Fragmentation of the political landscape: the decline of the giants

Germany’s political landscape is fragmenting. The country’s two former giants – the conservative CDU/CSU Union and the social democratic SPD – are in decline. The Volksparteien – people’s parties – once represented the vast majority of voters in Germany, sometimes winning over 40% of the vote each in federal elections; according to the latest polls, their combined vote now only barely reaches 42%. March 2020 polls show the CDU hitting a low of 26%, with the SPD struggling to reach 16%. At the same time, both the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have made enormous inroads; the Greens have shot up into second place, and the AfD, which entered parliament as the third largest party in 2017, is fighting the SPD for third place.

50 years of Federal elections

The Union: running out of steam

The CDU is in crisis, searching for a new identity as the Merkel era limps to an end. Merkel has been in power for nearly 15 years: the CDU seems to have lost focus; the coalition with the SPD has been under severe strain; the economy has been teetering on the brink of recession; and calls that Merkel should step down before 2021 have got louder. Party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation after only just over a year in the post, throwing the party into turmoil and triggering a new leadership election in April. Party support is divided between the continuity candidate, Armin Laschet, a supporter of Merkel, and right-winger Friedrich Merz. Merz wants to win back voters from the AfD and is the ‘hope bearer’ of the right of the CDU, who have been profoundly disturbed by the liberalisation of the party under Merkel and feel that it has lost its identity as a conservative force.

The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has also lost its way – in October 2018, it recorded its second lowest ever vote, sinking by over 10% to 37.2%. If 37% sounds high, compare it to previous results in Bavaria: in the 60 years before that election, the CSU vote ranged between 43.4% and 60.7%, with over 50% being the norm. Interior Minister and former CSU leader Horst Seehofer attempted to win back voters from the AfD by positioning the party to the right; as part of this strategy, he caused a major government fight over immigration in the summer of 2018. His strategy failed. The Green Party scooped up an extra 21 seats and the AfD entered parliament for the first time with over 10% of the vote, forcing the CSU into a coalition government with the Free Voters of Bavaria. (FW)

The SPD: the ‘sick man of German politics’

The SPD looks tired and out of date, despite its pledge to renew after the 2017 election. The party, which was bitterly divided over whether to go into a third coalition with Merkel, has struggled with a loss of identity as well as loss of its traditional working class base. A party report on its failings in the 2017 election campaign, ‘Learning from Mistakes’, began with a stark warning: “The SPD is in crisis. Probably the deepest since 1949…… The public think social democracy needs renovating. In the media, the oldest party in Germany is depicted as the sick man of German politics.” The report went on to describe the loss of votes by the ‘people’s party without people’. It argued that its programme lacked clarity and a coherent set of concrete policies and that the party had failed to carve out  an identity separate from CDU/CSU Union in the last coalition government. This last point was the main reason so many in the party opposed a third coalition with the CDU; many doubted that the party could renew itself while in government. Now, having rejected the popular moderate Olaf Scholz as leader, the party has elected a left-wing duo, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, who have so far failed to lift the party out of its rut. Since its historic low in 2017, the party has sunk even further in the polls.

2017 election results compared to an average of March 2020 polls

Green ascendancy

The Green Party, which in early 2018 elected a new leadership team of Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, has succeeded in becoming the strongest party on the left of the political spectrum. The party came second in the European elections last year, winning 20.5% of the vote, the same as the SPD in the national election in 2017. The Greens have positioned themselves as open and progressive, not only in terms of policies on digitalisation, housing, Europe and the environment, but also on immigration.   They have carved out clear ground in opposition to the AfD, while other parties have scrambled in their response.

Far-right holding firm

The AfD, despite being dogged by accusations of right-extremism, is holding firm in the polls. The party pushes an anti-immigration, anti-establishment, anti-foreigner message, which is rejected by the majority of the German population; nevertheless, it is snapping at the heels of the SPD and winning over a fifth of the vote in the east of the country.

