 66 percent of the 450,000 or so spd party members (including 24,000 new members just since 1 January) endorsed the agreement via postal ballot. The new government was installed in mid-March 2018.37

Table 3Merkel’s Fourth Cabinet (2018-)
 Ministry/TitleParty
Angela MerkelChancellorcdu
Heiko MaasForeign Officespd
Olaf ScholzFinance/Vice Chancellorspd
Horst SeehoferInteriorcsu
Ursula von der LeyenDefensecdu
Peter AltmaierEconomicscdu
Hubertus HeilLabor and Social Affairsspd
Katarina BarleyJustice and Consumer Protectionspd
Jens SpahnHealthcdu
Anja KarliczekEducation and Researchcdu
Julia KlöcknerFood and Agriculturecdu
Andreas ScheuerTransportation and Digital Infrastructurecsu
Gerd MüllerEconomic Cooperation and Developmentcsu
Franziska GiffeyFamily, Seniors, Women and Youthspd
Svenja SchulzeEnvironment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safetyspd
Helge BraunChancellery Officecdu

There are substantial personnel changes in Merkel’s fourth cabinet even though the governing parties remain the same. In fact, only Merkel, Müller, and von der Leyen remain in the same positions. Several in-coming ministers have changed portfolios (Altmaier from the chancellery to economics, Maas from justice to the foreign office). Some have returned after several years away from the federal cabinet (Scholz, Seehofer). But, the vast majority are brand new, albeit often with deputy ministerial (Staatssekretär) or regional/local political experience (Braun, Giffey, Heil, Karliczek, Klöckner, Scheuer, Schulze, Spahn—Barley also has less than one year experience). Some surprise departures include Thomas de Maiziere (a Merkel confidant), Brigitte Zypries, Hermann Gröhe, Barbara Hendricks, and, above all, Sigmar Gabriel—who was spd party leader until March 2017 and vice chancellor in the last coalition. After January 2017 when he moved from the economics to the foreign ministry, he was often more popular than Merkel herself. In another development, the interior ministry is being beefed up for Seehofer, taking up competences in building and Heimat (homeland)—although no one seems to know what this latter competence really means. A little more than half of the cabinet is comprised of women, and there is one other eastern German (Giffey) besides Merkel.

Initial reactions saw the partisan distribution of ministries as a major victory for the spd, which received six out of sixteen portfolios, including the powerful finance ministry, the foreign office, labor, and justice. The influential tabloid, Bild Zeitung even ran a headline: “Chancellor at any price: Merkel gifts the government to the spd” (Kanzlerin um jeden Preis: Merkel schenkt der spd die Regierung). The spd probably needed this to successfully sell the agreement to its members. Content-wise, the agreement was characterized as “expansionary continuity” with the parties agreeing to use a good portion of the budget surplus on programs like increased child benefits, pensions, and subsidies for (affordable) housing. There will also be an investment in broadband for all. The Soli tax will be eliminated for all but the top 10 percent of taxpayers. Refugees will be capped at 200,000 and family reunification will also be limited to 1,000 per month.38

Moving beyond Merkel

As relieved as so many are that a new coalition is in place, it took almost six months after the election to achieve—the longest postwar Germany has gone with a caretaker government. Presiding over all of this is Angela Merkel, who is now at the helm of her fourth government (including three grand coalitions) since first assuming office in 2005.

Merkel has dominated German and European politics for most of this century. Her style has been quite different from other chancellors and global leaders. She exemplifies “leading from behind” with a more self-effacing and behind-the-scenes style—never dominating or hogging the limelight like so many of her largely vanquished (male) rivals. She is not particularly charismatic and does not appear to enjoy retail politics, campaigning, or interacting with voters or the press. Moreover, she has never really been about the “vision thing.” She has seemed especially exhausted since the election—and actually since the pushback on her 2015 decision to open the country’s borders to the wave of refugees. There is an end-of-anera feeling around Merkel and her leadership.

Merkel has obviously greatly influenced, even transformed the cdu, as many scholars have noted.39 Indeed, the policy areas in which the cdu has shifted is notable—from family policy, to same-sex marriage, to energy and environmental policy. Admittedly, when it comes to fiscal policy, the cdu has stayed true to conservative principles—the “schwarz-null” of no new state borrowing, the constitutional amendment to limit deficits, and the achievement of budget surpluses over the last few years (and corresponding decline in the debt-to-gdp ratio) are big successes from a conservative perspective. Mention should also be made of German pressure having effects on eu, specifically Eurozone member states to follow a similar path.

