German elections: The demise of Germany's "catch-all" parties?

Monday, 28. September 2009     0 comment(s)
Timo Behr
Researcher - The European Union research programme

Yesterday’s elections delivered a clear mandate for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a new government with her preferred coalition partner, the liberal FDP. Merkel’s victory, however, does not stem from the strength of her Christian Democrats (CDU), but rather from the astounding weakness of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). While pre-election polls seemed to indicate a second wind for the left, the SPD scored a mere 23% of the vote – its worst results in post-war German history and 11% less than in the last elections. Merkel’s CDU closed slightly down at 33.8% (its second worst in history) but was saved by the strong showing of her liberal allies which gained 14.6%.

At first sight, the results seem to indicate nothing more than a switch of coalition partners for the governing CDU. Out goes the SPD, in comes the FDP. But in many ways the elections represent a significant caesura for the German party system. After eleven years in government, the SPD is cast into an unknown position of weakness and forced into the opposition. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, the experiment of the New Left seems to have run out of steam. Indeed, the swing to the right has been clearer than expected. The proportions of the left-of-center to the right-of-center parties have shifted from 51.1% / 45.9% in 2002 and 51% / 45% in 2005 to 45.5% / 48.4% in favor of the right.

More importantly, however, the elections confirmed once more the increasing fragmentation of Germany’s party system. As expected, it was the three smaller opposition parties that managed to profit the most from the grand coalition government. The Liberals, the Greens and die Linke each gained more than 10% of the vote, while voter participation dropped to an all-time low of 71%. Given their much reduced share of the vote, SPD and CDU will find it difficult to defend their claim to be “catch-all parties” that are representative of the entire social spectrum. Indeed, after four years of cooperation in the grand coalition, both will struggle to find a new role.

In opposition, the SPD seems likely to drift into the arms of the far-left die Linke. However, for the time being, die Linke remains a protest party that represents a populist and unrealistic policy agenda. Unless the SPD can pull die Linke towards the center – unlikely given their electoral gains – a red-red alliance might turn out to be just as suffocating for the SPD as the last four years of grand-coalition government. The alternative for the SPD is to try to maintain its current profile as a party of the center that combines social responsibility and business friendly policies. Given its evident problems to win elections based on this platform this would be a hard sale to its rank and file.

While Merkel’s CDU won a reassuring victory, it will also have to face some tough choices on the road ahead. Coalition talks with an ebullient FDP are likely to be difficult. As the big winners of the elections, the FDP is determined to impose its own set of liberal ideas on the new government. These include plans for steep tax cuts and deregulation of the labor market, greater privatization of health care and the abolishment of military conscription. Accepting the FDP demands would lead the CDU back towards its neo-liberal reform program of 2003; a step Angela Merkel is unprepared to take. However, the elections have weakened her position inside the party (part of the outcome will inevitably be blamed on her lackluster campaign) and have strengthened the business-wing of the CDU, indicating that Merkel might eventually have to concede.

Hence the paradox of the elections: While much of German public opinion remains rooted in the center ground, the electoral outcome is likely to drive both CDU and SPD towards the wings and away from each other. Chased by their smaller competitors, they seem to have few options. In the short-run, this will lead to greater polarization, but also some welcome clarification of the political spectrum. In the long-run, this might further hasten the seemingly inevitable decline of Germany’s catch-all parties.

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