East/west divide

It is in the east of the country that the rejection of the centre parties can be most clearly seen. Thirty years after unification, equal living conditions between the east and west, as set out in law, have not been reached, and the majority of East Germans still see themselves as second class citizens. Voters in the five former eastern German states are much more likely to vote for the the AfD and Left Party (Die Linke, which was formed in 2007 out of a merger of the successor of the old East German Communist Party, and a group of trade unionists and former SPD members who left the party under Gerhard Schröder).

The AfD came second in the east in 2017, with 21.9%; it came second in all three state elections in the autumn of 2019 too. The Left Party came third with 17.8%, and first in Thuringia in October 2019. In 2017, the CDU won only 27.6% of the vote in the east, compared to 34.1% in the west. The SPD, which came second nationally with 20.5%, came in fourth place, behind the CDU, AfD and Left Party.

% share of votes in western German states 2017
% share of votes in eastern German states 2017

Fragile coalitions

The complicated German electoral system ensures that each party is awarded seats in the Bundestag and in state parliaments proportionate to its vote share, provided a party reaches the ‘5% hurdle.’ So while winning 12.6% of the vote delivered 94 seats to the AfD in 2017, winning 12.6% of the vote left UKIP with only one seat in the UK 2015 general election. Since smaller parties are more strongly represented in parliaments than under a first-past-the-post system, coalitions are the norm in both national and state parliaments in Germany.

Parties often work very successfully together in coalition governments. However, the recent fracturing of the vote has created another problem: fragile coalitions. Taken together with the refusal of the main parties to work with the AfD, coalition building is likely to become increasingly difficult in the future.

In the October election in Thuringia, the Left Party came first with 31%, the AfD second with 23.4% and the CDU third with under 22%. This meant that, without including AfD members, the only chance of a majority coalition was an unlikely Left Party/CDU coalition. This possibility was rejected by the CDU, and so a highly unusual minority coalition government (Left Party-SPD-Green) was agreed. However as the minority coalition prepared to take office, CDU members broke the national consensus not to cooperate with the AfD, and voted with the AfD for an FDP Minister President instead of for the Left Party leader Bodo Ramelow. This triggered a political crisis which took a month to resolve and which had national repercussions; and as it is, a new election is planned for next year since the minority coalition is not sustainable. A similar problem emerged in Saxony after the September 2019 election: The CDU won with 32.1% but the AfD came a strong second with 27.5; a ‘Kenya’ coalition with the CDU, SPD and Greens was formed after three months of negotiations.

Can the giants revive?

In order to halt their decline, both the CDU and SPD have to develop clear, modern agendas which recognise and address why so many voters have turned to the extremes, particularly in the east. Otherwise, the pressure to include the AfD in governments will become intolerable.

Whether the SPD can gain back the ground it has lost from the Greens is an open question: certainly, so far the new leaders have failed to give the impression they know where they want to take the party. In the short term, a lot depends on who the party chooses to be its Chancellor candidate for the general election next year. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, Germany’s third most popular position, could be the person who wins back disaffected SPD voters; while not popular on the left of his own party, he is popular with the wider German population.

Whether either of the front runners in the CDU leadership election will manage to carve out a clear, vote-winning identity for the party in the future is also an open question. Laschet represents continuity with an era which could arguably have had its time; and Merz’s plan to win back voters from the AfD with a rightwards shift could fail in just the same way as Horst Seehofer’s did. In any case, as Lacshet has pointed out, it is not the right-wing voters the CDU needs to win back, but the centre voters. The director of polling company Forsa confirmed this: “In order to be able to reach 30 percent or more in the next Bundestag election, it is not enough … (to be) accepted by the remaining members of the CDU. Rather, (the Chancellor candidate) has to convince the former CDU voters who have migrated from the liberal middle of society. ”

Voters certainly don’t seem particularly impressed: a recent poll found that nearly 30% didn’t care who became the next CDU leader.

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