This, though, was largely the achievement of Wolfgang Schäuble, the long-serving finance minister (2009–2017) and before that in various ministerial roles from 1984 to 1991 and 2005 to 2009, as well cdu/csu caucus chair from 1991 to 2000 and cdu leader from 1998 to 2000. But, due to his election as president of the Bundestag in October 2017, he will not be part of the next government. At seventy-five, he is rapidly approaching the twilight of his long and influential public career. Indeed, Schäuble’s transition from positions of real policy influence and power is a huge milestone and loss for Merkel, who has worked with (and sometimes against) him for her entire political career. In one regard, this transition is almost as symbolically significant as the death of Helmut Kohl—Merkel’s first political mentor—in June 2017.

Many observers believe that Merkel has social democratized (although she would rather say “modernized”) the party and brought it firmly into the center, if not the center-left of the political spectrum. Others believe that all things considered, Merkel has made the party ideologically murky and amorphous. She is renowned for waiting until the last minute to commit to a policy course—widely deemed the “Merkel method.”40 This is captured in the neologism merkeln—to merkel, meaning to dawdle or dither, be wishywashy, reveal no opinion or position, and wait until the last possible moment to decide.41 In most instances and for many years, such tactical methods have worked for her—while also garnering a lot of criticism at home and abroad. Nevertheless, it has left the party lacking a coherent strategy, identity, or platform in the eyes both of many voters and cdu party members. The party’s right flank has also been exposed to new competitors—an abdication that the AfD has arguably exploited.

But, power is an elusive thing. It usually takes a long time to amass and much effort and flexibility to sustain. It can and often does dissipate quickly—even overnight. As difficult as it is to quantify these dynamics, the signs are apparent that Merkel is losing power and stature. The media has almost daily reports about people conspiring to replace her. For example, one article noted that Alexander Dobrindt (csu, minister of transportation and digital infrastructure in the last government), Lindner, and Jens Spahn (openly gay, born in 1980 and a cdu up-and-comer from voter-rich North Rhine-Westphalia) are scheming. Only cdu member and incoming health minister Spahn—who has advocated that the party move back to the right—would be a realistic chancellor candidate and would make history being the first openly gay leader of a major country. (Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Serbia, and Ireland have already had gay heads of government. In Germany, openly gay Guido Westerwelle (fdp) was the vice-chancellor and foreign minister between 2009 and 2013.) It will be interesting to see if the cdu really has changed as much as some people think. In the Bundestag’s 2017 same-sex marriage vote, 225 cdu/csu deputies—that is, 75 percent of the caucus including Merkel herself—voted against it (versus every single spd, Green, and Left Party member voting for the legal change). For the record, some prominent cdu/csu members who endorsed marriage equality included von der Leyen, Altmaier, and Peter Tauber.

Indeed, it is almost certain that the next leader of Germany will be from the cdu, even if there are early elections. Besides Spahn, who is controversial and still a long-shot at this point, other seasoned cdu politicians mentioned include Volker Kauder (leader of the cdu/csu parliamentary faction, but pushing seventy) and Altmaier (new economics minister, various portfolios previously, a Merkel ally). Other contenders have recently lost favor, including Tauber the forty-three-year-old secretary-general from 2013–2017, but not too prominent, and ousted from this position in mid February 2018; and recently dropped ministers like Gröhe (health, previously chancellery) and de Maiziere (various portfolios since 2005, but already sixty-four). One should not forget von der Leyen, the returning defense minister at a young-ish fifty-nine. Long seen to be groomed by Merkel to eventually take over the chancellorship, she has never been very popular within the party or the electorate. There are also numerous reports that Merkel has soured on her in recent years.

