Weekly Review

How we think about Germany’s choices on 24 September

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If Handelsblatt Global were an American publication and Sunday’s election for the Bundestag were a vote for US president, we would now endorse one of the candidates. But we are part of a German media group, and in Germany it is not de rigeur to endorse. That doesn’t mean we’re shy about our analysis. Here it is.

Remember that this election is not primarily about determining who the next German chancellor will be. That’s because, lo, we already know that Angela Merkel will win a fourth term. But she won’t be elected directly. Rather German voters choose parties, which then form coalitions, and it is these combinations that shape policy, as I explained last week. Merkel will prevail for a simple reason: Of all the politically plausible coalitions, only those with Merkel in the lead have a chance of reaching a majority of seats in the Bundestag.

Thus the choice confronting voters is which party to vote for. So how do we weigh these options? For that you need to know a bit about each party: We have profiled them for you here.

The two extremist parties

Let’s start with our easiest call. Don’t vote for either The Left or the Alternative for Germany. The Left is a populist party on the far left, which descends from East Germany’s communist party and picked up some western German radicals along the way. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a populist party on the far right. It hides behind a fig leaf of economic conservatism but is really a nationalist and xenophobic party with latent neo-Nazi instincts.

Many European countries have parties like The Left and the AfD. So their presence in Germany — though disturbing, given Germany’s history of two dictatorships — is not necessarily something to worry about.

We even accept that these parties have a legitimate place in the firmament of German politics. They are at heart protest movements — and strongest in eastern Germany, where many people have felt disillusioned ever since reunification in 1990. Like some supporters of Donald Trump and Brexit and Marine Le Pen, these Germans feel alienated from what they perceive to be an “elite” that is remote, unresponsive and out of touch. Many used to be non-voters; now they are making themselves visible, by firing a shot across our democratic bow.

We in the lamestream mainstream should hear this shot and feel the splash. For too long we have evaded important debates with salon talk sanitized by political correctness. How much inequality can a society stand? And how much migration? We should talk about these things frankly.

But the debate must stay nuanced and elevated. It must aim at the noble parts of human nature and look for genuine answers in a complex world. The Left and the AfD instead wallow in the gutter of human nature. They aim at envy and resentment, and offer a false sense of simplicity. They are part of the problem, not the solution.

The two “big tent” parties in the center

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are what Americans would call big tents; the German term is “people’s parties”. Together, this “Union” has has won pluralities in 12 of the 18 parliamentary elections since 1949 and is odds-on to win its 13th. It has governed Germany for 48 of the past 68 years and given the country five of its eight chancellors. It’s so good at winning and governing that the CDU’s nickname is Kanzlerwahlverein, “a club for electing the chancellor”.

But what does the party stand for, beyond a general, moderate and pragmatic centrism and, of course, the personality of Angela Merkel? Most Germans couldn’t tell you. If you want to strengthen Merkel’s hand in the coming coalition negotiations — and that may be a good enough reason — it makes tactical sense to vote for the CDU or CSU. If you genuinely care about specific policies, there are more deserving boxes for you to check.

The other big tent, on the center left, is the Social Democratic Party (SPD). It was born out of Marxism in the 19th century, rose with the blue-collar, metal-bashing, coal-scraping proletariat and peaked in the 1970s, winning 46 percent of the vote in 1976, On Sunday it will be lucky to come in at 22 percent.

The main problem is the same that confronts Social Democrats elsewhere in the West: The economy, and thus society, has moved on from the assembly lines of the second industrial revolution, and the proletariat that used to be the SPD’s base is shrinking. The economy is instead transitioning from the third industrial revolution (computers) to the fourth (the internet of things), and the Social Democrats appear to have no answers for this brave new world.

The two smaller centrist parties

That leaves the Greens, also on the center left, but focused on ecology and the environment, and the Free Democrats (FDP), a party that is pro-business and pro-markets, for civil liberties and against bailouts in the euro zone. Anthropologically, they draw support from very similar demographic groups: Germans who are educated and have relatively high incomes. Perhaps that is why the two camps loathe each other so much. The Greens consider the Free Democrats ageing yuppies; the Free Democrats see the Greens as ageing hippies.

Ideologically, the Greens have in many ways won: their signature issues — a phaseout of nuclear power and a transition to renewable energy — have become mainstream and law. But like the SPD, the Greens remain split between radicals on the left and pragmatists on the right, and seem paralyzed by the choice.

The Free Democrats are in a different position. During their last stint in government, between 2009-13, they acquired a reputation as being a clientele party, looking out for the narrow interests of their base  — pharmacists, in the stereotype — by doling out tax loopholes. In 2013 voters threw them out of the Bundestag for the first time. They have spent the past four years in a political purgatory, whence they seem to have emerged rejuvenated, with a promise to stick to classical liberal principles. They deserve to re-enter parliament, if only because Germany benefits from a liberal voice in that chamber.

The coalitions

No mainstream party will form a coalition with the Alternative for Germany, which means that the AfD will get nowhere near power. But its presence also means that an all-left coalition of the SPD, the Greens and The Left will not get a majority of seats (this combination could theoretically have had a majority in the current parliament). Of the plausible coalitions that could have majorities, there are only two.

The first is a continuation of the “grand coalition” between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. This would be stable but boring. It also has other drawbacks. The Social Democrats, busy with running ministries under Ms. Merkel, would be tempted yet again to delay asking the fundamental questions about their own future. And the two big-tent parties would keep looking interchangeable to many voters, who in turn would be tempted to drift off to the extremist fringes. Something like this has already happened in Austria; it should not happen in Germany.

The remaining option is a tie-up between the CDU and CSU and the Greens and Free Democrats. This mixture would be combustible. On some things Greens and Free Democrats even want to go in exactly opposite ways — the Greens would like closer European integration and more solidarity within the euro zone, for example, whereas the Free Democrats, while pro-European, want to resist sliding into a “transfer union” at all costs.

But such a coalition — black, yellow and green — constantly mollified by Mutti Merkel, would be new and thus fresh. It could achieve creative breakthroughs, including some of the reforms Germany badly needs. Germany could do worse in the next four years than to give this team a chance.

 

To contact the author: kluth@handelsblatt.com

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