Coalition Politics in Crisis?

The German Party System Before and After the 2017 Federal Election

in German Politics and Society


The 2017 federal election illustrated the transformation of Germany’s political party system with six parties managing to enter the Bundestag. With the Christian and Social Democrats finally coming to an agreement almost half a year after the election, a grand coalition is set to govern for two consecutive terms for the very first time. The Alternative for Germany’s success also signaled the definite parliamentary establishment of right-wing populism in Germany. Multiparty coalitions that bridge ideological gulfs as the political fringe has grown in size are a new reality that must be accommodated. The 2017 election and subsequent arduous negotiations point towards a period of uncertainty and further upheaval for Germany’s party system.

Shift of the Political Balance of Power to the Right

Following the elections to the nineteenth Bundestag, parties had to cope with a newfound shortage of space. Previously, all four parliamentary party groups were able to claim one of the building’s corner towers as their own. Now six groups were fighting for the best spaces. The refusal of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (cdu/csu) and Social Democratic Party (spd) to reform the country’s current electoral law, moreover, meant a few hundred-additional people (both members of parliament and employees) had to be accommodated somewhere as the size of the Bundestag expanded beyond its regular number of seats from 598 to 709. And in the plenary hall itself, the seats on the far right that had previously been filled by the Free Democrats (fdp) before their parliamentary exit in 2013, were now given to the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) parliamentary group whose members thus sit merely a few feet away from the government bench.1

The parliamentary entry of the Alternative for Germany does not merely mark another break in the country’s party system, but also constitutes a watershed moment for Germany’s postwar democracy. After the National Democratic Party’s (npd) narrow failure to enter parliament in 1969 (winning 4.3 percent of the vote that year), right-wing extremist parliamentarians will for the first time since the 1950s take their seats in the federal parliament—in the same building that had served as the stage and backdrop for the rise of the Nazi party between 1925 and 1932. At the same time, the parliamentary emergence of right-wing populism in Germany represents a kind of European “normalization,” as ideologically similar parties have become established actors across virtually all neighboring countries.2 Why Germany appeared to be immune to such developments before 2013 continues to pose a difficult question, even with the luxury of hindsight.3

The AfD’s success has once again moved the party system’s center of gravity to the right—in a substantial manner. While the three left-of-center parties (spd, Greens, and pds/The Left) enjoyed a comfortable lead in the combined share of the vote in the three elections of 1998, 2002, and 2005 over their opponents of the cdu/csu and fdp, the balance of power reversed for the very first time in 2009—before the emergence of the AfD. In 2013, the three parties of the right (now including the AfD) already possessed a lead of around 8 points over the left-of-center camp (51.0 to 42.7 percent). The latter’s numerical majority in parliament was owed to the narrow failure of both the fdp and AfD to cross the five-percent-threshold. In 2017, the three right-of-center parties combined to win 56.2 percent of the vote as their counterparts on the left only managed a combined share of 38.6 percent.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Combined Vote Shares of the Left-of-Center (spd, Greens, pds/The Left) and Right-of-Center Parties (cdu/csu, fdp, AfD) in Federal Elections since 1994

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 2; 10.3167/gps.2018.360202

This asymmetrical distribution of the vote is now, however, met with a newfound structural symmetry. With the left camp having been composed of three parties since reunification, as one of its actors—the Party of Democratic Socialism (pds)/Left—continues to be regarded as a rather problematic if not unacceptable coalition partner,4 the AfD’s emergence has created a similar constellation on the right. The spd’s dubious pleasure of facilitating the rise of new and viable parties within its own ideological camp while governing the country (as was the case with the Greens in the late 1970s and after 2004 with the establishment of an all-German Left Party) has for the very first time also befallen the Christian Democrats. Franz Josef Strauß’s famous dictum that no democratically legitimate party was to be allowed to emerge to the right of the cdu and csu has been rendered null and void by the AfD’s widespread success. This major transformation will also come to at least partially define future judgments regarding the “Merkel era.”

Both the dramatic losses of the Christian democratic sister parties as well as the ability of the right-wing populists to come in third cannot hide the fact that the cdu/csu once again comfortably secured first place over the spd (for the third time since 2009). The conservative lead over its social democratic competitor decreased only marginally from 15.8 percentage points in 2013 to 12.4 points last year (see figure 3). This is only more remarkable in light of the fact that the spd’s nomination of Martin Schulz as its candidate for the office of chancellor in January of 2017 provided the party with an auspicious start to the election year. The subsequent surge in support that catapulted it beyond the 30 percent barrier in the polls for the first time in a decade and allowed it to once again credibly contest first place in the country’s party system was to be short-lived though. Disappointing results in the Saarland state election, where the spd failed to oust the governing cdu state premier, already put the party back on a losing path in March 2017 before defeats in Schleswig-Holstein and the party’s heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia in particular brought about a collapse in support.

Why did the election eventually unfold the way it did? Without assigning an order of significance, the following factors determined the outcome of the vote:

Crisis: Angela Merkel’s frequently repeated sentence that we were living through “tumultuous times” was also to be interpreted as a hint to the electorate that in such a challenging environment, it was best to leave the government in the hands of a nationally and internationally experienced crisis manager. The chancellor benefitted from her widely perceived role as an “anchor of stability” as Germany’s most important European partners (France, the United Kingdom, and Italy) all saw their governments or heads of government replaced in short succession while Americans opted to select an erratic “anti-politician” in the form of Donald Trump as president.

