government crisis

The winners and losers of a new election

Treffen von FDP und Grünen vor der Sondierung
The good old days: top brass from the Greens and the FDP take a break from negotiations. Source: DPA

Germany’s political parties have unanimously said they don’t fear new elections if they are unable to form a government. But at least one poll as well as experts say the country’s smaller parties would win the most if voters are asked back to the ballot box – most likely in April – at the expense of the country’s two biggest parties, which are already against the ropes after record-low showings in September’s election.

An opinion poll following Sunday’s collapse showed the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) up 1.7 points at 13.2 percent while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) both suffered losses. The survey was conducted by the Civey polling institute for news website Spiegel Online. “Voters are disappointed in all the parties and blame all of them for the failure,” said Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa research institute, in a Handelsblatt interview.

Talks for a four-way coalition government were called off Sunday by the FDP’s Christian Lindner. Some in Berlin have been speculating that the youthful, sly FDP leader wanted the talks to fail all along and is playing a long game, plotting to force out Ms. Merkel so that he can pursue a more radical reform agenda with a reformed, more business-oriented CDU.

Landesparteitag der SPD Berlin
ME! ME! ME! The SPD's Andrea Nahles would consider a coalition. Source: Picture Alliance

Has the FDP, which has so often in Germany’s post-war history faithfully served as junior coalition partner to the larger parties, mutated from kingmaker to queenslayer? Despite the poll results, that could backfire for the party. “Because their voters – the classic mid-sized business owners, craftsmen, small companies – had hoped that their interests would be more strongly integrated in government policies with the liberals in the government,” Mr. Güllner said.

Perhaps the biggest winner of new elections would be the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. Election experts say the party’s passionate voters are the most likely to return to the ballot while less engaged voters from other parties stay at home – that would boost their standing and representation in the Bundestag. A party at the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens, also stands to profit from new elections.  “They would probably gain. That’s because they behaved as they did during the campaign. Voters would honor that,” Mr. Güllner said.

At the moment, the biggest question mark hangs over the SPD, which could suffer further losses after garnering just 20.5 percent of the vote on September 24. The dismal result, its worst since World War II, prompted it to declare that it would go into opposition and regroup after serving four years as junior partner in Chancellor Merkel’s coalition.

Joining “Mutti” Merkel in government has been a poisoned chalice for the Social Democrats, who have served in two so-called “grand coalitions” under her, from 2005 to 2009 and from 2013 until now. They have subsequently tanked in general elections because she stole sole credit for the government’s work. She shifted her CDU leftwards, signing up to welfare increases and taking positions that used to be strictly SPD territory.

“We're not Ms. Merkel's spare wheel.”

Andrea Nahles, SPD parliamentary leader

So it’s not surprising the SPD wants and needs a break. “The SPD wanted to take time to renew itself in terms of policy and personnel,” said political analyst Oskar Niedermayer. “Now it’s suddenly got to wage another election campaign. That won’t be easy for the party.” Mr. Güllner, from Forsa, said the SPD would be further handicapped because it hasn’t had time to renew itself and would head into an election with the same leadership that cost it the last election.

Meanwhile, unrest is building among SPD lawmakers about the leadership’s strict “Nein” to a coalition with Ms. Merkel. The party’s parliamentary group spent two hours locked in heated debate about whether it had a responsibility to end the political limbo that appears to be worrying the rest of Europe, even though that worry towers above the worry in Germany.

Andrea Nahles, the party’s powerful parliamentary group chairwoman, sounded willing. “We won’t refuse talks,” she said. But she added: “We’re not Ms. Merkel’s spare wheel.”

She’s not alone in that view. Johannes Fechner, a legal expert in the party’s parliamentary group, said the SPD should listen carefully when it meets with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier Thursday. The president, usually a ceremonial position, has called on the country’s parties to regroup and avoid new elections. To underscore his message, he’s meeting individually with leaders of every party. “The SPD shouldn’t prematurely push for a snap election and should take its meeting with the president seriously,” Mr. Fechner said.

With months of political deadlock, Germany won’t have a say in EU decisions and won’t be able to tackle pressing domestic tasks, he added.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, aware that it has no obvious successor to Ms. Merkel and mindful that she’s still viewed as an anchor of stability by millions after steering the country through two financial crises in her 12 years in power, has closed ranks behind her since talks collapsed. According to some pollsters, she has least to lose from a snap election. “Backing for her among conservative supporters has remained high,” said Mr. Güllner.

Many in Germany, Europe and around the world will be hoping that Mr. Steinmeier’s diplomatic skills will pay off.

A number of Handelsblatt staff contributed to this report. To contact two of the authors:

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