And so the election is over, after a campaign that was dismissed by the media as “boring” or even “excruciating,” even as it was perceived as “interesting” by 67 percent of the electorate. On September 24, German voters decided what the new Bundestag will look like, and their decision has already been interpreted as a “great turning point” and a “tectonic quake,” supposedly leading to a fundamental shift in Germany’s system of political coordinates.
But voters would again be surprised by this assessment of their decision. It is certainly true that a radical right-wing party has entered the national parliament for the first time since the beginnings of postwar Germany, after the collapse of Nazism. But less than a tenth (9.5 percent) of all eligible voters actually voted for the AfD, or Alternative for Germany. The overwhelming majority (90.5 percent) of “the people,” whom the AfD claims to represent, did not vote for this party. At 24.6 percent (including invalid votes), the number of non-voters was more than two-and-a-half times as large as the number of AfD voters.
But the media once again neglected to report on these people, who are certainly dissatisfied with the political status quo and yet unwilling to vote for a radical party. The press also ignored the pattern of other radical right-wing movements in Germany’s electoral past dismembering themselves relatively quickly. A similar process is plausible for the AfD, now that co-chair Frauke Petry has announced that she no longer wishes to be part of the AfD parliamentary caucus nor indeed party.
Another assumption that has little basis in reality is that Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her “social-democratization” of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), allowed a vacuum to develop along the right fringe, thereby strengthening the AfD. As proof, so-called “electoral migrations” were cited, implying that the CDU ceded around one million voters to the AfD. But the truth is that the “middle-class” base, defined as the combined numbers of votes for the CDU/CSU and the FDP, has been stable for the last two decades, even after the rise of the AfD. In 1998, 20.4 million people voted for the CDU, CSU or FDP, compared with 20.2 million in 2013 and 20.3 million in 2017.
While the “middle-class voter camp” made up a third of the electorate in 2017, the “left camp” consisting of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and The Left is at its weakest since German reunification. Fewer than 30 percent of votes on Sunday went to these three parties. In 1998, it was still more than 40 percent, despite (or rather because of) the pro-market “agenda” of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. If the structure of the political system is in jeopardy at all, then only because of the dramatic decline of the leftist camp, resulting from the SPD’s weakness.
In other words, there is no evidence of a migration from the so-called “middle class” as such to the AfD. However, the AfD did manage to fully capitalize on the latent potential in Germany for radical right-wing and xenophobic ideas (this amounts to a tenth of all eligible voters). People who represent this potential do not always vote for radical right-wing parties, but “hide” behind other parties or don’t vote at all, because they reject the entire political system. These persistent non-voters have migrated to the AfD in state elections since 2013, and in the national election on Sunday. Because this group cannot be polled, this also led to some blurring of the results of pre-election surveys.
If there is a culprit in the rise of the AfD, it is not Ms. Merkel but Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian premier and leader of the Christian Social Union, officially the “sister party” of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. He took up “right-wing” issues as part of an attempt to prevent a migration from his CSU to the AfD. Nonetheless, the AfD performed almost 10 percent better in Bavaria than in the remaining western states. The AfD share of votes was only higher in the former East German states, where 16 percent of eligible voters chose the AfD.
The CSU, which captured almost 40 percent of the vote in Bavaria in 1998, already lost some of its cohesion in 2013, and again in 2017, when only 30 percent of the electorate voted for the party. Many in Bavaria would prefer to vote for the CDU, but because they cannot do this they turn away from the CDU/CSU as a whole.
The SPD’s strategists also miscalculated the voting behavior in the “middle-class camp.” The announcement by Martin Schulz on election night that he intended to put an end to cooperation with the CDU/CSU, which received polite applause, shows that the SPD has not understood the causes of its weak performance. It was not its participation in a coalition with the CDU/CSU that damaged the Social Democrats, either in 2017 or in 2009. (Between 1998 and 2009, the number of SPD voters shrank from more than 20 million to 10 million, then to 9.5 million on Sunday.)
Instead the cause of the SPD’s weakness is its inability to inspire trust that it can actually solve the problems it cited during the campaign. And its preferred rallying cry of “social justice” was just as unsuited to helping the Social Democrats succeed in 2017 as it has been in all elections since 1949.
The SPD also suppresses the fact that the first change of power in the Federal Republic of Germany — in 1969, after 20 years of conservative dominance — was possible only because the SPD between 1966 and 1969 had proved to citizens that it could govern. Thus, the SPD’s decision this week not to enter into another coalition with the CDU/CSU under any circumstances is difficult to understand and is unlikely to benefit the SPD in its regeneration. After all, after the fall of Helmut Schmidt in 1982, the SPD failed to regain lost voter confidence for 16 years, despite being in opposition.
Following the SPD’s decision not to participate in a coalition government, the resurgent Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens now have the opportunity to fulfill the many and varied expectations citizens have of the new federal government. The FDP should think primarily of the interests of its core clientele, the family-firm entrepreneurs known as the “Mittelstand.” And the Greens now have the opportunity to enlarge their appeal through pragmatic governance.
The expectations by citizens of the new administration also show that the refugee issue is not the top priority, contrary to the assumptions of some politicians, even in the CDU/CSU. Instead, citizens feel it is more important for the government to guarantee external and domestic security, and to provide a good future for their children and grandchildren.
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