Nearly everybody was counting on a victory of Angela Merkel and the CDU and betting on a grand coalition in Germany, which is, indeed, the most likely outcome of this election. However, few thought the result would be so overwhelmingly in favor of Merkel and equally few thought the FDP (the Liberals) would be outvoted – after having been ejected from the Bavarian Landtag the previous week. For the last six decades, Germans have approved of having a liberal party in parliament – regardless of its performance- and their failure to overcome the 5% barrier is a historical moment. The FDP lost an astonishing two-thirds of its electorate, though we do need to bear in mind that the previous election result of 14.6% was an unusually good result. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a new euro-skeptic party founded this year, took crucial votes from the liberal-conservative milieu and contributed to the FDP’s failure, harvesting a respectable 4.7% for themselves.
These elections are above all a personal victory for Merkel, who, largely without any discernible program, has won over a German electorate concerned with the amount of funds going to the European bailout program. Merkel’s “Personenkult” – the SPIEGEL, Germany’s most important weekly featured her in the posture of a Queen with royal insignia in its last edition before the elections – made waves. Precisely because of the fact her election campaign was dull and fairly vacant and she sought to avoid confrontation at all turns, Merkel’s campaign went down very well amongst large swathes of German society, especially among older voters and women. Given this, her current nickname “Mutti” (Mommy) might now better be changed to “Oma” (“Granny”).
Demography is thus starting to play an influential role in the German elections, with the country seemingly heading for a more structural conservatism which focuses on “saving”. In comparison to other European countries, Germany is enjoying relative prosperity and most Germans see Merkel as responsible for this. The detectable message of this election is that Germans view tranquility, safety and security for Germany as a priority. We are doing just fine thank you, why should we concern ourselves with Europe’s problems?
Many Europeans have welcome the result; but many also were actually puzzled by the surprisingly strong performance of Merkel. For sure, Merkel – perhaps next to Wolfgang Schäuble – is one of the few politicians in Germany who has institutional knowledge of the Euro-crisis. This points to continuity with respect to the future euro-crisis management – and may actually be a valuable factor even for those who did not appreciate the way Merkel hasreacted to the European debt crisis so far. Europe is in stable hands, and will not be taking any great risks.
But is this good for Europe? The answer will largely depend on the coalition agreement; and, if it is to be a grand coalition, on the bargaining power and the leverage of the Social Democrats (SPD). Despite her own good result, receiving 41.5% of the votes, Merkel just missed out on an absolute majority in parliament. Due to the German parliamentary system she needs the SPD more than ever as a coalition partner. The SPD, however, is not rushing to form a grand coalition, as it nearly lost its identity as a party during the last grand coalition. While the SPD received 2% more of the total votes than in 2009 (25.7%), put into historical perspective, this is still a poor performance for a former mass party accustomed to getting around 35-40%. The SPD has now lost a third consecutive election after the painful “Harz IV” labor market reforms they introduced a decade ago, which turned a huge part of the blue-collar electorate against them. The SPD continues to hemorrhage support to the more radical Left Party, this time losing another 1.2 million votes to them. As the Left Party contains elements of the former ruling party of East Germany, for the SPD it is politically unthinkable to consider them as a potential coalition partner. Thus, despite the fact that theoretically a left-of-center coalition of the Left, the SPD and the Greens would enjoy a majority in parliament, the SPD has already ruled this out.
Having argued that a grand coalition may prove difficult to arrange, a Conservative-Green alliance seems even more problematic. The Greens have learned from past experience in state governments that coalitions with the Christian Democrats can alienate the left-leaning part of their support base. In the weeks running up to the elections, the Greens were damaged by their proposal to enforce a veggie day on canteens across the land, and especially by accusations of pedophilia leveled at some leadership figures. Already disappointed at their poor performance in these elections, in which their share of the vote dropped from 10.7% in 2009 to 8.4%, the Greens would be reluctant to enter a national coalition which could, as has happened with the FDP, see them consigned to the annuals of history.
One of these parties will, nonetheless, have to make compromises and join a ruling coalition. As both parties have a slightly more pro-European orientation and a clearer European vision than the CDU, Germany’s policy is likely to shift slightly to the left on issues like banking union and thus become amenable to European voices clamoring for an end to austerity.