In another key European election this year, Germans will go to the polls in September. After a slow start, campaigning finally picked up this week with two televised debates among the key contenders. One of these pitted conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel against her main rival, Social Democrat leader and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Rather underwhelming on substance, the exchange effectively confirmed what polls have long been indicating: Merkel is all but certain to win a fourth term, while her challenger is further away than ever from projecting a credible alternative. If one were to judge by this debate alone, the results of the German election would appear to be a foregone conclusion.
Yet much more interestingly, another debate featured the leaders of five smaller parties that will all end up in the new Bundestag. Three of these harbor hopes of joining the next governing coalition, while two represent the increasingly vocal radicalism on the Left and on the Right. That second discussion was rich in content and controversy. It warned Germans that their current national election, and the politics emerging from it, may yet become one of the most turbulent in recent history.
The combination of volatile public opinion, multiparty dynamics, and coalition arithmetic makes this campaign much less predictable than political ratings suggest. A number of policy issues—from refugees to the diesel scandal—may yet take over campaign season with a vengeance. Foreign affairs, from Europe to the United States and from Russia to Turkey, have begun to shake up the race. Here are ten key aspects to watch as Germans head to the voting booths.
- The Merkel Vote
The performance of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian-Democratic bloc (CDU-CSU) that she leads will, naturally, be watched closely. Polling at close to 40 percent for several months now, and leading her Social-Democrat (SPD) rivals by some 15 percent, Merkel’s conservatives are certain to come in first. However, more important than victory is the exact result. 40 percent or more, a repeat of the 2013 conservative vote, will give Merkel a near-free choice of her next coalition partner, putting her in the strongest possible position to create the next government and dictate its agenda. Just as importantly, such a strong result will silence all those who believed, especially in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, that the Chancellor had passed her political zenith and was heading for political decline. In turn, any outcome that falls significantly short of the 40 percent mark will complicate coalition-building and fuel a succession debate. For the conservatives and their leader, then, this is a tighter race than their commanding lead in the polls may suggest.
- A Thriller for Third Place
Unusually, who comes in second will be of little relevance. Germany’s other major party, the SPD, is stuck in the 20-to-25 percent range, with no realistic prospect of leading the next government. The question of who comes in third, however, will be critical for German politics in the coming years. Four parties are effectively tied for third place, all polling between 7 and 10 percent in recent surveys. Two of these represent the political mainstream, with the Free Democrats (FDP) pursuing a market-liberal and business-friendly agenda, and the Greens traditionally espousing environmentally conscious and socially liberal positions. If either of these smaller moderate parties secures third place, it will be best positioned to enter a coalition with the conservatives and to become part of the next government. Not surprisingly, then, both the FDP and the Greens have effectively made it their electoral ambition, and even slogan, to be the third political force in Germany.
- The Left and Right Fringes
Such an outcome is not preordained, however. Two more, and politically radical, parties have an even better chance of taking third place, judging by recent trends in public opinion. The Left Party is a merger of former East German communists and the West German hard Left, and came in third in the previous election. Pragmatically, it endorses a socialist agenda at home but takes highly ideological positions on international affairs, including the rejection of NATO membership and free trade agreements. It is latently anti-American but openly pro-Russian. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is even more aggressively opposed to the political and social status quo. It is an anti-system party that ferociously attacks the political and media establishment, demands the rolling back of European integration, advocates closer ties with Russia, proposes a radical curtailment of migration, and rejects Islam. Neither of these fringe parties will find itself in government. Still, they can seriously impact mainstream political dynamics. The closer either or both get to the 10 percent mark, the more complicated coalition-building for the remaining parties will become—and the greater the political pressure on them in the new Bundestag.
- Turnout Is Key
The September poll will be one of extremely tight margins. For Merkel’s conservatives, a mere 3 percent, give or take, can mean the difference between the freedom to govern as they wish and the necessity of striking hard bargains. For smaller parties vying for third place, even a 2 percent difference separates triumph from disappointment, and for the FDP and the Greens, that difference may determine whether they take their places in government or on the opposition benches. This situation puts voter turnout front and center for all contenders. After record lows of around 70 percent in the 2009 and 2013 elections, the upcoming contest is likely to see a substantial increase to 75 or even 80 percent, judging from similar upticks in recent state elections. However, higher participation is accompanied by higher-than-ever volatility, as nearly half of all Germans remain unsure whom to vote for. This higher volatility gives the political fringes an advantage, as Left Party and AfD supporters have largely made up their minds. Higher participation, in turn, typically favors the political mainstream and within it primarily the CDU-CSU and FDP. As a result, and more than any time in the past twenty years, the final tally will depend on the last-minute mobilization of voters.
- Four Coalition Options
German governments are typically based on party coalitions. Unusually this time, a whopping four alternatives are conceivable, all led by Chancellor Merkel. Two of these are familiar to her. One is a continued grand coalition with the SPD. Its advantages include a large overlap in the parties’ agendas and an overwhelming parliamentary majority that would allow it to push through just about any policy. The other is a joint government with the FDP, as seen in 2009 to 2013. If, as current polls indicate, this coalition achieves only a narrow majority, it will be considerably harder for this government to pursue its policies. What mitigates against both these coalition options may be the serious reluctance on the part of the SPD and the FDP. Neither of them really benefited politically from their recent coalitions with the CDU-CSU. Rather than getting burned again in government, they may prefer to build their longer-term profiles and support bases from the opposition bench.