Good economic growth: Merkel’s aura as Europe’s most powerful head of government not the least rested on Germany’s continued strong economic growth, a factor that her party was also able to contrast with the economic “malaise” present in other countries. According to exit polls from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, 62 percent of voters considered the state of the economy to be good (compared to 46 percent in 2013). The cdu/csu was furthermore once again able to improve upon its position as the most trusted party on economic matters, widening the gap between itself and the spd, whose own criticism of a severe lack in public investments largely went unnoticed.

Perceptions of competence: Concerning policy areas that represent the spd’s core brand of “social justice” and were put at the center of its campaign, voters either placed lower (pensions and education) or just marginally higher levels of trust (family policy and taxes) in the Social Democrats than they did in their conservative counterparts. Even more damaging was the continued dominance of the topic of migration and refugees where the spd trailed the cdu/csu by a significant margin. This also applied to the issues of crime and domestic security.

Candidate: Contrary to Peer Steinbrück, the spd’s 2013 candidate for the chancellery who never really embodied the party’s program, Schulz appeared to be a—at the very least potentially—good candidate. After the initial honeymoon, Schulz revealed two decisive weaknesses, however. On the one hand, he lacked an apparent hunger for power, both within his own party as well as towards Chancellor Angela Merkel, while also failing to exhibit the necessary leadership capabilities for the job. On the other hand, he was neither willing and/or capable of freeing the spd from its responsibilities as the junior coalition partner and cast the party as a genuine alternative to the cdu/csu. The issue of social justice was, for example, addressed in a far too tepid manner while proposals related to Europe were more or less buried deep within the party manifesto. Schulz’s experience as a leading eu politician would have made him the perfect spokesperson for precisely this topic.

Campaign: Schulz’s weaknesses as a candidate ultimately came to the fore because of a poorly planned out campaign that was rife with a number of inexcusable technical mistakes. Schulz’s predecessor as party leader, Sigmar Gabriel, bears a significant part of the blame for this. Instead of waiting until January to forgo his own candidacy, Gabriel should have settled on Schulz at a much earlier date, in the process allowing the entire party to prepare in a more thorough manner for the election. A lack of coordination between the two carried over into the election campaign itself. In what would prove to be a fatal mistake, the party decided to remove Schulz from the media spotlight for two months in the wake of his initial meteoric rise rather than keeping the general public occupied with a steady stream of information related to both Schulz and the spd. The explanations provided for this decision—a desire to neither pre-empt the formulation of a party manifesto nor “disrupt” the state election campaign in North Rhine-West-phalia—illustrate a complete lack of a strategic plan on the part of the spd.

New Competition: A closer look at the movement of voters reveals virtually no vote transfer between the cdu/csu and the spd. The number of electoral districts won by both parties also remained largely unchanged compared to 2013: 231 for the cdu/csu and fifty-nine for the spd, whereas four years earlier the respective numbers stood at 236 and fifty-eight. The Christian Democrats primarily lost voters to both the fdp and AfD—in other words, parties within their own camp—while the spd’s losses were equally distributed among the other parties (Left, Greens, fdp, and AfD). Right-wing populist competitors, therefore, also drive down the social democratic vote. In eastern Germany in particular, these changing voting patterns have hurt the Left Party which has as a result been relegated to third place behind the cdu and AfD in the region.

No viable coalition of the left or prospect of obtaining power: Immediately following the 2013 election, the spd already announced it would no longer categorically rule out any form of cooperation with the Left Party. A subsequent rapprochement between the two failed to materialize, however. The outcome of the 2017 Saarland state elections—in which both the spd and Left Party combined to lose 4.3 points—once again illustrated the general public’s lack of support for a red-red-green coalition. The spd could therefore only achieve its electoral goal of regaining the chancellery by becoming the strongest party, an objective that became little more than a fantasy following the poor showing in North Rhine-Westphalia. Subsequent discussions concerning the future federal government therefore revolved around the question whether the spd would join another grand coalition as junior partner or if a black-green-yellow “Jamaica” coalition of the cdu/csu, Greens, and fdp would be formed at the federal level for the very first time. This may have encouraged potential social democratic voters in west Germany in particular to throw their support behind the Greens or the Left in the final days of the campaign. While the latter suffered massive losses in the east, it managed to increase its share of the vote in the western part of the country by 1.8 points to 7.4 percent.

The fact that poll after poll indicated a comfortable cdu/csu lead over their Social Democratic opponents undoubtedly contributed to voters abandoning both catch-all parties as the election drew closer. A strategy of “asymmetrical demobilization” that had been employed to great success by the cdu in both 2009 and 2013 would this time around come back to haunt the Christian Democrats themselves. The inability to deemphasize the issue of migration played a significant role as well. While the rise of the spd’s numbers in the wake of their nomination of Schulz boosted hopes that a close race between the top two parties would perhaps even push the AfD below the 5 percent threshold, the spd’s inability or reluctance to provide a credible and clear political alternative to their conservative opponents ultimately played into the hands of the right-wing populists, particularly in the waning weeks of the campaign.5 The question (also related to the media’s role) remains, however, to what extent a more sound strategy could have shifted attention away from the refugee topic towards socioeconomic questions.