National politics often looks to the states for talent. In fact, Merkel is only the second chancellor since 1949 (after Ludwig Erhard) not to have previously held a regional governmental office. Adenauer was mayor of Cologne (1917–1933) and president of the Prussian State Council (1921–1933) before the Nazi seizure of power; Kurt-Georg Kiesinger ran Baden-Württemberg (1958–1966); Brandt was governing mayor of West Berlin (1957–1966); Helmut Schmidt was a senator in Hamburg (1961–1965); Kohl ran Rhineland-Palatinate (1969–1976); and Schröder was minister president of Lower Saxony (1990–1998). There are indeed a number of state politicians with potential. Klöckner from Rhineland Palatinate is the right age, but narrowly lost the 2016 election there so never actually became minister president. She did make it into the new cabinet, albeit with the second-tier food agriculture portfolio. Lately, much attention has been devoted to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the minister president of the Saarland from 2011 to 2018 who is considered a younger (fifty-five) version of Merkel herself and someone who will maintain Merkel’s more centrist vision for the party.42 Merkel was able to install Kramp-Karrenbauer as cdu secretary-general in February 2018, the position from which Merkel herself began her takeover of the party. Nevertheless, no name stands out as a shoe-in—each has her/his own (regional) power base and it is unclear who might have the most over-arching or national appeal. Then again, Merkel was relatively unknown when she took over the cdu in 1998–2000—similar to Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron before their ascents in 2016 and 2017.

Despite Merkel’s efforts to secure her legacy, it could be a political bloodbath within the cdu after she steps down. Will Merkel loyalists win the power struggle and continue with a centrist (even center-left) social democratic-ish agenda and profile? Or will those who think the party needs to return to the (center) right prevail? Can AfD voters be brought back into the fold even with a move rightwards? These issues are incredibly difficult to traverse. Thus, there might be a good reason for the party not to ditch Merkel just yet—and actually to hold out until the next elections loom in 2021. Many might actually wish for a period in opposition (just like the spd has been fantasizing about for years) to hammer out these differences—quite challenging when one is governing as the responsible “adult” in the room. Therefore, it is likely that Merkel will stay around until 2020. There is already speculation that she will step aside at the two-year midterm review of the government. This transfer to a new leader will ensure that whoever this might be will have some experience with the top job and can develop a bit of incumbency advantage. But, if there are early elections, all bets are off and the internal party drama that Merkel has stanched for fifteen years will come with a vengeance.

For a long time, Germans seemed to prefer Merkel’s pragmatic, no-drama style. The old Schmidt quote—“if you have a vision, you go to the doctor—has been frequently trotted out.43 On that note, Schmidt, who had taken on a witty, elder statesman role, was the second legendary chancellor to have died in the last legislative period in December 2015 at the age of ninety-six. But, it appears that many German voters are yearning for a different type of leader—for someone who can articulate a joint project or a goal to which the country can aspire.44 For these reasons, Kamp-Karrenbauer—memorably described as “Mini Merkel”45—may face an uphill battle and Spahn might develop some traction.

Parties in Flux

To a degree, parties are always in flux, depending on the popularity or predilections of leaders, the vicissitudes of public opinion, the frequency of crises, and the ever-more competitive environment for votes. This moment in German politics, however, is unique for creating a situation in which virtually every party is in a challenging state.

The spd stands out for being in an especially treacherous position. For years, no one has known what the party stands for. The years of governing co-responsibility (in government as a senior or junior coalition partner for sixteen of twenty years since 1998) have taken a toll. It has never really been able to live down the Hartz IV/Agenda 2010 reforms of the early 2000s, which alienated many leftist voters. The party has also been a poor competitor against other actors. Willie Paterson has pointed out that the Social Democrats already had two epochal failures: not having integrated the Greens in the 1980s and then failing to absorb the pds/Left in the 1990s and 2000s. It has lost votes to Merkel’s more centrist cdu and is now threatened by the AfD in many regions. It is quite possible that the rise of the AfD will be more lethal to the spd than to any other party, including the cdu and csu. As Jakob Augstein recently argued, the spd was competitive when it was clearly the party of the “little guy” (kleiner Mann).46 Having long ago lost this identity (perhaps when it embraced neoliberal reforms), the AfD is increasingly the mouthpiece for this segment of the electorate. In fact, AfD leader Alexander Gauland has consistently profiled the party exactly in this manner.47 Fears that the spd is losing its Volkspartei status have been voiced repeatedly. Its horrible 20 percent result at the 2017 Bundestag election and down to 18, 17, even 15 percent in early 2018 polls are existential red flags. Its support among workers has tanked from 49 percent of this group in 1998 to a record low of 23 percent in 2017.48

Instability in party leadership is both cause and consequence of these poor election results. Since 1999 (just before Merkel took over the cdu), there have been eight party chairs, including two one-year stints by Franz Münterfering and now Martin Schulz, but seven years under Sigmar Gabriel from 2009–2017, which was the longest tenure since Willy Brandt from 1964 to 1987. It has been pointed out that despite its constant programmatic appeals to women’s and gender issues, the spd never had a woman leader until 2018.

