“Regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg on 1 September illustrated where this will probably lead to: in both states the ruling parties CDU (in Saxony) and SPD (in Brandenburg) lost heavily and are now trying to include the Greens in a larger coalition. This may be exactly what lies ahead for the country as a whole.’
Regional elections in Brandenburg and Saxony herald what may be the future of Germany:
The end of political stability, multi-party governments like in Italy
For a number of years now, Germans have been looking on in wonder as chaos and mayhem erupted in the political systems of large parts of Western Europe. Traditional parties collapsed, new ones became dominant almost overnight, calling for radical change in some way or other. Only Germany, it seemed, remained stable and aloof.
True, a new rightwing party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) had emerged and prospered. But under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been at the helm for 14 years now, a “Grand Coalition” of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) enjoyed a safe majority in parliament. These parties once were the two poles of a two-party system but had, thanks to Merkel’s strategy of moving the originally conservative CDU more to the left, become almost indistinguishable. That opened a space to the right, where the AfD moved in – but without collapsing the system.
Opinion polls showed that many Germans wished for one thing: that nothing should change.
But now it is Germany’s turn. An incremental erosion of the traditional party landscape over the past few years has reached a tipping point where rapid change is at hand. Angela Merkel will not run for chancellor again. CDU/CSU and SPD will probably not be able to form a majority in the Bundestag after the next elections in 2021. Currently (end of August) SPD is polling at 13–16 per cent (elections 2017:20.5), CDU/CSU around 25–28 per cent (2017:32.9).
Regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg on 1 September illustrated where this will probably lead to: in both states the ruling parties CDU (in Saxony) and SPD (in Brandenburg) lost heavily and are now trying to include the Greens in a larger coalition. This may be exactly what lies ahead for the country as a whole. Such coalitions will necessarily be more to the left and more fragile than what we are used to from German politics.
Quo vadis mainstream?
The Social Democrats especially are in dire straits and looking for new leaders. That process will take until December.
The way forward for them may lead to the left. Where else? Their woes have a lot to do with Merkel’s push to the left over the past 10 years or more, robbing the SPD of its left-centrist themes. So SPD must become “lefter” to regain profile.
Olaf Scholz, currently Minister of Finance and the man originally regarded as the man most likely to become the new party chief (more precisely co-chief with Klara Geywitz – the new fashion in German leftwing politics demands a male-female duo at the helm as proof of progressive spirit) has already indicated that he is willing to form a coalition with the Greens and the “Linke” (“left”) party. Die Linke is the post-Communist incarnation of the former East German Communist party SED.
That breaks a taboo: until now, the very basis of the CDU/CSU–SPD partnership was an understanding that SPD would not, on a national level, embrace the Linke, and CDU–CSU would not cooperate with AfD. Scholz has also called for a new “wealth tax”.
With that, Scholz is the most conservative of a slew of candidates. But he has fared poorly in his first appearances in front of SPD members, who will get to decide in the end. He started as the the clear front runner but now experts wonder wether he can survive. All other candidates position themselves even more to the left.
The way forward for CDU/CSU also leads to the left. The nominally conservative Christian Democrats are aiming for an understanding with the surging Greens to potentially replace or at least supplement the declining SPD as a coalition partner. Any such solution would mean a government more to the left than the current one. Already CDU/CSU political communication is becoming more Green-compatible.
CDU also has a leadership problem, like SPD: Merkel has tried to establish the current Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as her successor, and made her the new party chief. But AKK, as she is usually referred to, has made a number of tactical mistakes, is under pressure from the left and it is at this point not certain at all that she will lead her party into the next elections.
A tale of two Germanys: green and blue
While there are two years to go until 2021, and things can change rapidly in politics, any rapid change is unlikely to favour the ruling parties. The European elections in May signalled a tectonic shift in Western Germany, shattering the Social Democrats and elevating the Greens to sudden dominance. Their unexpectedly high result of 20.5 per cent (2014:10.7) kick-started a green surge in opinion polls that has not abated since then. Currently they are polling at around 21–26 per cent, a startling increase compared to the 8.9 per cent they got in the 2017 elections. At least one current poll has seen them in front of even CDU/CSU. Media are beginning to predict that the next chancellor will be Green.
While the Greens are becoming dominant in the West German political discussion, in the East it is a different matter. Here as well, the traditional governing parties are struggling, but the main beneficiary is the conservative AfD. Regional elections in two East German states (Brandenburg and Saxony) on 1 September shrank SPD to the size of a splinter party in Saxony (below 8 per cent) and brought massive gains for AfD. The party doubled its result of 2014 in Brandenburg with nearly 24 per cent and almost tripled it in Saxony with 27.5 per cent. However, both incumbent parties, SPD in Brandenburg and CDU in Sachsen, managed to remain the respective strongest parties in their regions, although losing heavily compared to 2014. Another regional election in the Eastern German state of Thüringen on 27 October is projected to bring similar results.