The Successful Establishment of the Right-wing Populist Alternative for Germany

Until the emergence of the AfD, both right-wing populist and extremist actors were only able to celebrate sporadic success at the ballot box in the Federal Republic. After both the first and second waves of right-wing extremism in the early 1950s and late 1960s quickly faded away, a third wave began to surface at the beginning of the 1980s, constituting a constant feature of the political world since. None of the German right-wing extremist and populist actors nonetheless exhibited the ability to permanently establish themselves within the country’s political system. Among the right-wing populist actors that ultimately vanished are the Statt Party from Hamburg, the Bund Freier Bürger (Association of Free Citizens) as well as the Schill Party which also had its roots in Hamburg. The most prominent right-wing extremist actors that have intermittently been able to enter regional parliaments are the npd and the German People’s Union (dvu), with the latter eventually joining the former. Having been established as a far-right conservative splinter off the csu in the early 1980s, the Republikaner quickly transformed themselves into a right-wing populist force under the leadership of Franz Schönhuber, as subsequent years saw an ever-increasing incorporation of right-wing extremist elements into the party’s ideology and organizational structure. After a string of impressive results in a variety of state elections, the party disappeared into electoral oblivion in the mid 1990s as quickly as it had emerged a few years earlier.

Why did right-wing populist sentiments fail to translate into political success for parties espousing such views for such a considerable period of time? Explanations such as the Christian Democrats’ success in politically integrating the right fringe of society until the early 2000s as well as an absence of political discussions surrounding immigration policies only provide a partial answer.6 In particular, as the weakness of right-wing populist parties in the 1990s coincided with an upsurge in other forms of right-wing extremism: from intellectual movements—assembled under the banner of the “New Right”—and xenophobically motivated far-right violent crimes that sometimes took on the form of outright terrorism, to the more recently practiced types of action inspired by the historically leftist “fun” or “communication guerilla” that have been appropriated and adopted by the Identitarian Movement as well as Dresden’s pegida movement, which began organizing anti-immigration street protests in 2014.7

The escalation of the refugee crisis in the fall of 2015, ultimately served as an unexpected catalyst for the AfD’s rise just a few weeks after the exodus of several prominent members of its more moderate wing around co-founder Bernd Lucke had thrown the party into disarray. The assertion made by some that the AfD might have disappeared altogether without this “gift” (Alexander Gauland) does not hold up to closer scrutiny, especially when assessing the developments that triggered the party’s genesis in the first place. The party, on the one hand, filled a void that had been opened by the actions and programmatic shifts of the governing center-right parties of the time (the cdu/csu and fdp), as both the eurozone rescue policies as well as a more liberal approach on sociocultural matters by the cdu constituted the primary political openings for the AfD to exploit. On the other hand, the party already possessed a remarkable degree of organizational strength by the summer of 2015 as a result of previous electoral achievements which allowed it to withstand the split.8

Scholars are divided on whether the rise and success of right-wing populism is attributable to socioeconomic or sociocultural conflicts.9 This debate is reflected within the sociological research of the AfD. While one side sees its voters as the typical losers of globalization or modernization, the other side stresses that the party’s biggest support can be found precisely among those that do not suffer from economic hardships. This attempt to clearly distinguish and contrast economic and cultural factors appears somewhat contrived—it is the interaction and reciprocal reinforcement of the two that accounts for the explosive nature of these conflicts.

Table 1AfD Election Results since 2013 (in percent)
Federal ElectionsElections to the European ParliamentState Elections
20134.7Hesse 4.1
20147.1Brandenburg 12.2
Saxony 9.7
Thuringia 10.6
2015Hamburg 6.1
Bremen 5.5
2016Baden-Württemberg 15.1
Rhineland-Palatinate 12.6
Saxony-Anhalt 24.3
Mecklenburg-West Pomerania 20.5
Berlin 14.2
201712.6Saarland 6.2
Schleswig-Holstein 5.9
North Rhine-Westphalia 7.4
Lower Saxony 6.2

This is particularly true concerning immigration. Right-wing populist actors have, after all, obtained far better electoral results in western and northern Europe than in the south, not least because of the interplay between a high share of a non-native population and the presence of a traditionally comprehensive welfare state.10 The fact that the latter constitutes the most important safeguard against the possible downsides of globalization only makes this tension more relevant.11

Most threats that could jeopardize the AfD’s survival are homemade. The party’s short history has once again illustrated why right-wing challengers have a harder time establishing themselves in Germany than they do in other European countries.12 All fledgling parties face the threat of falling victim to their own organizational incompetence as party officials and members lack both experience and professionalism. Furthermore, the party has to confront the restrictive conditions and environment any political newcomer encounters in the Federal Republic. The primary challenge undoubtedly continues to be the stigmatization of far-right sentiments as a result of the nation’s Nazi legacy. Parties like the AfD, which attempt to present a more moderate face, are always used by right-wing extremist elements as a vehicle to overcome said stigmatization. This entails inevitable conflicts about how to handle unwanted supporters, resulting in discussions that invariably threaten to ruin the party’s internal cohesion and public reputation.13

The dominance of the migrant issue in recent years has drawn even more people from the far-right fringe into the AfD. This is not just the case in the east of the country where parts of the party openly espouse racist and antidemocratic positions. The AfD’s increasing inability (or unwillingness) to credibly distance itself from the far right is exemplified by the party’s handling of the leader of its Thuringia state branch, Björn Höcke. Both Lucke and his successor as leader, Frauke Petry, failed in their endeavor to expel Höcke from the party’s ranks. Höcke, who continues to maintain ties with npd associates of the New Right and whose public speeches frequently employ a rhetoric reminiscent of Germany’s darkest historical chapter, also received some support from the more moderate wing in his attempts to stave off his expulsion. What brought the two together was a shared opposition to Petry. After having been relegated to the sidelines during the 2017 campaign as a result of an increasingly high-handed manner of running the party, Petry herself eventually decided to leave the party just days after its surprisingly strong federal election result of 12.6 percent.