When the new GroKo agreement was announced on 7 February, it was also reported that Schulz would give up the party chair to Andrea Nahles, who will be the first woman leader in over 150 years. She is associated with the party’s left wing (in contrast to Gabriel), having risen to prominence as a critic of Schröder’s Agenda 2010. She was also minister of labor and social affairs in the last government, was secretary general of the spd from 2009–2014, and took over as spd fraction leader in the Bundestag after the September 2017 election. Tactically, this move signaled to the spd base and the larger electorate that the party will move back into a more leftist position going forward. The choice of Nahles bodes well for the party as she will articulate a clearer vision and will be more effective in countering Merkel.49

But, besides promoting a woman to the top job, there is no clear path forward. Every option—moving left, remaining centrist, embracing some populist policies—has vociferous proponents and detractors. Admittedly, there was widespread agreement that a spell in the opposition was the best thing for the party. But, the extremely divided Bundestag after 2017 and the inability of Merkel to create a Jamaica coalition, left the country with few other options besides another GroKo. spd leaders—at first reluctantly, but then strongly—rose to the occasion. All other options were worse—tolerating a minority government would have meant voting with the cdu/csu on most bills in the absence of any impact on policy. Early elections would likely see their share of the vote decline even more if polling is to be believed. That said, the spd has done decently at the state level. It currently has seven of sixteen minister presidents and is in governing coalitions in eleven states. Although it lost control of North Rhine Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein in 2017, the party’s performance was not abysmal. Also, it has done a decent job of promoting up-and-comers to cabinet-level positions—Scholz, Heil, Manuela Schwesig, and Barley come to mind.

The Greens have struggled the last few electoral cycles—at their peak around 2010 and 2011 they were polling about 20 percent, at one point more than the spd. Commentators were even talking about them as the new leftist Volkspartei. A subpar 2013 result and slightly better 2017 one have put these speculations aside. But, the further implosion of the spd could bring this possibility back. Of course, the Greens have been liminal since their founding. Their lingering 1970s new-leftist tendencies have often made them their own worst enemy. Constant leadership, (“speakership”) flux—well-known leader Cem Özdemir lost his leadership spot in early 2018—and the never-ending battle between Realo and Fundi factions, as well as some fringe policy positions (the pedophilia matter that infected the 2013 campaign) are not ways to embrace a national, Volkspartei identity.

The Left Party—like the pds before—is in a similar predicament. In this case, however, there has always been the tension between ideological extremism and a more pragmatic eastern German identity. This latter aspect is now threatened by the popularity of the AfD in large swaths of the former East Germany and the fact that the AfD may be taking away the protest vote component of the Left’s support. Moreover, the Left Party is increasingly dominated by westerners and their concerns.

Not dissimilar is the assessment of the AfD. Headlines around the world rightfully emphasized that the entry of the party into the Bundestag marked the first time since the Nazi era that right-wing, far-right, extreme right, right populist (the jury is out regarding the best moniker) had achieved this feat. There was some angst that it was 1933 all over again.50 Yet, the Germans are late to this game—the list of European countries with a sizeable right-populist party is long—and there is, of course, Brexit and Trump elsewhere in the West. From this perspective, the rise of the AfD could be seen as a kind of normalization of German politics. Some have even argued that the AfD could be good for German democracy by shaking up the stultifying consensus between the two Volksparteien.51

It is important to understand where the AfD got its votes. Of its 5.88 million votes, 1.28 million (22 percent) came from previous non-voters; 740,000 (13 percent) from the 2013 “other” category, which included parties such as the Pirates and right-radical NPD; 430,000 (7 percent) from the Left; 500,000 (8.5 percent) from the spd; and about 1 million (17 percent) from the cdu. Yet, note that the cdu lost the majority of its 2013 voters to the fdp (1.3 million, 26 percent of the fdp’s total). Of the voters who fled the spd, the most (500,000) went to the AfD (430,000 to fdp; 400,000 to Greens and 380,000 to the Left).52 Thus, it is not the case that the AfD benefitted solely from disgruntled right-wing or center-right voters. Moreover, it did particularly well in eastern Germany. With 22.5 percent of the vote there, it was the second-largest party behind only the cdu at 28.2 percent and ahead of the Left (17.4 percent) and the spd (14.3 percent).53 Like similar parties elsewhere, it did much better with men than women—gaining 26 percent of the eastern male vote.

