Will Germany be a stabiliser in turbulent times?

By Professor Leslie Holmes. School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne

Some have claimed that the German political scene this year is boring. But perhaps we need less excitement and greater predictability in an era of Brexit and Trump.

Whoever wins the election on Sunday, the German government will be looked upon, not only by Germans but by many Europeans and others, as a symbol of stability in troubled times. Much of Europe has been in turmoil in recent years with the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the Syrian refugee crisis and Brexit.

Throughout all this, Germany has been a stabilising factor. While it, too, was hit by the GFC - falling into recession for twelve months from the second quarter of 2008 - its stimulus package clearly helped the EU’s largest economy and most populous state out of many of its problems and the German economy has avoided recession since 2009. While its growth rate in 2016 was below that of other EU states such as Ireland and Spain, the latter had a lot of catching up to do after their major recessions. This year, the German economy has expanded at a marginally higher rate, and should exceed 2%. Moreover, the unemployment rate has been steadily declining, and now stands at an enviable 3.7% - its lowest since 1980.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – led by incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel - and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) that have ruled Germany in various coalitions since 2005 look set to secure the most seats once again in the parliamentary election on 24 September.

German law requires there to be a new election for the lower house of parliament (the Bundestag) approximately every four years. The German electoral process initially looks complicated, since electors have two votes. But the system is one of the world’s fairest and thus best, since one vote is for a political party’s list, and the other for individual politicians. So if a voter generally prefers a left-wing party, but is particularly impressed by a right-wing candidate in their electorate, they could vote for both. In the Australian context, it would mean I could vote both for Labor as my preferred party and for my local Liberal candidate, whom I prefer to the Labor candidate.

Except for a brief period in early-2017 when the main centre-left party (the Social Democratic Party of Germany, or SPD) announced Martin Schulz as its candidate for the Chancellorship (Prime Ministership), the CDU/CSU has held a commanding lead in the polls since the last election in 2013. While the SPD had hoped that Schulz would be able to challenge Merkel, it appears that his last real opportunity to do so was lost in early September when he failed to impress in a televised debate with Merkel; and a last minute bid last week by Schulz for a second debate was rejected by the Chancellor.

Merkel has been head of the CDU since 2000, and German Chancellor since 2005. With one major exception – her liberal policy on asylum seekers and refugees, which saw her popularity temporarily drop substantially – Merkel’s policies and leadership approach have been highly successful since she first came to power, not only within Germany, but in many parts of Europe. While scandals surrounded French presidents Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, and the UK plunged into the chaos of Brexit, the calm former physicist kept Germany on an even keel.

Recent elections and plebiscites in many Western states – the UK, the USA, and Australia – have not resulted in the outcomes anticipated by opinion polls, so that prediction has become increasingly problematic. But the current CDU/CSU lead in the polls is so substantial that it would be more than surprising if they were not to be the biggest winners in the election.

This said, Germany has had a tradition of coalition governments. These are somewhat unusual, in that they are often of the leading centre-right and centre-left parties (e.g. the Grand Coalitions of 1966-9 and 2005-9). Although the CDU/CSU won the 2013 election, they still had to form a coalition (the third ‘Grand’) with the SPD. While this might initially appear strange, it has the distinct advantage of keeping German politics firmly centrist.

One disturbing aspect of the forthcoming election is that extremist parties – Die Linke on the far left and the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) on the far right - have each been attracting about 10% of potential support, according to recent surveys. The Greens are a little less popular, at about 8%, according to one recent poll. It will be interesting to see if the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) – who were in coalition with the CDU/CSU 2009-13 – make a comeback, after performing disastrously in the 2013 election. They’ve been polling at around 8%. While a left-wing coalition is not totally inconceivable, it is likely that Merkel will continue as German Chancellor in coalition with either the SPD or the FDP.

Banner image: Donald Trump addressing supporters in August 2016 before his election as US President. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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