A look at the demand side paints a more promising picture for the right-wing populists. The sentiments that spur support for the AfD can probably best be described by the paired feelings of “anxiety” and “uneasiness.” Anxiety is linked to the socioeconomic state, related to fears about a loss of prosperity, whereas uneasiness is associated with feelings of cultural alienation and the demise of a familiar social order and its moorings.14 Both motives combine to form the desire of limiting government services and benefits to the own, native population (“welfare chauvinism.”)15

That fears related to non-natives are not always highest in places home to the largest concentration of foreigners is nothing new—neither is the finding that far-right sentiments have spread to the heart of society in those areas. The AfD’s electoral performance in the east—where it won around twice as many votes as it did in the west—lends further support to this conclusion. At the same time, results such as these illustrate the political-cultural parallels in place between the former German Democratic Republic and other postcommunist societies in central Europe. Having said that, two thirds of all AfD voters live in the west of the country. Above average results were obtained both in the prosperous southern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, as well as in the Social Democratic heartland of the Ruhr region, the economic state of which leaves much to be desired. Among voters that the AfD captured between 2013 and 2017, 30 percent had a center-right partisan background while 20 percent supported the left-of-center camp in 2013. Moreover, the party did quite well among voters that had previously stayed home on election day, while also siphoning some votes off other smaller parties. This mobilization contributed to a narrowing socioeconomic turnout gap that had already been present in previous state elections.

Figure 2
Figure 2

2017 AfD Voters’ Electoral Choices in 2013

Source: Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 2; 10.3167/gps.2018.360202

Even the most optimistic voices doubt that the AfD will exit the various parliaments it has entered during the next slew of elections. The current combination of supply and demand factors provides the party with a favorable environment, at least in the medium term. Regarding the demand side, decisions made in 2015 and 2016 related to the migration crisis and subsequent challenges concerning the deportation of migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected and the associated “strain” on the country’s welfare system due to the remaining refugees present the AfD with plenty of policy openings. With regards to the supply side, the AfD’s success at the ballot box (having entered fourteen of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments as of early 2018) will allow it to utilize the immense state funds that are made available to parties with parliamentary representation. The party also profits from the structural change that the rise of social media has set off within the general media landscape.16 The tools of social media communication provide the AfD with the ability to directly address potential voters and circumvent traditional media outlets, all while the latter are branded as part of the despised establishment.17

Taking a Political Cue from Austria, the Netherlands, or Scandinavia? The Impact of the Changing Party System on the Formation of Coalitions and the Government

What consequences does the establishment of the AfD within the country’s political party system have on the process of forming a coalition and government? From the perspective of the Christian Democratic sister parties, surprisingly little has changed. Since the AfD—as has been illustrated—also acquired votes from the left, it has become even more difficult (if not impossible) for the spd to obtain a majority beyond the cdu/csu. In that sense, the rise of right-wing populism protects the Christian Democrats’ strategic position of power, in so far as no governing majority can relegate the cdu/csu to the opposition benches. The flip side of this development is an inability on the part of the conservatives to obtain a governing majority of their own with just their traditional coalition partner, the fdp. Instead, this alliance now requires another ally from the other political camp, either the spd or the Greens. Painful compromises that have the potential to further alienate the party’s base appear inevitable in such a coalition context.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Gap Between the Vote Share Won by the cdu/csu and the spd, 1949–2017*

*positive value indicates higher cdu/csu share; negative value indicates higher spd share

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 2; 10.3167/gps.2018.360202

The effects of the transformation of Germany’s party system on the coalition formation process are made readily apparent by developments within Germany’s sixteen states. Along with the increasingly rare instances of outright cdu or spd majorities, twelve or—if you include the different senior/junior coalition partner dynamics—fifteen different coalition arrangements have governed since the 1990s.18 In addition, the pds/Left Party has tolerated two spd and spd/Green minority governments in Saxony-Anhalt and North Rhine-Westphalia. At the time of the official start of Merkel’s third grand coalition (March 2018), just six coalition state governments with members from one political camp (made up of two or three parties) remained in office, in contrast to nine coalitions that required alliances beyond the traditional political divide. Among those were four cdu-spd or spd-cdu coalitions (Saxony, Saarland, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania) two cdu-Green or Green-cdu coalitions (Hesse, Baden-Württemberg), one “traffic light” coalition made up of the spd, Greens, and fdp (Rhineland-Palatinate), one “Jamaica” coalition between the cdu, fdp, and Greens (Schleswig-Holstein) along with a “Kenya” coalition comprised of the cdu, fdp, and Greens (Saxony-Anhalt).

Table 2Coalition Arrangements in Germany’s States since the 1990s
Intrapolitical Camp Coalition of Two PartiesCross-political Camp Coalition of Two PartiesIntrapolitical Camp Coalition of Three PartiesCross-political Camp Coalition of Three Parties
CDU/CSU-FDPCDU/CSU-SPD SPD-CDU/CSU (mostly grand coalitions)CDU/CSU-FDP- SchillSPD-Greens-FDP (traffic light)
SPD-GreensCDU/CSU-Greens Greens-CDU/CSUSPD-Left Party- Greens / Left Party- SPD-GreensCDU/CSU-FDP- Greens (Jamaica)
SPD-Left PartySPD-FDPSPD-Greens-SSW (Danish or coast coalition)CDU/CSU-SPD- Greens (Kenya)

Comparisons between the coalition types found at the German state level and patterns present at the national level in Europe’s multiparty-systems, indicate that the three dominant models of the latter are also represented within the former:

  1. (1)Grand coalitions of the Austrian type are the first model.19 They have been the primary manner of forming governments at the federal level since 2005, with their combined share of the vote however only crossing the two-thirds mark in 2005 and once again in 2013. At the state level, this extent of popular support can currently only be found in Lower Saxony and the Saarland.
  2. (2)The second model is made up of centrist coalitions that span the traditional political divide and are comprised of at least three parties of the political center. Parties located at the left or right fringes are excluded. This model, a staple of Belgian and Dutch coalition governments, can be found in the traffic light, Jamaica, and Kenya coalitions at the German state level. The federal Jamaica coalition would actually have been comprised of four parties if one considers the cdu and csu to be separate entities.
  3. (3)The third model are coalitions limited to one political camp that are tolerated or supported by a fringe party.20 This model dominates Scandinavian politics but has been emulated at the German state level, as mentioned, in only a few exceptional instances. Whenever the exclusion of a fringe party has been overcome, governing parties have preferred to establish a formal coalition agreement. Except for a coalition in the city-state of Hamburg between the cdu, fdp and Schill Party in 2001 that failed to survive a single legislative term, all of these arrangements have been found on the left (Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Berlin, Brandenburg, and Thuringia).

One remarkable feature of the most recent federal election proved to be that in its wake all three models were floated as possible coalition arrangements. Plans for a Scandinavian model were, however, merely of a theoretical nature, in no small part because the proponents of a minority government lacked an understanding of its character and mode of operation. After all, their proposals did not envision a minority government comprised from within one political camp that relied on the toleration by a fringe actor. A minority government of the left tolerated by the Left Party would, of course, have fallen well short of a majority to begin with. On the other side of the partisan divide, the prospect of a center-right minority government tolerated by the AfD never appeared to be a credible alternative as any sort of cooperation with the AfD remains beyond the pale. Instead, the supposed solution was to be an arrangement in which a cdu government or coalition received the support of one or more parties from the other political camp, “ideally” with ever-changing alliances to pass legislation depending on the policy topic of the day, a model that was also presented as raising parliament’s stature vis-à-vis the government. The spd’s primary proponent of this design—usually endorsed by journalists without a hint of criticism—was Malu Dreyer, one of the party’s deputy leaders and state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate. In hindsight, however, her primary role probably was to lay the groundwork for and legitimize the spd’s about-face on the matter of reentering a government with the cdu/csu, in particular in an attempt to soften the party base’s opposition to this reversal.

The Arduous March Towards Another Grand Coalition

On election night, few could foresee the momentous watershed moment the AfD’s entry represented. Protracted or failed coalition negotiations had always been regarded as feature of the political environment of other countries—most recently for example Belgium and the Netherlands—whose months-long search for a government not infrequently elicited pity among German political observers. Any reasons for hubris have disappeared though in the wake of the Jamaica failure. After it had already taken three months to form a grand coalition following the 2013 election, 2017 left Germany with a caretaker government for almost half a year. This also had Europe-wide consequences as France’s dynamic President Emmanuel Macron seized the opportunity to compensate for his country’s recent decline in clout and relevance at the European level by placing himself at the very center of European politics while Merkel continued to be preoccupied with domestic matters.

Table 3Duration Between Federal Election and Swearing-in of Government since Reunification
ElectionNumber of Days Between Federal Election and Swearing-in of GovernmentGovernment
Source: Datenhandbuch zur Geschichte des Deutschen Bundestages, Chapter 6.7, Regierungsbildung, 2017.

As the Social Democrats categorically ruled out another grand coalition just minutes after the polls had closed, a Jamaica alliance between the cdu/csu, fdp, and Greens remained as the sole viable option. Such a partial governmental change appeared justified from a democratic point of view. While both catch-all parties continued to control a majority of seats, the cdu/csu and spd had lost 8.6 and 5.2 percentage points respectively, obtaining their smallest combined share of the vote in the history of the Federal Republic (see Figure 4). Both of the prospective new governmental parties, the fdp and Greens, had on the other hand increased their share of the vote by 5.9 and 0.5 points respectively. The spd was, moreover, able to justify its decision as an act of “political” if not even “national responsibility” as the AfD was placed to take over the role of largest opposition party.

Exploratory talks between the Jamaica parties, which essentially already took on the form of semi-official negotiations, proved to be slow-moving. This could first of all be traced back to an almost unbridgeable gulf on core policy matters like climate protection or refugees, where reconciling the Green position with those of the fdp and cdu/csu was always going to prove hardest, in particular as the csu opted for a tougher stance on migration. At the same, both the cdu and fdp were unable to reestablish a trusting relationship. Feeling pushed to the sidelines during negotiations, the Liberals increasingly worried that they would once again be deprived of oxygen by their larger coalition partner as had been the case during their previous coalition between 2009 and 2013.21 The fdp had entered that particular alliance with its best-ever result only to be ejected from parliament for the very first time four years later. Behind the scenes, the Free Democrats had probably hoped for talks to break down over a disagreement between the Greens and csu on the topic of refugees and migration. As a compromise between the two began to emerge, however, the fdp saw no option but to announce its own departure from coalition talks.

With pressure from the Christian Democrats and an increasingly worried Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier subsequently mounting, the spd was forced to reassess its opposition to another grand coalition. The decision by the party executive to enter exploratory talks with their Christian Democratic counterparts opened a major internal rift.22 It was the party’s youth wing (the Young Socialists) in particular that gave voice to the internal opposition to once again joining Merkel in government. As the spd failed in its attempts to push through a variety of ideological core objectives in initial talks, such as the introduction of a single public health insurance scheme or a hike in the top income tax rate, the party leadership needed the promise of additional amendments23 to any final coalition agreement to win over a majority of delegates (56.4 percent) during a special party conference that determined whether to enter official coalition negotiations—a serious blow to the already wounded party chair Schulz.