The success of the AfD, however, should not be over-interpreted. There has been extensive pushback from all other quarters of the political spectrum. This was symbolized by the “guerilla” art installation of a replica of Berlin’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe on a property adjacent to the eastern German home of prominent AfD politician Björn Höcke, who had deemed the original a “monument of shame.”54 The political and social norms against right-radicalism are still largely operative.55 In future elections, many AfD voters could return to their previous choices or fall back into the non-voting category.

Moreover, as these things typically go, there were many contingent factors that will not recur. After twelve years of Merkel, some voter fatigue set in. Merkel’s strategy of “social democratizing” the cdu also has generated a cost. At one point, however, she will be gone. From another perspective, the AfD’s success was simply the political price the establishment had to pay for Merkel’s controversial decision in late summer 2015 to open the borders to the wave of migrants that entered Europe that year. Again, this policy shift was successful (more or less), humane, practical (Germany desperately needs immigrants), but also hugely controversial in light of the sheer scale—and cost—of the challenge. Survey after survey showed that AfD voters were animated overwhelmingly by migration and related issues—but, not just AfD voters. Exit polls showed that the most important issue cited by all voters was “refugees and integration” at 44 percent, followed distantly by social injustice at 20 percent.56 Given just how contingent AfD support was on the salience of this issue, it will be challenging for the party to maintain such a level of support as that issue recedes in importance. Balancing among the many disparate groups of supporters will likewise be challenging.

I do not want to downplay the AfD’s insidiousness. Like other right-populists they have parroted the same us/them, pure/impure, anti-pluralistic rhetoric and engaged in Islamophobia and xenophobia.57 There is more than enough fake right-wing news, although the German authorities have been much more vigilant about this than other governments, getting Facebook, for example, to verify and curate content that could be classified as hate speech.58 The AfD also has some extreme and bizarre policies on natalism, families, or homosexuality that likely will not resonate too widely. Even their own voters do not like party leaders like Gauland, Alice Weidel, Meuthen, or Frauke Petry (who left the party shortly after the election). The AfD also brought a campaign sophistication that has eluded the other parties. (There were reports about Trump campaign aides coming to help—and suggesting slogans like “Germany for the Germans,” which even AfD leaders rejected.) Still, no one has figured out how to effectively counter this right-populist rhetoric—but not just in Germany.

Nevertheless, even the AfD with all of its seemingly unstoppable momentum (up to 13–15 percent in March 2018 polls) is also in a liminal place—and has been since its inception. Will it embrace right-radicalism or “merely” right-populism? Will it tolerate Holocaust-deniers, neo-Nazis, racists, and xenophobes? Or will it moderate and endeavor to take on Volkspartei status—what some have deemed a new “national socialism?”59 Will it continue to be a protest movement or will it routinize and institutionalize? Will it become yet another eastern German identity party or will it strive for truly national appeal? Will it tend towards anti-immigrant xenophobia or euroskepticism? Will it actually deliver policy for the kleiner Mann? Will it continue to have extreme leadership instability and flux?

Finally, the fdp currently appears to be in better shape than most. But, this party has a history of surging and falling rather dramatically—14.6 percent in 2009 (its best result ever), to 4.8 percent in 2013 (and losing all its seats in the Bundestag), and back to 10.7 percent in 2017. Lindner seems like a strong, dynamic leader for now—but so did Westerwelle in 2009. It can be extremely fraught to have invested so much attention in the charisma and personality of one individual party leader. In fact, Lindner and his party have taken a hit after breaking off the Jamaica coalition talks, polling in the 8–9 percent range in March 2018. Moreover, if the cdu lurches right after Merkel, the fdp could lose its neoliberal policy differentiation and the leverage that comes with this.

Transcending Liminality

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this current liminal moment is that overall things are going exceptionally well. Unemployment is hovering around a record low of 4 percent; there is a slight budgetary surplus (and no new borrowing for three straight years); about 2 percent growth, actually 2018 growth was recently revised upwards to almost 2.5 percent despite all the uncertainty (sanctions against Russia, Trump, and Brexit); and there is increased personal and public consumption, buoyed by wage increases. The economy has boomed for almost as long as people can remember (see Table 1). There is so much vibrancy currently that many experts fear over-heating. Admittedly, there are parts of the country where prosperity has been elusive. Poverty has increased in some segments of the population, and income and wealth inequality has grown. And, the typical protest voter is not down and out, but rather fears for his/her social and cultural status. (Sometimes I even think that voting for populists today is a weird kind of luxury good).

