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A political primer for Germany's election on September 27

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A political primer for Germany's election on September 27
Photo: DPA
08:08 CEST+02:00
With just over a month left until Germany's general election on September 27, Dr. Jackson Janes from the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University offers a political primer of what's at stake for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Germans will spend the next four weeks trying to sort out who they want to run their country and for whom they will vote. Of course Germans don't vote for people directly. They vote for parties, and more specifically, lists of parties prepared for them to consider on election day. That said, it is a safe bet that a lot of Germans are going to vote for the party led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her popularity is riding at an all time high and dwarfs that of her challenger, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In a presidential election system such as in the United States, she would win handily.

The problem is that Merkel's personal popularity has not transferred to her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), though they are far ahead of Steinmeier's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the current polls. And that, among other things, makes predictions about September 27 dicey. While a majority of Germans currently expect that a new coalition will be formed by the conservatives and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), a lot can happen in the meantime. And German voters are simply not as reliable as they once were.

After four years of the CDU/SPD coalition, it would seem that Germany is looking for a new political equation in Berlin. The so-called grand coalition, forced together by the inconclusive election result of 2005, is desired by neither side. The CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party the CSU, wants to govern with the Free Democrats. The SPD would prefer a traffic light (red, yellow, and green) coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats, primarily because a three-way coalition is probably the only way Steinmeier can become chancellor. The trouble with that latter scenario is neither the Greens nor the FDP believe they can work with each other, either in a three-way coalition with the SPD or with the conservatives.

Coasting on her popularity?

Even with the current tailwind in the polls, what will it take for Merkel and FDP leader Guido Westerwelle to win a majority? Merkel is almost coasting on her personal popularity and is not making dramatic campaign promises. She did that four years ago and got slammed at the end of the campaign by advocating overly ambitious reforms, resulting in a forced marriage with the SPD.

But she also knows that the political parties are all suffering from a problem of voter mobilisation. In the case of the CDU, she saw that in the state elections of Hesse last year and she also saw the CSU losing its majority in Bavaria for the first time in decades. The CDU may also find itself losing ground in the upcoming state elections in the Saarland, Thuringia and Saxony on August 30. That said, the SPD's membership is now less than that of the CDU, and it claims the leaders of only a handful of the sixteen state governments.

Merkel has stated clearly that if people want her to stay as chancellor, they need to vote for the CDU. But can she pull enough of those votes nationally? Can the CSU pull enough to be adding enough numbers in Bavaria after the defeat last year? Maybe the high profile role of Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is going to be critical for both the CDU as well as his own party, the CSU. But that alone won't win the election for them.

The FDP as kingmaker

And then there is the question of the Free Democrats, currently enjoying some of its highest poll numbers ever, in the mid-teens. At a point where the economy is the centre of attention in Germany, the FDP's main mantra has been about the need for tax cuts. Amidst an exploding level of national debt and economic nervousness, the question is whether German voters will put their trust in such a platform. Again, Merkel still has the scars of the 2005 election when she went too far in her reform platform, so she will likely be hesitant to embrace some of the FDP's plans.

Despite the pronounced preference of both the FDP to forge a coalition with the conservatives, it is not an automatic formula for synergy once in office. There is a lot of daylight between the FDP and the CSU on tax issues, agricultural policies, and employment regulation. One hears a lot sniping as well between Merkel's party and Westerwelle's, particularly about the intentions of the FDP when it comes to forging a coalition, something that Westerwelle has stated but that the party has not yet officially voted on. Previous conservative-liberal coalitions were not all smooth and this one would be no exception.

Fluctuating Constituencies

At this point, predicting voter behaviour on September 27 may be about as difficult as predicting the weather in a month's time. The parties' constituencies – all of them – are in flux. Formal memberships in both of the conservative parties as well as the SPD have been declining for years. Predictors of election behaviour, like trade union membership or church affiliation, are less reliable. Some disaffected SPD supporters have drifted to the hard-line socialist party The Left, which may be able to form a government with the SPD in state elections coming up in Thuringia and Saarland on August 30. Other voters will not make up their minds until right before election day. Much will depend on the perception of the economic storm clouds headed for Germany and on whom voters think can best steer through them.

