It’s September, and that means that the German federal election is almost upon us (Sept. 24, to be exact). Interestingly, despite the relatively exciting past few months of European voting – populist extremists in Austria, the Netherlands, and France all came perilously close to winning national elections – the German election looks to be positively boring, and that is probably a good thing. Germany has been able to ward off more extremist political movements in part because its political core is defined by two powerful, cooperative, and centrist parties (the CDU/CSU and SPD) and in part because Germany has avoided many of the economic problems plaguing countries like France and Greece. Thus, fringe elements in Germany have been less able to mobilize electoral blocs against the status quo. The German election is still important, however, as Germany continues to play an outsized role in the E.U. and Europe more broadly.
As I detailed in a previous post, the German electoral system is fairly complex, with voters effectively casting two votes: one for a candidate, one for a party. Voters in each one of Germany’s 299 districts select a candidate utilizing a “first past the post” system, and this candidate represents the district in the Bundestag. Then, extra representatives are added to the legislative body in order to ensure that the party distribution accurately reflects the national party vote. This system is advantageous because it allows Germans to select the person representing their district while also ensuring effective proportional representation of the electorate writ large. However, the process is also somewhat opaque and confusing, to the point that not even most Germans fully understand it.
Current projections suggest that incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU, will win by a large margin, and this would likely signal a continuation of current German domestic and foreign policy. Intriguingly, though, there remains a small possibility that despite winning a plurality of votes, Merkel’s CDU might fall from power if the rival SPD party is able to cobble together a coalition government with other leftist parties such as the communist Die Linke and environmentalist Die Grünen. However, current polling makes this seem improbable, and it is far more likely that the CDU will form a coalition government with the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) or continue their Grand Coalition with the social democratic SPD.
Even if the CDU were to fall from power, it’s unclear that we would witness a significant policy shift away from the status quo. Indeed, the recent debate between Merkel and Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for Chancellor, revealed that both parties share many of the same core ideas and principles. Both the SPD and CDU are broadly supportive of continued support for refugees fleeing Syria, for example, and both are pro-E.U. There are certainly some disagreements on the margins: Schulz has publicly opposed meeting the NATO-mandated 2% of GDP spending on defense, while Merkel continues to object to the SPD’s proposal for greater E.U. fiscal cooperation and integration. Nevertheless, there is far more consensus than conflict. And while many Germans would like to see a more exciting, less placid governing coalition, few deny that Germany has had it good. Therefore, there is little incentive for any of the major parties to rock the boat.
One interesting question, however, is the degree to which U.S.-German relations will be impacted by the election. Tensions between the two countries have continued to grow since Trump’s inauguration in January of this year, and both Merkel and Schulz have publicly criticized Trump’s rhetoric and policy over the past few months. This makes sense, as anti-American sentiment has been rising steadily in Germany, and the German media continues to excoriate Trump for his rash behavior and toxic comments (Trump’s pathetic response to the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville was met with particular opprobrium across the German political spectrum). Der Spiegel has featured the American president six times on its cover (never in a positive light), and German political talk shows have been discussing the potentially catastrophic consequences of Trump’s erratic behavior to the point that it has become a virtual cottage industry for the German punditry. Thus, even without electoral pressures, it would likely have been the case that the German-American relationship would chill over the next few years. But with the election incentivizing politicians on both the left and right to publicly denounce Trump, it is likely that relations will worsen more quickly than they otherwise might have. Nevertheless, Berlin still has many good reasons for maintaining an effective and cooperative relationship with Washington, and thus it is extremely unlikely that we will observe a radical break from the status quo. The re-election of Merkel’s traditionally more pro-American CDU would likely be better for transatlantic ties of course, but even the SPD recognizes the important role that the U.S. plays in supporting the European project and upholding the international order.
Fundamentally, Germany is in a good position compared to many of its neighbors. Unemployment and inflation are low and stable, the country and its leader command international respect, the export industry is booming, and illegal immigration and migrant flows appear to finally be under control. This positive situation has allowed the major parties to be more cautious in their positions, and this, in turn, has led to a boring election built on centrist, moderate positions. As one ECFR report put it, “Germans are hoping for a few more years without having to deal with [too much] change… To end the Merkel era now would feel like pushing the door open to [a] challenging future. There is no one in German politics wishing to play that role.” At least for the foreseeable future, Germany seems likely to continue its tradition of steady and stable politics. And given the craziness of 2017, that’s the best thing anyone could hope for.