The rise of German influence and power in Europe and beyond over the last fifteen years surely warms the heart of the surreptitious German nationalists out there. The men’s national team even won the 2014 World Cup of soccer—and looks competitive in Russia in summer 2018. On the other side of the spectrum, Merkel and Germany were almost universally lauded by liberals and the left the world over for her decision to admit refugees in 2015. People even spoke about Merkel deserving the Nobel Peace Prize. After Obama left office, many deemed her the leader of the free world.60 In 2015, she was voted Time Magazine Person of the Year, only the fourth German to be so honored (the others were Hitler in 1938, Adenauer in 1953, and Brandt in 1970). All of this should have made German voters ecstatic and ensured a landslide victory for the leaders that have presided over all of this.

But, the political context can change quickly and people have short memories. Almost immediately after his election in 2017, French President Macron seized the eu policy initiative, catching the Germans flat-footed. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that German leaders of all stripes (maybe even parts of the spd) have intentionally been dragging their feet regarding eu reform. There is a short window until the summer of 2018 for anything major to be agreed upon. After that, all attention will be on Brexit and the next round of eu budget negotiations. If the new government is weak and unstable, absolutely nothing will be done at the eu level. This would surely please many Germans who have little to negative interest in some of Macron’s more ambitious reformist proposals, especially Eurozone deepening. More generally, the post Cold War world is over. The unipolar moment of unquestioned U.S. hegemony has passed. Multipolarity is back, but what will this actually look like? Who will carry the banner of liberal democracy forward, especially as Trump leads the United States?

Merkel’s Germany was quite adept at leading from behind, often in a reactive, last-minute manner. Indeed, Merkel’s tenure will likely be remembered as one of almost constant crisis-management, as well as consolidating past efforts and gains—as inherently conservative. She has never been a grand-strategy, big-idea person. “Thank goodness” many would say. But, I do think we are at a point where a new common project is needed (though Macron’s plan is probably not it).

Germany under Merkel has not had to fully embrace the status and the responsibilities that its increased power and influence have created over the last years. It has not been forced to decide or to fulfill the expectations many have of it. But, this moment of reckoning cannot be denied any longer. Trump’s America is seemingly in full retreat from much of the world and is likely entering a long-term decline. After Brexit, Britain will be even less visible. French strength is still more of a possibility and is contingent on Macron being able to follow through on his divisive domestic reform agenda. Meanwhile, Russia, China, Turkey and others are increasingly authoritarian and influential internationally. Will Germany fill the void? Can it? Or will it keep treading water and wait for Trump to fall?

The present moment is a critical juncture akin to 1989–1991. Indeed, at the point in February 2018 when people marked the fact that more time had elapsed since the Berlin Wall fell than it was actually up, former U.S. Ambassador John Kornblum observed that German history has worked in twenty to thirty-year phases. Thus, the post-Wall era is winding down and the post-post Wall period will soon begin.61 What will Germany do in this new era? No one really knows for sure. But, one thing is certain: Merkel is not the German leader to preside over this moment. Her era was hugely successful in so many ways, but it is now essentially over.

The Special Issues

Continuing a tradition, the editorial team at German Politics and Society is devoting two special issues to the 2017 Bundestag election and its consequences. Included in this first issue is Joyce Mushaben’s contribution on gender images in the presentation of Angela Merkel over four campaigns. Mushaben delves into the many stereotypes that women politicians have to traverse and how these affected, and, at times, disadvantaged Merkel over the years. This environment led her to overtly downplay the gender dimensions of her leadership, while allowing her to achieve much positive change under the surface. David Patton looks at the smaller parties and the race for third place in 2017. He outlines both structural and contingent factors behind the unprecedented success of the niche parties. Indeed, he finds that each of the four smaller parties focused on a specific issue space—the Greens on the environment, the Left party on social justice, the AfD on immigration, and the fdp on education, deregulation, and taxes. One interesting finding is how the Left Party is now dominated by western elements. Patton concludes by noting that government formation has not yet caught up with the more fragmented and pluralistic nature of the party system.