That despite these major headwinds, support among spd members for the final coalition agreement turned out to be considerably stronger than the party leadership had expected (66 percent approved of the arrangement in a referendum with a turnout of 78.4 percent) can be traced back to a number of reasons. First, members were aware of the gravity their decision carried—a negative verdict could very well have called the party’s existence into question as the infighting of the previous weeks had already coincided with steady downward trajectory in the spd’s polling numbers (from around 21 percent in mid November to 17 percent by early March). Second, the media’s commentary regarding the agreement painted a rather favorable picture for the spd. Assessments of the final deal concluded that—as in 2013—the spd had obtained policy concessions well beyond what was to be expected given its electoral atrophy. This also applied to the allocation of ministries. While retaining both the Foreign and Labor Ministries, the spd was able to also secure the powerful finance portfolio that had previously been controlled by the cdu. And third, Schulz eventually decided against following through with his plan to join the Merkel government as foreign minister, a move which had caused a fair degree of consternation among the base.24

The Social Democrats were thus able to combine their less-than-enthusiastic entry into government with a (partial) reorientation at the very top. Gabriel, who had just a year earlier relinquished his role as party leader and candidate for the chancellery to Schulz in exchange for the post of foreign minister,25 was snubbed by the new leadership around Andrea Nahles and Olaf Scholz, finding himself out of a job. High approval ratings and a virtually flawless performance in office could not compensate for the bad reputation Gabriel had garnered within his own party as a result of his undisciplined and sometimes abrasive behavior towards other fellow Social Democrats. His seat at the cabinet table was taken by the previous Merkel government’s justice minister, Heiko Maas. Designated party leader Nahles also retained her leadership post within the spd’s parliamentary party group, while Scholz assumed the offices of finance minister and deputy chancellor.

Arguments within the Christian Democratic sister parties in the wake of their worst result since 1949 were not as dramatic but nonetheless still substantial. Most notably, all other debates were overshadowed by doubts even within the cdu’s own ranks concerning the future of a chancellor whose own position appeared more precarious than ever before. Notwithstanding these internal rumblings, Merkel’s position appeared, at least initially, to be bolstered by the potential formation of a new governing alliance. To begin with, the previously untested Jamaica model promised a fresh start for a party and chancellor that had already been in power for twelve years. At the same time, internal disagreements between the sister parties concerning refugees and immigration had been laid to rest before coalition talks began by agreeing on a compromise of a flexible cap of allowing no more than 200,000 refugees annually into the country, a number that was subsequently in principle also backed by both the Greens and fdp, as well as the spd.

The failure of the Jamaica negotiations only confirmed Merkel’s poor track record of handling (potential) coalition partners, a trait she had already exhibited towards the Free Democrats during their first coalition between 2009 and 2013. Following the conclusion of negotiations with the spd, Merkel was even accused of having been taken advantage of by her future coalition partner. With regards to the distribution of ministries, the spd’s share was actually in line with its electoral results (as it obtained six compared to the cdu/csu’s nine posts). Instead, Merkel’s Bavarian sister party received an undue number of three ministerial posts, including the particularly important Interior Ministry.26 Said department was taken over by Horst Seehofer, allowing the veteran politician to stay at the center of the country’s political stage even after having lost his previous post of Bavarian state premier to his unloved rival Markus Söder. That Bavaria’s interior minister Joachim Herrmann represented both the csu’s face during the campaign as well as the leading contender for the job of interior minister, ultimately played no role once the vacant posts were filled.

Keeping a close eye on the Bavarian state elections in the fall of 2018, Seehofer wasted no time in presenting a tougher line on domestic security and migration polices, all with the intent of driving down AfD support by reoccupying more conservative positions. Merkel’s public rebuke of Seehofer following the latter’s comments that “Islam does not belong to Germany,” serves to illustrate though that the intraparty rift on the topic of migration and refugees continues to fester below the surface despite efforts to present a common line. Merkel has sought to assuage critics within her own party by giving the leading figure of the cdu’s conservative wing, Jens Spahn, the post of health minister. Ultimately, Merkel is nonetheless still able to command a following within her own ranks, indicated by her successful endeavor of filling the position of cdu general secretary with a hand-picked political heavyweight, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Contrary to Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer has strong roots within the old west German cdu and enjoys broad support within the party. Her readiness to leave behind the post of minister-president of the Saarland was also widely interpreted as a sign of Kramp-Karrenbauer being well-placed to eventually become Merkel’s successor.


The outcome of the 2017 federal election offered another premiere in the history of the Federal Republic: for the first time a grand coalition will continue to remain in office. The torturous path towards the formation of a new government that forced both partners to put aside the outcome they had preferred in the immediate aftermath of the vote, has entailed a more inauspicious start compared to 2005 and 2013. An ominous sign of the mutual lack of trust exhibited by both partners is the stated goal—also noted in the coalition agreement but missing from previous ones—to take stock of the state of the coalition at the halfway point of the legislative term. This should by no means be interpreted as a potential emergency exit but serves as an indicator that all concerned parties are subjected to enormous pressure after their historically poor election results. Chancellor Merkel’s third grand coalition will therefore likely feature even more internal disagreements than the two previous iterations (2005–2009 and 2013–2017).

