Event Reports

Above all summits, it is calm. German elections between crisis and stagnation

Despite most parties having differences over the EU, India could benefit from a stronger German engagement with Europe.

German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
German Elections 2017
Photolabs@ORF
2017
Sep
22

Following Angela Merkel’s third term as German Chancellor, the current election cycle in Germany should seem anything but calm. With the Euro-crisis splitting northern and southern Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis bringing mass migration to Germany’s doorstep, the rise of far-right populism and rifts within Merkel’s own party many could not have expected a quieter election.

Still, following Macron’s decisive victory in France, and numerous setbacks for the center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD) under Martin Schulz, it seems like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (the CDU) will once more determine the leadership of the German government. Yet despite this anti-climactic development, new coalitions, the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Indian views on the election make for a dynamic discussion.

Predictions for the 2017 German Parliament:

German elections between crisis and stagnation.

Present to discuss the upcoming election and the future trajectory of German party politics at Observer Research Foundation were the former Indian Ambassador to Germany Gurjit Singh, Padma Rao, a former South Asia Bureau Chief of Der Spiegel, and Senior Editor for WION, as well as the India and South Asian leaders of four major German political foundations aligned with the main political parties: Patrick Ruether, representative of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (SPD), Peter Rimmele, resident representative of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (CDU), Ronald Meinardus, regional director of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FDP), and Stefan Mentschel, resident representative of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Linke). The discussion was moderated by Britta Petersen, Senior Fellow at ORF.

As was visible in this collegial panel discussion, Germany has a well established history of inter-party cooperation. As a result of Germany’s proportional election system, political parties know they may see themselves as junior or senior partners within coalition governments. Of the major parties represented at the event, only the Linke party was unwilling to join in a coalition with the CDU. Coalitions provide many advantages and disadvantages for junior parties. For the SPD, joining the CDU in 2013 meant either betraying a core electorate or giving up on pursuing a limited portion of their platform. For Patrick Ruether, the SPD’s role in the last government most notably pushed Merkel’s government to accept their old rallying call for a minimum wage. While the CDU has experienced rifts over this and other decisions, the SPD also risks losing its own political profile to its main competitor. Indeed, many believe both current coalition partners are overdue for some soul-searching.

In the run-up to the elections, coalitions such as a “Jamaica” (Greens, CDU and FDP each symbolised by their colours) and a more free-market “Black-Yellow” (CDU and FDP) constellation are also being considered with significant consequences for the future direction of the country. Such accommodating coalitions provide easy fodder for right-wing groups such as the AfD which is more inclined to challenge the system as a whole from its own position of independence. Should the AfD make it to third place in the elections as Ambassador Singh projected, one might wonder whether a future ORF panel discussion including an AfD aligned foundation would run equally as smoothly.

A boring election?

Considered by many as a boring election, the panel sought to locate the recent campaigns within the greater picture of German election cycles. As the representatives of the four major traditional parties seemed to agree, German party politics since the Second World War has largely avoided controversial and confrontational politics. As such, German politicians prefer to maintain consensus and a stable party system over the chaos of strife. For Ambassador Gurjit Singh such a lack of evident contention between the parties was more a tribute to the system than a liability. It was, however, quickly noted that far from being boring, candidates like Merkel had occasionally been followed by angry crowds hurling insults and even tomatoes along the campaign trail.

For Ronald Meinardus, this election was significant in returning the party to the national stage with a fresh opportunity to represent the “winners” — a sizeable demographic of up-and-coming globally oriented citizens. Frustration has however been expressed with regards to how the respective campaigns seemingly skirted around issues such as necessary infrastructural renewal, education reform, digitalisation and mechanisation. While the SPD as a junior coalition partner of the CDU has been critical of the latter’s stalling on infrastructural reform despite a solid domestic economy, this has not been seriously debated throughout the campaign.

Certain issues such as foreign policy, however, are assumed to be of little interest to the common voter and therefore rarely make it to the front of campaigns. This is clear from the often empty slogans and dearth of policy statements visible on campaign posters (although in this regard, smaller activist parties like the Linke and AfD present marginally more policies on their posters). This lack of discussion and increasing rifts within Merkel’s own party will factor heavily in the future direction of the upcoming government.

Quiet before the storm?

Structural constraints are set for small parties wishing to enter German politics. With participation in the parliament granted only to parties exceeding a 5% hurdle, this is one of the few times an unrepentant far-right party will be represented on the national stage. Populist Islamophobia and fear of a loss of identity and home due to mass immigration and ambitious EU bureaucrats, make for emotive talking points in Germany. For Mentschel, the Linke’s strong base in East Germany, has experienced a loss of members to the growing far-right movement. Mentschel emphasised that all parties are affected by the loss of disgruntled voters, and underlined how an awareness of people’s fears and concerns regarding immigration need to be addressed. For the FDP this has translated into an emphasis in expanding security and intelligence.

Taking a stronger stance on crime, migration and promoting a robust foreign policy against Russia over its involvement in Crimea, the FDP may well find some support from voters tired of Merkel’s reputed approach of “Alternativlosigkeit” (a lack of alternatives). For Ambassador Singh, mainstream parties are struggling to respond to the AfD’s propaganda and must still learn to tackle it from the ground. Padma Rao underlined that the shift to the right in Germany has less to do with racism than with frustration. There was consensus that the German political system remains immune to the AfD’s radicalism and that the AfD would follow the fate of many previous protest parties within the opposition that fell apart over internal rifts and a lack of parliamentary experience.

Despite most parties having differences over the EU, India could benefit from a stronger German engagement with Europe. Solidarity between northern and southern Europe has shown the fault lines between left leaning parties which prefer less austerity and right leaning parties which are concerned with security cooperation. According to Peter Rimmele, strengthening European security is a popular issue for the CDU yet a lack of unity within the EU often frustrates politicians in Berlin. While EU rule by consensus slows down necessary reforms, member states such as Hungary can and have occasionally refused to go along with region-wide decisions. For Ambassador Singh, Germany could bring greater harmony to Europe by taking on a more proactive leadership. Addressing the slow progress on an EU-Indian Free Trade Agreement, India believes Germany can play a key role in speeding up trade between the two. In terms of security, Padma Rao emphasized an increasing German pragmatism with India over defense cooperation. Noting Germany’s troubled history, she also found that Berlin’s preference for economic ties with China over strategic relations with India has been to the detriment of India’s own security concerns. Without an enforced FTA agreement, India may be sidelined by its northern neighbor. A more proactive German foreign policy coming from any future coalition could have the potential to promote trade with India and provide significant benefits for both states.

With a seemingly uncontroversial election coming to an end, there was a sense that the future government will need to effectively address pressing domestic issues that have led to an increase in voter defections to a far right fringe party. Issues of migration, infrastructure and EU policy must be tackled directly in the next parliament even if these have the potential to bring down the fragile balances within political parties. Whether the AfD will manage to survive beyond one term is unknown. Its place within European populism, however, is symptomatic of a frustration with leaders’ weak responses to pressing issues and a sense of no alternative.


This report is prepared by Julian Lasius, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.