An Introduction to German Politics and the Election

In a little over a week, on 24 September 2017, Germans will vote in the Federal Election to elect the 19th Bundestag, which is essentially the lower (and more important) house of parliament. All eligible voters can cast two votes. The first is for a direct candidate. Whoever gets the primary votes in a given district is elected to the Bundestag, while runner-ups getting nothing. Essentially primary votes work just like the general election in Britain. The second, more important vote is for a party. All parties who get at least five per cent of the total votes are represented proportionally in the parliament (more or less; it’s complicated).

Once they have been elected, the members of the Bundestag elect the new Chancellor. Because party representation is, roughly speaking, determined by a proportional, national vote, it is very rare for any party to get an absolute majority (the only time that happened was in 1957), which means you need to have a coalition government. Currently there are four parties in the Bundestag, and there are another two parties that narrowly missed the five per cent threshold in 2013, but will almost certainly make it this time. In this post, I will go through all six relevant parties, as well as discuss coalition options and predictions. With each party, I will give you the lowest and highest recent poll results (in per cent) according to

Union (CDU/CSU): 36.5 – 38.5

The Union is actually a permanent coalition of two parties (hence the name). The CDU is on the ballot in all German Bundesländer other than Bavaria, while the CSU is only on the ballot in Bavaria. The Union is currently by far the strongest party and is the party of the reigning Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Under Merkel’s leadership, the Union, formerly a conservative party, has moved more toward the centre, essentially becoming a party that stands out only through its extereme moderation. They are luke warm supporters of capitalism, moderate proponents of law and order, they are more or less on board with environmentalism, are kind of, sort of in favour of feminist measures such as a women’s quota for the advisory board of publicly listed corporations, and have reluctantly agreed to legalise gay marriage. The one thing were they have taken a firm stand is on keeping a balanced budget, in large part due to the influence of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Social Democrats (SPD): 20 – 24

The SPD is a former socialist party that has gradually transformed into a moderate centre-left party. In particular, the party moved toward the centre under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, although it has shifted somewhat to the left since his days. The SPD is the second of the two major parties and has historically been somewhat less successful than the Union, and this is true especially in recent years, with the SPD only getting 23.0 and 25.7 per cent in the last two elections. The SPD is part of the current coalition government and counts the Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, among its members. The SPD is basically a carbon copy of the Union, shifted slightly to the left. If you’re looking for a party that is more boring and bland than the Union, the Social Democrats are your best bet.

The Greens: 6 – 9

The Greens are a left-wing environmentalist party, which is currently part of the opposition. The so-called “Realo” or realist wing of the Green party is essentially a slightly greener version of the CDU, while the idealist wing of the party is fairly radical in its environmentalism. The Greens (and in particular the idealists) are anti-war, tend to view business with suspicion and tend to be fully on board with feminism to the point of massively discriminating against their male members.

The Left: 8 – 10.5

The Left is a socialist party which emerged as the result of a merger of the PDS, the successor party of the GDR’s socialist ruling party, and the WASG, a left-wing splinter group of the SPD that split off in response to Gerhard Schröder’s centrist course. Accordingly, party members range from disgruntled social democrats to old-school communists. The Left is currently part of  the opposition and hasn’t yet participated in any government at the federal level.

Free Democrats (FDP): 8 – 10

The Free Democrats are a moderate classical liberal party, which tends to favour free enterprise, lower taxes, less surveillance, and less governmental interference with people’s personal lives. They narrowly missed the five per cent threshold at the last election, but have been represented in every Bundestag except for the current one. Despite always being a minor party, they have been part of as many governments as the Union. This is because they often played a kingmaker role by deciding which of the two major parties to form a coalition with.

Alternative for Germany (AfD): 8 – 12

The Alternative for Germany is a conservative, nationalist, and Eurosceptic party. It is the youngest of the six relevant parties, having been founded in 2013. The AfD has been very critical of the government’s permissive course toward asylum seekers, which in turn has led to the AfD being attacked as racist and xenophobic. The AfD narrowly missed the five per cent threshold at the 2013 election, but is almost guaranteed to make its Bundestag debut after this year’s election.

Possible Coalitions

Since it is very unlikely for any party to reach an absolute majority, we will almost certainly see a coalition government. In the past fifty years, there have been four different kinds of coalitions: 1) Grand coalitions between the two major parties, Union and SPD, as we have currently. 2) Black-yellow coalitions between the Union and the SPD, as we had from 2009 to 2013. 3) Red-yellow coalitions between the SPD and the FDP, as was the case during the 1970s. 4) Red-green coalitions between the SPD and the Greens, which we had from 1998 to 2005.

Of these options, only 1) and 2) are realistic, as the numbers for the other two simply aren’t there. If a black-yellow coalition is possible, that is probably what we will get. Otherwise it will likely be another grand coalition. Since the other parties do not want to work with the Left and the AfD, the number of possible novel coalitions is low. The only really realistic scenario is a coalition between Union, FDP, and the Greens. Three party coalitions are difficult to make work and the ideological distance between the Greens and the FDP is likely too large.

So what things come down to is whether the Union and the FDP have a majority. According to most recent polls, they have a slight majority, so at this point it is impossible to predict whether the numbers for a black-yellow coalition will be good enough. If they are not, a grand coalition is much more likely than a three-party coalition. Note that in all of these scenarios, the Union will be part of the government as the biggest party. This means that Angela Merkel will almost certainly continue being Chancellor. And even though I disagree with Merkel on quite a number of issues, that is perhaps not such a bad thing.

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