Without people assigned to a small set of political silos, it makes Germany's old two party formula – big party-small party government like Chancellors Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder had – only one outcome possible among several others in a Bundestag with five parliamentary groups represented in it. The parties might have to get used to building unaccustomed and unwieldy three-way coalitions to govern.

On election day, we will be watching to a large extent how the German voters are evaluating Chancellor Merkel's performance during the past four years, whether that evaluation leads some to want to support her expressed wish for a coalition with the Free Democrats, and whether the two parties can earn sufficient support to form a majority in the Bundestag. Yet within the ranks of the CDU, the CSU, and the FDP as well as the increasing number of unaffiliated voters, there is a wide variety of interests and voters who will be making their decisions in anything but a lockstep way. That is what makes the outcome more unpredictable.

If Merkel and Westerwelle miss the mark, it will be a very complicated game of chess in October in Berlin. A continuation of the grand coalition would be a difficult sell among the Social Democrats, especially the younger generations aspiring to inherit the leadership of the retiring older guard. They could push for a traffic light coalition if the numbers work, presuming the Free Democrats and the Greens would be amenable. Some are already open to a coalition with The Left, but that won't happen this time around because the socialists appear unready to govern at the federal level. In the meantime, relations with the Social Democrats and the Left Party will evolve more at the state level.

More grand coalition = political deadlock

A continuation of the grand coalition would also not sit well with many conservatives who have seen the last four years as steered primarily in a Social Democratic direction, and it would also not serve Merkel well even if she remains chancellor in such a coalition. In fact, it might leave Germany's political process hamstrung at a point where serious challenges and choices are coming fast down the track and strong leadership will be needed more than ever. Merkel has added that she believes an extended grand coalition would nourish the political extremes in society.

On the other hand, the past four years have seen her popularity rise. One has to wonder if she would not be somewhat comfortable if there was to be an encore. She has gotten along very well with SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück in handling the global economic crisis and steering toward what they thought was going to be a balanced budget before the financial tsunami hit. Of course, the grand coalition brought with it a majority in the upper house, the Bundesrat, to get legislation passed. On top of that, if she links up with the FDP, she can count on a fairly loud and active left opposition coming at the coalition from the SPD, the Greens, and The Left party.

A winning agenda

In any case, the path to September 27 is a difficult one for Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier. Neither can eliminate the possibility that another chapter of the grand coalition may be the end result. Both have to claim success for the past four years and promise more success but preferably in a different coalition. They have to be somewhat constrained in their criticism of each other, while letting their representatives go after each other on party platform issues.

After September 27, all the issues on the agenda now will still be there waiting to be addressed. But after all the political manoeuvring and posturing is over, it is unlikely that the parameters of one coalition or another will be vastly different when it comes to setting priorities. The more important question will be how the winning coalition will lead the country in forging the agenda, be it in the domestic or foreign policy arenas. Germany has to come to grips with a lot of realities, be it recalibrating its export strength in dealing with the global recession, determining what role it wants to play in a Europe, which seems to be uncertain of its next phase, or deciding its role when it comes to dealing with global responsibilities, be it in Afghanistan, Iran or in many other crises around the world.

Choices to be made

These next weeks will offer a stage on which we will hear a lot about goals and intentions. For the FDP, a coalition with Merkel will mean rebranding the party in government after eleven years in opposition. The FDP has been the junior partner in government for over four decades of the first fifty years of the Federal Republic. If it returns to this role now, will the Free Democrats put their brand on the domestic policy and economic arena even if it occupies the Foreign Office?

For the CDU and CSU, Merkel's re-election as chancellor could offer her a more powerful platform on which she can set the country's agenda. How will she use that power? Can she forge sufficient consensus within her own party, and with the CSU and the FDP? Some of the answers will arrive in the form of unexpected events, especially in the foreign policy areas. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minster Josckha Fischer were not expecting to be drawn into two wars in the Balkans and in Afghanistan right after they formed a coalition in 1998; similarly, the economic meltdown last year seems to have caught the whole world by surprise.

Like war strategies, party platforms can often morph with the first contact in battle – an experience US President Barack Obama is having right now in Washington. But politics is always about choices. Whatever the majority colours of Berlin may be after September 27, the choices Germany makes will matter not only for Germany but also for Europe and beyond.

Click here for more from the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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