The results of Sunday’s state elections in Germany show that the country’s political system has entered a new phase marked by increased fragmentation and fluidity. The post-war, catch-all parties are losing their appeal in the middle of the political spectrum as they become more and more indistinguishable from each other. Meanwhile events are making strange bedfellows, with newfangled coalitions developing on the state level. The states of Sachsen-Anhalt, Baden Wuerttemburg, and Rhineland-Palatinate are not very similar to each other, but with record turnouts indicating that voter passions are running hot, their votes should serve as a warning to Berlin when national elections take place next year.
As anticipated, the rightwing Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), already present in five other state legislatures, won big during Germany’s Super Sunday this past weekend. In the former East German state of Sachsen-Anhalt and in the industrial heartland of Baden-Wuerttemburg, the AfD eclipsed the Social Democrats (SPD) to become the second strongest party. In Baden-Wuerttemburg, a longtime bastion of conservatism, the Greens came in first, and now reign as the big-tent party. Meanwhile, the tiny Rhineland-Palatinate now reflects the national picture: the numbers aren’t there for any strategic political coalitions to emerge, so a lifeless grand coalition between the center-Left and center-Right parties becomes the likely outcome. As the center expands, the traditional kingmaker parties—the liberal democrats (FDP) and the Greens—who usually join together with one of the bigger parties to form a government, become further marginalized, with the fringe parties gaining strength and creating chaos as the lumbering center tries to govern.
Prior to the elections, the press was focusing on the repercussion for Chancellor Angela Merkel, even though it was the SPD that stood the most to lose. And the SPD did get a beating: in two of the three states, the SPD garnered less than fifteen percent of the vote, which firmly puts the party in the political wilderness after years of slowly slipping in the polls. Certainly the government’s response to the refugee crisis was an important factor for the AfD’s surge and the general outcome can in part be seen as a protest vote, but Germany’s political landscape was already evolving before the country absorbed over one million migrants last year. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the SPD have not adequately attended to the concerns of their base beyond just immigration concerns, and have thus allowed competitors to capture the allegiance of their traditional voters.
Governing together in a grand coalition twice over the last decade may have given the CDU and the SPD the courage and easy consensus to act when the EU as a whole has been riven by crises, but Germany’s domestic political landscape had in the meantime begun to splinter. Together, the CDU and the SPD hold approximately 80 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, and their seemingly indomitable coalition rendered reasonable opposition in the lower house of parliament an all-but-futile endeavor. This has opened the door to parties such as the AfD and the leftwing Die Linke to offer absurdly impractical but emotionally satisfying solutions that have drawn voters to their sides. Berlin doesn’t suffer from gridlock and the German economy has performed well relative to its neighbors, but in the process the main parties have lost their identities.
The German government’s response to the refugee crisis hastened the rise of the right-wing AfD, but the Chancellor created space for them over the years by diluting conservative norms. She has systematically strayed from conservative policy orthodoxies—from a belief in military conscription to a defense of nuclear power. In this last legislative period alone, the grand coalition has granted Greece de facto debt relief and implemented a federal minimum wage—policies that are anathema to most conservative Germans. With this as the backdrop, the AfD began its rise in the polls and has since vaulted into state government due to Merkel’s unwavering stance toward asylum seekers.
Chancellor Merkel’s hold on power is not in danger at the moment, since most of her serious internal rivals have exited political life. But the CDU might still find itself in the same dilemma that has confounded the SPD.
In the last two decades of its century-and-a-half long history, the SPD has been hemorrhaging supporters to both the Greens and now Die Linke. Germany owes a lot of its economic strength and vigor today to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the SPD, but his party has paid dearly for introducing Agenda 2010, an ambitious reform package that trimmed welfare benefits such as unemployment insurance and allowed for more flexibility in the labor market. During the federal election in 2005, the SPD dropped 4.3 percentage points in the polls while the precursor to die Linke, die Linke/PDS, rose by 4.7 points.
A similar dynamic is now a real possibility for the opposite side of the aisle. Franz Josef Strauss, the legendary chairman of the Christian Socialists (the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria), always gravely warned of letting a party establish itself to the right of the CDU/CSU block. There are no signs that the AfD will disappear anytime soon.
There are a number of factors behind the decline of the main parties, and Germany is not the only country in Europe experiencing this trend. A dose of ideological differentiation among the traditional centrist parties could tilt the system back into balance and weaken the populist parties on both the Left and Right, though it would admittedly be a difficult maneuver to pull off while both sides are governing together. Moreover, Merkel seems steadfast in her convictions and feels no pressure to leave the comfort zone of the grand coalition. After the topsy-turvy election results of Sunday, neither the CDU nor the SPD has any incentive to call for new elections on the federal level.
Chancellor Merkel has already earned her entry into the history books as the country’s first female chancellor, and its first from the former East Germany. By governing from the center, she has enjoyed record popularity from the general electorate while ignoring the grumbling within her party ranks. Those grumbles are sure to increase in the coming weeks and months, given her party’s losses and the unmistakable rise of the AfD. The Chancellor, however, may be tempted to continue on the path that got her where she is, believing the alternatives to be more fraught. And perhaps she is right. But the expanded cast of political parties from Sunday’s state elections will all be contending during the federal election next year, and will make it harder for her to form a stable and cohesive government, even if she manages to keep her party nominally atop the pile.