Two further possibilities mark uncharted territory in German politics, at least at the federal level. In the first, the CDU-CSU could enter into a coalition with the Greens. This would pit progressive Greens against arch-conservatives in the Chancellor’s own bloc, allowing Merkel to continue to “lead from the middle,” as is her preference. However, it is doubtful that the Greens can muster sufficient votes and, even more importantly, enthusiasm, for such a coalition. A second novelty would be a three-way alliance of CDU-CSU, FDP, and Greens. This coalition would command a strong majority and suit the Chancellor’s style of governing, yet it is still highly unlikely. The FDP and the Greens are difficult bed-fellows. Their programs are, regarding markets and the environment, narrow and contradictory; their styles, liberal laissez faire impulses and Green paternalism, hardly compatible.
Of these four options, only two find significant support among voters: a grand coalition and a CDU-CSU-FDP alliance. Clearly, Germans prefer to remain in familiar territory, but the question is whether the final distribution of votes will allow them to.
- Where Is the Refugee Crisis?
Undoubtedly, the premier issue in German public debate over the past few years has been the 2015 refugee crisis and with it migration more broadly. Effectively, each of the recent state elections was a sort of referendum on Chancellor Merkel’s initially open, but later tightened, refugee policy. However, expectations that this issue would also dominate the current national election season have not so far materialized. With very few exceptions, it has been absent in the run-up to the elections, just as it has disappeared from media headlines. Germans’ anxiety over the refugee influx has subsided, and while about half of all Germans see migration as the most important challenge for the country, only 29 percent consider it the determining factor at the ballot box. Nonetheless, any large-scale incident or attack has the potential to throw this issue back into public view and to influence the elections.
- Central Issues Missing
With migration on the back burner, the election season so far lacks a central and decisive theme. Several issues have come and gone again, gaining little traction. When massive violence enveloped the G20 summit in Hamburg, domestic security seemed poised to take top spot. This would have benefited the conservatives, yet neither they nor their rivals zoomed in on what, after all, is usually the public’s no. 2 concern. Then came the diesel scandal, the largest fraud scheme in German industrial history. However, even huge public disagreement with the government’s soft approach to sanctioning the auto industry did not propel this issue into the campaign spotlight, even though the Greens and the Left could have exploited it. It is not as if there are no major domestic policy issues, not to mention turbulent international affairs, that could shape this election. Germans are concerned with the state of their education system. The coming digital age finds the German economy, and society, woefully ill-prepared. Social security systems and energy markets face huge challenges. Yet instead of sparring over these and other pressing issues, Germans largely see a ping-pong of personal attacks, especially on the Chancellor. Ironically, no one benefits more from such a personalistic campaign than Merkel herself, comfortably running on a simple “you know me” ticket.
- Keeping Quiet on Europe
While many in the European Union are holding their breath over who will next govern the Continent’s central power, the election campaigns in Germany have so far remained strangely silent on Europe. This is counterintuitive as the Brexit shock and the French elections have only just breathed fresh air into a seemingly deflated European project. Furthermore, major challenges lie ahead for EU integration, from managing Britain’s exit to reforming the Eurozone to reining in illiberal governments in Central Europe. To be sure, all parties have included elaborate proposals on Europe in their individual party programs. Yet none of them, with the exception perhaps of the Euro-skeptic AfD, is campaigning as openly on Europe as French President Emmanuel Macron so successfully did. This will likely leave a more substantial German debate on Europe until after the election, when major differences among possible coalition partners, including fundamental disagreements between CDU-CSU and FDP, will surface.
- Trump Effects
U.S. politics have left their imprint on previous German elections, and have entered this round already. Anti-American sentiments have long existed, especially among left-of-center voters. These have been fueled, and broader skepticism toward the U.S. has been prompted, by the election of President Donald Trump. The U.S. now elicits the same or even less confidence among Germans as Russia under Vladimir Putin. This has left Chancellor Merkel, known to be America-friendly, exposed to vicious attacks by the SPD for allegedly cozying up to Trump. Yet U.S. politics also have a positive import. The U.S. election, together with the Brexit vote, has acted as a vaccine against the seemingly unstoppable rise of far-Right populism in Europe. Potential protest voters, on whom parties such as Germany’s AfD depend for their success, are more reluctant to incur the political price they observe in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is already dampening the electoral hopes of the German far Right. With these Trump effects, U.S. politics are a mixed bag for the German elections.
- Russian Meddling
Against the backdrop of Russian interference in the U.S. and French elections, observers have warned of similar attempts in the upcoming German elections, most recently including the Interior Minister in Berlin. Although so far no major Russian involvement has been detected, chances are that the Kremlin will still roll out a last-minute disinformation campaign to sway voters. The central aim will certainly be to maximally damage the reputation, and with it the election results, of Chancellor Merkel, a staunch critic of Russian aggression and advocate of a unified Western response. Should this not succeed, Moscow is likely to question the legitimacy of the election and its outcome. However, there is good reason to expect the impact of Russian meddling to be very limited. Having witnessed such manipulation elsewhere, Germans and their institutions are on alert. Their skepticism of Russia, the strong and stable outlook for their country, its established multi-party system, and quality media act as additional shock absorbers. Whether they will suffice will be worth watching up until, and beyond, election day.