Eastern Germany is thus becoming a laboratory for what may await the country as a whole: CDU and SPD will try to form coalitions with the Greens in both regions. On German public TV this was applauded as “stability” although it surely represents the most fragile coalition formula these regions, and Germany, have ever seen.
The elephant in the room: the most stable coalition would technically be one between CDU and AfD in Sachsen (but not in Brandenburg). Public Television ZDF, in their election night coverage, did not even offer a graph to visualise the huge majority CDU and AfD would have together, on the grounds that such an option was “excluded by all parties”.
Not so simple: CDU managed to survive as strongest force by adopting AfD themes and avoiding language offensive to AfD voters. The two parties’ voters have more in common than their leaderships. 23 per cent of new AfD voters came from CDU.
Two thirds of voters think, according to opinion polls, that AfD is extremist and dangerous and bad for the country. AfD thus finds itself in a double quarantine – excluded as a potential coalition partner, and branded as extremist. The party itself is trying to break out of that quarantine, and if ever it succeeds in changing voter perceptions, it may well become a contender for power.
A tale of two Germanys: Green in the West, blue (the colour of AfD) in the East. Not just the parties, but the themes that brought them success. Security, migration, social equality (or the lack thereof) in the East. In the Western part of the country, it is all about saving the world from climate change.
Older generations may shrug at this as being irrational nonsense that will go away as quickly as it came. They would be wise not to. The “Green Wave” is set to grow rather than disappear. Young adults, especially in the cities, overwhelmingly prefer the Greens to traditional parties. That is true even for the large cities in Eastern Germany. The Greens scored lower than predicted in Brandenburg and Saxony (8–10 rather than 15 per cent) but that was because many Green voters preferred to support the ruling parties (CDU in Saxony and SPD in Brandenburg) in order to prevent AfD from becoming the strongest political force. Even so, they achieved their best result ever in both states.
At the European elections in May, only 13 per cent of young voters (defined as 18–29 years old) voted CDU/CSU and less than 10 per cent for SPD. The Greens got 33 per cent in this age group.
Pollsters have found another correlation, one that is not specific to East or West: support for AfD is greatest, in both Eastern and Western Germany, where depopulation is most pronounced. And the Greens do best where the population grows.
Eastern Germany is suffering from acute depopulation in rural areas and small towns, so AfD does best here. According to pollsters it has something to do with a worry, amongst those who remain and see their towns and villages empty, that their culture may be dying out.
Looking forward, then, the Green phenomenon is perhaps a more decisive factor for the future of German politics than the rise of AfD in the East. The green electorate is young and dynamic, AfD voters tend to be somewhat older, with a more defensive mindset. The party’s phase of rapid growth seems to have crested. Nationally they are polling at 12–14 per cent and although they vastly improved their results in Brandenburg and Saxony compared to earlier regional elections there, they failed to repeat their result at the European elections in May – where they had come out as the strongest political force in the East. On the national level at this stage they might only slightly be able to improve on their results in the 2017 elections.
What it all means
Traditional parties are beginning to understand that they are threatened with extinction if they do not latch on to the spirit of the times.
And so the political discourse in Western Germany, which is more populous and thus matters most in terms of political power, goes like this: the Greens set radical themes, and the ruling parties try to come up with a way of outdoing them with something bold and green. A race is one between all political actors to be the greenest of all. That includes AfD.
The only ones to benefit will probably be the Greens themselves – their themes now dominate the national discussion, and they do not have to risk anything – words are all they need. They are not in power.
But when the governing parties try to adopt their themes, this turns into rules, laws and taxes, with a huge potential impact for the structure of the entire economy, society and the rest of Europe. Anything they do ends up hurting someone and benefiting someone else.
Chancellor Merkel has shown that she is willing to bring about “disruptive change” and be greener than the Greens. She decreed a sudden exit from nuclear energy after a Tsunami wrecked the nuclear plant of Fukushima in Japan in 2011. On top of that, Germany wants to stop using coal.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the new Chairwoman of CDU and Defence Minister, published a “green manifesto” in the Sunday paper Welt am Sonntag, centred around the catchword “Green Zero”. Traditionally, “Black Zero” has been the battle cry of CDU/CSU, meaning a balanced budget. Green Zero still stands for balance, meaning the government does not intend to increase public debt. But “Green” means an intention to revamp the entire economy.
The core point is to make carbon dioxide emissions more “expensive” in order to arrive at a “carbon dioxide-neutral economy”.
“It means changing our whole economy, the fabric of society”, says Robin Alexander, deputy editor of the newspaper Die Welt and widely regarded as the most incisive expert on CDU policies. Making carbon dioxide more expensive will produce winners but also losers. A good many of them will be in Eastern Germany, a major producer of brown coal. This is bound to exacerbate the tension between green, world-saving Western Germany and the increasingly blue, no-nonsense East.