Next, Jonathan Olsen focuses on eastern German voters, and in particular the fortunes of the Left Party and the AfD in that region. Even though many headlines proclaimed the weak results of the two catch-all parties and the rise of the AfD, the collapse of the Left party’s vote in eastern Germany was just as consequential—it has now become a more nationalized party of the radical left. Meanwhile, the AfD has poached the protest vote and is rapidly becoming the new eastern German identity party. Olsen goes on to compare and contrast the populist elements in both parties, concluding that although there is some overlap, the AfD is clearly much more populist than the Left Party is or ever was—effectively tapping into the disaffected, anti-establishment sentiment of much of the eastern electorate.

Matthias Dilling tackles the issue of whether the rise of the AfD really is the threat to the Christian Democrats that so many have proclaimed. Through an analysis of the parties’ campaign manifestos, as well as sophisticated statistical analyses, he concludes that contrary to popular belief, the AfD does not really threaten the cdu/csu. Its ideology has veered overall far to the right of the conservatives, but is also a hodge-podge of disparate ideological fragments. More importantly, its voter base is extremely heterodox and it will be hard-pressed to keep all constituencies satisfied over the medium and long term. Finally, Alexander Beyer and Steven Weldon examine the media environment of the campaign to test the hypothesis that the media were responsible for the rise and success of the AfD. Based on an examination of the published content from the four most popular online media outlets, the AfD did indeed receive a disproportionate share of coverage, especially in the last phase of the campaign. Moreover, these outlets clearly reinforced the salience of migration issues in the weeks before election day, which strengthened the AfD. Yet, analysis of Google search data shows that these media outlets were largely following public sentiment—that is, more frequent reporting on such issues was a response to demand for such stories.

Notes
1

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/world/europe/france-macron-european-union-reforms.html, accessed 29 January 2018. I would like to thank the iasgp and daad for organizing yet another outstanding study tour around the 2017 Bundestag election. I would also like to thank Georgetown University’s bmw Center for German and European Studies for continued research support.

2

Eric Langenbacher, “Tschüss Perfidious Albion: German Reactions to Brexit,” German Politics and Society, 35, no. 3 (2017): 69–85.

17

Ibid.

19

https://www.cdu.de/haus, accessed 29 January 2018.

23

See note 13.

26

See note 6.

28

The formula is N=1/Σ(p²); where p is the proportion of seats or votes for each party.

29

The formula is Vt= ½ (Σ │P(t-1) – Pt │); where Vt is volatility at any given year compared to the last election; Pt is the party’s vote or seat share (percent) in the current time period; and Pt-1 is the vote or seat share (percent) in the last election. For the hundred-year average volatility of 8.6, see Stefano Bartolini and Peter Mair, Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability: The Stabilisation of European Electorates 1885–1985 (Cambridge, 1990), 100.

31

On the cube root rule, see Rein Taagepera, Predicting Party Sizes: The Logic of Simple Electoral Systems (Oxford, 2007).

39

See Joyce Marie Mushaben, Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic (New York, 2017); Sarah Wiliarty, The cdu and the Politics of Gender in Germany: Bringing Women to the Party (New York, 2010).

51

Hans Kundnani, “Why the AfD Could Be Good for German Democracy: Will It Bring an End to the cdu-spd Consensus?” Foreign Affairs, 2 November 2017, accessed 2 February 2018.

55

David Art, The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria (New York, 2006).

57

Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia, 2016).

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Contributor Notes

Eric Langenbacher is a Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government, Georgetown University. Recent publications include The German Polity, 11th edition, co-authored with David Conradt (Lanham, 2017) and Mapping Comparative Politics: Power and Legitimacy (Thousand Oaks, forthcoming 2019). He is also Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. E-mail: langenbe@georgetown.edu

  • View in gallery

    spd Share of the Vote since 1890

    Source: Verwaltung des Deutschen Bundestages, Fachbereich WD 1; Deutscher Bundestag, Historische Ausstellung des deutschen Bundestages

  • View in gallery

    Effective Number of Parties Based on Votes (Nv) and Seats (Ns) over Time

    Source: Bundeswahlleiter (author’s calculation)

  • View in gallery

    Volatility Based on Votes and Seats over Time

    Source: Bundeswahlleiter (author’s calculation)

  • View in gallery

    Vote Splitting over Time

    Source: Bundeswahlleiter

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    Overhanging and Compensatory Mandates Over Time

    Source: Bundeswahlleiter

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