Figure 4
Figure 4

Combined cdu/csu and spd Vote Share in Federal Elections 1976–2017 (in percent)

Citation: German Politics and Society 36, 2; 10.3167/gps.2018.360202

The spd is faced with the most daunting challenge. The claim, frequently voiced by opponents of another grand coalition, that the thankless role of junior coalition partner bears the primary responsibility for the party’s dire state, denotes a certain degree of autosuggestion. Admittedly, it will nonetheless be difficult to square the promise of a fundamental Social Democratic regeneration with the constraints of governing. This is even more challenging as the spd is finding it increasingly difficult to credibly occupy positions within the two primary conflict dimensions of the party system. Concerning the topic of immigration and integration, the party has to grapple with the simple fact that potential burdens are primarily shouldered by the lower third of society, in other words the spd’s electoral base. And on socioeconomic and welfare-related questions, the party is inevitably confronted with its own welfare and labor market reforms that have widened the gap between the rich and poor even further.27

Recovering the party’s working-class base is made even more difficult if not impossible by the emergence of a new challenger, the AfD.28 This will be especially true, if Germany’s right-wing populists emulate their European sister parties and abandon economically liberal positions in favor of a more socially populist or protectionist profile.29 Virtually all social democratic avenues to power would then be blocked. If left-of-center majorities are a thing of the past, the spd’s sole hope would be to overturn the positions of senior and junior partners in a grand coalition by once again overtaking the cdu/csu as the strongest party. As polls from the beginning of the election year illustrated, this appears possible given the right circumstances and in conjunction with a compelling policy plan and persuasive political team—but not particularly likely.

The cdu/csu also needs to tread carefully in the new six-party system. If the party is forced to adopt a moderate course in a grand or centrist coalition, it will find it nearly impossible to sharpen its conservative profile or pursue a more nationally minded agenda in an attempt to take on the AfD. Cooperation with the latter would offer the sole escape from this trap. Part and parcel in other European countries, such an alliance is, however, out of the question in Germany due to the country’s political culture. The inability and unwillingness on the part of the AfD to distance itself from extremist tendencies constitutes—as previously illustrated—a notorious problem. Some eastern German cdu state branches may be willing to look past this. The federal party, however, could and would never accept any sort of mere musings about a potential coalition with the AfD anywhere across the country.

Recent developments in east Germany in particular indicate that instead of the Scandinavian model, Germany may experience a synthesis between the Austrian and Dutch designs in future years. The cdu and spd already failed to garner a majority of the vote in any of the six eastern German states (including Berlin) in the 2017 federal election.30 A repeat in the 2019 state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia could force the parties of the grand coalition to include the Greens or fdp as an additional partner, as has been the case in Saxony-Anhalt since 2016. Even a degree of cooperation between the cdu and Left Party no longer appears unthinkable—a rather ironic turn of events in light of the manner in which election campaigns of the past were conducted. The prospect of the fringe parties obtaining “negative” majorities, a scenario that almost materialized in Saxony-Anhalt but was only averted by the Greens barely scraping past the five-percent threshold, is reminiscent of Weimar Germany. It also illustrates the dramatic transformation that has been set into motion by the arrival of right-wing populism on the country’s political stage.


The Free Democrats’ request to be seated in the center (between the Greens and Christian Democrats) rather than between the cdu/csu and AfD did not receive the support of the Bundestag’s council of elders.


See Frank Decker, Bernd Henningsen, and Kjetil Jakobsen, ed., Rechtspopulismus und Rechtsextremismus in Europa: Die Herausforderung der Zivilgesellschaft durch alte Ideologien und neue Medien (Baden-Baden, 2015); Tjitske Akkerman, Sarah L. de Lange, and Matthijs Rooduijn, ed., Radical right-wing populist parties in western Europe: Into the mainstream? (Abingdon, 2016).


See Frank Decker, “The failure of right-wing populism in Germany” in The changing faces of populism: Systemic challengers in Europe and the U.S., ed. Hedwig Giusto, David Kitching, and Stefano Rizzo (Brussels, 2013), 87–106; Frank Decker, “Germany: Right-wing Populist Failures and Left-wing Successes” in Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, ed. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell (Basingstoke, 2008), 119–134.


See Dan Hough and Michael Koß, “Populism Personified or Reinvigorated Reformers? The German Left Party in 2009 and Beyond,” German Politics and Society 27, no. 2 (2009): 76–91, doi: 10.3167/gps.2009.270206.


Before the nomination of Martin Schulz, the AfD was polling at around 13 to 14 percent. By mid summer of 2017, it had dropped to below 8 percent.


See Decker, “The failure of right-wing populism” (see note 3).


See Jörg Michael Dostal, “The Pegida Movement and German Political Culture: Is Right-Wing Populism Here to Stay?” The Political Quarterly 86, no. 4 (2015): 523–531, doi: 10.1111/1467–923X.12204; Hans Vorländer, Maik Herold, and Steven Schäller, pegida and new right-wing populism in Germany (Cham, 2018).


See Frank Decker, “The ‘Alternative for Germany:’ Factors Behind its Emergence and Profile of a New Right-Wing Populist Party,” German Politics and Society 34, no. 2 (2016): 1–35, doi: 10.3167/gps.2016.340201.


See Daniel Oesch, “Explaining Workers’ Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence from Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, and Switzerland,” International Political Science Review 29, no. 3 (2008): 349–373, here 370, doi: 10.1177/0192512107088390; Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge, 2007), 119–137; Jens Rydgren, ed., Class Politics and the Radical Right (Abingdon, 2013).


See Dani Rodrik, “Populism and the Economics of Globalization,” cepr discussion paper, Washington, 2017.


See Duane Swank and Hans-Georg Betz, “Globalization, the welfare state and right-wing populism in Western Europe,” Socio-Economic Review 1, no. 2 (2003): 215–245.