A “climate cabinet” within the government has been tasked with working out a concept. It may take a while, but it will come and it will move the goal posts for many companies and consumers. Will it make Germany more modern and competitive? Or, already at the brink of recession, will it sink the economy? Already Germany has the highest electricity prices in Europe. Other things will become more expensive: flying, heating, meat. A greener economy translates into a lower standard of living. Apart from the climate, the only beneficiaries will be companies that produce eco-friendly things, and the state – because it will raise more taxes.
The new ecologism that from now on is to be expected from Germany is bound to drive a quest for common EU policies, rules and standards in all areas that can be argued to be relevant for the issue. That is, pretty much all areas that matter. Already the new (and German) EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has announced ambitious plans for a carbon dioxide-neutral EU by 2050.
Central Europe and the new Germany
What does a “lefter”, “greener” and politically more fragile Germany mean for Hungary and more generally for Central Europe?
Poland and Hungary have already spotted how they can use the new green fashion. They will use it to counter EU budget plans aimed at shrinking their share of EU cohesion funds. The intention in Brussels is to “discipline” countries that do not respect the “rule of law”, and to give more money to countries that take in migrants and refugees. That translates into more money for the most ailing economies of the Euro zone (i.e. Italy and Greece), and less for the poorer, but more solidly managed and more rapidly growing economies of Central Europe.
For them, the green craze offers a way out. carbon dioxide-neutral economy? Very expensive, they say. But give us the money and we can do it.
In fact they are pretty good at carbon dioxide-neutrality already. Hungary has reached 90 per cent of the current EU goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent compared to 1990.
Using the climate argument for other, politically manipulative purposes can work the other way round, of course. Proponents of a more integrated Europe will argue that Climate is too big a problem for nation states to solve. A more leftwing Germany may well lead the charge in the years to come and argue that states need to give up even more of their sovereignty in order to save the planet. A “watermelon” Germany: Green on the outside, red inside. If Germany tries to lead the EU in that direction, this will bring on more tension with Central European countries who refuse to give up more of their sovereignty.
A lot will depend on how power can change the German Greens. Will they be able to embrace “Realpolitik”, a pragmatic approach towards Central Europe, Russia, China and the USA, whom so far they despise? Or will progressive ideologues win the day?
On the other side, governments in Hungary and Central Europe would be well-advised to think ahead and engage the Greens in a sensible manner, rather than just insulting them.
Obviously Germany is important as the strongest country in Europe. But “strength” without leadership means little. Can Germany lead at all? Apart from sliding to the left, it is also becoming more fragmented.
In fact, not much vision or leadership has come from Germany over the past few years. In the electoral campaign of 2017, neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD said much about their ideas for the future of the EU, and that has not changed.
The Greek finance crisis starting in 2009 did see resolute and beneficial German leadership. But ever since the migrant crisis of 2015, when Berlin allowed itself to become driven by events rather than driving them, the dominant voices in the European discussion have come from France under its new president Emmanuel Macron and – well, Hungary, or more generally the Visegrád group of Central European countries.
In many ways Macron and Hungar’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán represent opposing poles. Europe would benefit from a centrist Germany to act as a balancing influence, but for that to happen, Germany must first know what she wants.
What she wants can only be what her ruling parties can agree on. That is difficult enough at the moment. The desperate SPD as the junior partner in government believes shrill demands and political blockades will sharpen her profile and stop her decline. Incredibly, they forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to not vote for the German candidate Ursula von der Leyen as new president of the EU commission.
Any future government in Germany may well have to consist of three parties. The ruling coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD, at the moment, stands at only a little more than 40 per cent in opinion polls.
Only CDU/CSU and Greens may have a chance of forming a two-party majority. Apart from that, a number of three-party options can be imagined that probably mean “chaos” for the average German voter used to tranquil political stability.
There is only one way for a conservative-liberal government to come about: if somehow the rightwing AfD is released from political quarantine and invited to form a government with CDU/CSU and perhaps the liberal FDP.
That would be the “Austrian model” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has praised as the way forward in Europe. But the Austrian model, a coalition between the traditional conservative ÖVP and the rightwing FPÖ, did not go well. It sank when a cringe-inducing, secretly filmed video of FPÖ-chief Strache proposing to buy and manipulate independent media became public.
Any coalition with AfD runs the risk of failing for similar reasons. The party is a playground for too many political adventurers with problematic personal profiles. At any rate, all other parties have excluded cooperating with AfD.
The post-war political landscape until the 1970s consisted of CDU/CSU to the right, SPD to the left, and FDP in the middle, often acting as kingmaker. In the 1970s the Greens appeared as an additional party to be reckoned with. Now, the weakened traditional parties have to contend, on top of that, with AfD and the post-Communist Linke. Both are prominent in Eastern Germany – an afterglow of its history as a separate state under Communism.
Six parties instead of three – Germany is beginning to resemble other European countries where stable governments are the exception, not the rule.
Add to that the future political consequences of migration. Germany’s demography is rapidly changing as a result of massive immigration. In the not so far future, these new segments of society will represent a growing part of the electorate and have considerable impact on election results. No one knows what this will mean. Only one thing is sure – it will mean change, as opposed to stability.