The German election campaign is still slow-moving. And it’s certainly not going to be shaken out of its lethargy by the recent comments made by Social Democratic Party’s Family Affairs Minister Katarina Barley. Her criticisms of Angela Merkel’s political style seem to be more of a knee jerk reaction to the SPD’s further drop in the opinion polls by one percentage point rather than a move to step up the pace of the election campaign. The poll conducted by the newspaper Bild am Sonntag in fact shows support for the Social Democrats down at 24 percent, about 14 percentage points lower than their adversaries. This also accounts for Merkel taking a three-week vacation as lowering the tone of the election would serve her interests both on the right and, as we shall see, even more on the left. It would also give the positive trend set by the regional elections the chance to consolidate over the coming weeks.
A coalition government solution?
The time-weighted average of voting intentions calculated by the Financial Times shows that the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, should comfortably win a majority. And the prospect of Angela Merkel’s likely re-election contributes further to lowering the political temperature at home and to a phlegmatic attitude in the international arena which, particularly in Europe, would draw comfort from Germany’s continued stability.
It should be borne in mind, however, that due to the structure of Germany’s electoral system, the expected CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and CSU (Christian Social Union) vote according to the current polls might still not deliver a majority of seats in the new parliament. The requirement for a party to win at least 5 percent of the national vote to get into parliament leads to a seat distribution that is quite close to the proportions of the popular vote won by the political parties in the running. And, as things stand, even the significant and growing advantage enjoyed by the CSU and CDU vis-à-vis the Social Democrats doesn’t preclude the possibility of a coalition government. The fragmentation of the German political arena makes it complicated for both the SPD and CDU/CSU to rule in coalition with other parties. Thus, some political commentators feel that a coalition government similar to the one currently in office should be considered as a likely outcome of the election. To Chancellor Merkel, a coalition with the FDP would no doubt be preferable, in what would be a repeat of the 2009-2013 coalition government that supported her during her second term in office and before the birth of the AfD. But with the polls suggesting a vote for the FDP at around 9 percent, plus the share of the vote for the CDU/CSU, that still wouldn’t add up to a significant majority. It comes to almost exactly half the seats.
Populist votes hold the balance of power
The now fairly likely entry of the AFD (anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany) in the federal parliament changes the scenario, making comparisons with the four-year term of 2009-2013 quite misleading. According to the current polls, Chancellor Merkel should paradoxically extend her coalition to include the Greens. Considering the latter’s positions, however, this would be a complicated choice. At the same time, a recent survey carried out by the Bertelsman Foundation, showing that 34 percent of Germans only partially support populist solutions, suggests that CDU/CSU voters are less exposed to the populist appeal. According to its findings, only 40 percent of Christian Democratic voters are liable to yield to populist opinions. Paradoxically, among Social Democratic and left-wing voters the proportion is around 50 percent.
In conclusion, in order to win the federal election Chancellor Merkel needs two or three more percentage points which she could gain by winning populist votes, and not exclusively from among AfD voters. This actually explains Merkel’s determination to tone down any disputes with the SPD. The Chancellor needs to win over those on the left who are most responsive to populist appeals but will not actually yield to them. This will necessarily entail some backtracking on the issue of migration.
Germany’s September 24 elections are thus by no means decided, and they are far less of a foregone conclusion than the above considerations might suggest. They are still open to a variety of different outcomes and ruling party combinations that will only become clearer in the coming weeks.