See Frank Decker and Florian Hartleb, “Populism on Difficult Terrain: The Right- and Left-Wing Challenger Parties in the Federal Republic of Germany,” German Politics 16, no. 4 (2007): 434–454, doi: 10.1080/09644000701652466; Simon Bornschier, “Why a right-wing populist party emerged in France but not in Germany: cleavages and actors in the formation of a new cultural divide,” European Political Science Review 4, no. 1 (2012): 121–145, doi: 10.1017/S1755773911000117.


See Roger Karapin, “Radical-Right and Neo-Fascist Political Parties in Western Europe,” Comparative Politics 30, no. 2 (1998): 213–234, here 225, doi: 10.2307/422288.


See Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper, 2016.


See Alexander W. Schmidt-Catran and Dennis C. Spies, “Immigration and Welfare Support in Germany,” American Sociological Review 81, no. 2 (2016): 242–261, doi: 10.1177/0003122416633140.


See Luca Manucci, “Populism and the Media” in The Oxford Handbook of Populism, ed. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy (Oxford, 2017), 467–488.


This has diminished the impact media can have in potentially combatting the rise of populism through the stigmatization of its proponents. See Joost van Spanje and Rachid Azrout, “Tainted Love: How Stigmatization of a Political Party in News Media Reduces Its Electoral Support,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research (forthcoming, 2018), doi: 10.1093/ijpor/edy009. For populism and its use of social media, see Benjamin Krämer, “Populist online practices: the function of the Internet in right-wing populism,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 9 (2017): 1293–1309, doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2017. 1328520.


See Eckhard Jesse, “Die deutsche Koalitionsdemokratie,” Bürger & Staat 67, no. 2–3 (2017): 107–115, here 110ff.


Austria was governed by a grand coalition for forty years over the period of seven decades between 1949 and 2018. During the first period (from 1949 until 1966) under the leadership of the center-right Övp, while the center-left spÖ was at the helm during the second and third periods (1987–2000 and 2007 until 2017).


While a “support” model includes official arrangements between all partners that are not dissimilar to an actual coalition agreement, toleration only extends to certain policy areas. The party that is merely tolerating the government accepts the fact though that the latter may seek support for its policies among other political players.


See Oskar Niedermayer, “Von der dritten Kraft zur marginalen Partei: Die fdp von 2009 bis nach der Bundestagswahl 2013” in Die Parteien nach der Bundestagswahl 2013, ed. Oskar Niedermayer (Wiesbaden, 2014), 103–134.


A day after the collapse of negotiations between the Jamaica parties, Schulz pressured the party executive to once again reiterate its refusal to join another grand coalition, a decision that proved to be a major tactical error in hindsight.


Three issues were specifically mentioned: the family reunification of refugees with subsidiary protection, temporary employment contracts, and an end to a “two-class system of health care.”


Schulz had previously publicly ruled out entering Merkel’s cabinet on a number of occasions.


After the election of then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as federal president, a major spd achievement for which Gabriel could take credit, the office had become vacant.


Both cdu (26.8 percent) and csu (6.2 percent) combined to win 33 percent of the vote with the respective shares constituting a ratio of around 4.3 to 1. Accordingly, the csu should only have received two ministerial posts.


See Sheri Berman, “The Lost Left,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 4 (2016): 69–76, doi: 10.1353/jod.2016.0063.


This is a common problem for Europe’s social democrats. See René Cuperus, “Social democracy and the populist challenge” in Why the left loses: The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective, ed. Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy (Bristol, 2018), 185–202; Frank Decker, “The Plight of the spd as a Reflection of the Crisis of European Social Democracy,” Journal of Social Democracy 7, no. 2 (2018): 21–25.


See Kai Arzheimer, “Working Class Parties 2.0? Competition between centre-left and extreme right parties” in Class Politics and the Radical Right, ed. Jens Rydgren (Abingdon, 2013), 75–90; Sarah L. de Lange, “A new winning formula? The Programmatic Appeal of the Radical Right,” Party Politics 13, no. 4 (2007): 411–435, doi: 10.1177/1354068807075943.


The AfD and Left Party won a combined 39.7 percent of the vote in the east, compared to a share of 18.1 percent in the west. The parties of the grand coalition won a respective 41.5 and 56.0 percent.

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Contributor Notes

Frank Decker is a professor at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology, Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn, Germany. His main research interests focus on problems of institutional reforms in Western democracies, party systems, and right-wing populism. Recent publications include Handbuch der deutschen Parteien, co-edited with Viola Neu (Wiesbaden, 2018), Europas Ende, Europas Anfang, co-edited with Jürgen Rüttgers (Frankfurt, 2017) and Der Irrweg der Volksgesetzgebung (Bonn, 2016). E-mail:

Philipp Adorf is a research assistant at the University of Bonn. His past research has focused on the transformation of the Republican Party since the 1960s, published as How the South was won and the nation lost (Bonn, 2016). More recently, his scholarly attention has turned to the success of right-wing populist actors among blue-collar voters that had previously supported center-left parties. E-mail:

  • View in gallery

    Combined Vote Shares of the Left-of-Center (spd, Greens, pds/The Left) and Right-of-Center Parties (cdu/csu, fdp, AfD) in Federal Elections since 1994

  • View in gallery

    2017 AfD Voters’ Electoral Choices in 2013

    Source: Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.

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    Gap Between the Vote Share Won by the cdu/csu and the spd, 1949–2017*

    *positive value indicates higher cdu/csu share; negative value indicates higher spd share

  • View in gallery

    Combined cdu/csu and spd Vote Share in Federal Elections 1976–2017 (in percent)


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