German National Elections: Something Old or Something New?
September 25, 2009
Q1: Why is this election significant?
A1: On Sunday, September 27, German voters go to the polls to decide whether they want four more years of the same—a “Grand Coalition” between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir’s Social Democratic Party (SDP)—or they want to try a new political constellation of the CDU and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). The outcome of this election will have important implications for Germany’s future economic direction, which, as Europe’s largest economy, will impact Europe’s economic growth as a whole and will be accompanied by more robust political leadership within the European Union. With the stakes seemingly high, it is ironic that there has been very little national debate over any of these issues. Politically, Germany has been in a slumber.
Moreover, in its current configuration, the “Grand Coalition” has not necessarily been a “grand” or effective governing model, although it has ensured broad and necessary national political consensus on most important policies. A break from this political consensus model would begin a new chapter in contemporary German politics. A return to the CDU-SDP arranged marriage, however, may cause further political and economic stagnation as Germany and the rest of Europe struggle to regain their footing following the global economic recession.
Q2: What should we watch for?
A2: It is likely that Chancellor Merkel will remain as the head of state of the German Republic (her party currently holds about a 10-point lead over her main rivals), although this outcome is not necessarily guaranteed. In the 2005 national elections, Merkel’s party did much worse than expected, contrary to what many polls had indicated for several months. A repeat of that scenario is a possibility as polls also indicate up to 25 percent of the electorate remains undecided. When coupled with a slight upward trend in favor of the Social Democrats and a recent underwhelming debate performance by Merkel, we may be surprised to find that the CDU has not done as well as anticipated.
However, if the polls do accurately track this time and Merkel achieves her preferred center-right majority when the results begin to trickle in on Sunday evening, the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats will begin exploratory talks within days and could forge the necessary policy compromises to form a government within several weeks. If the center-right is not able to reach the required threshold, however, a more drawn out coalition process will occur, reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2005 elections in which the coalition took two months to form. The wild card during this election will be the small, fringe parties, which have gained surprising traction—particularly among young voters who have largely been ignored by the mainstream parties and express dissatisfaction with the policies of most of the major German political parties.
Q3: What are the key issues driving this election?
A3: Chancellor Merkel has been pushing hard on the need for the Christian Democrats, with the Free Democrats, to implement needed economic reforms that pursue growth-oriented policies. She has touted her leadership in successfully steering the German economy through the global economic crisis better than many other Western nations. She argues that if she were able to form a government that is more like-minded with her party, Germany could be even more competitive in the global economy. Merkel has also asserted that a CDU-FDP coalition would reassess Germany’s plan to phase out its nuclear power plants in the coming years, a decision that could be significant for Germany’s energy security in the future. Despite its unpopularity in public opinion polls and the public outcry following the September 4 German-ordered airstrikes in northern Afghanistan, Germany’s military contribution to Afghanistan has not been a significant election issue, as Germany’s major political parties (with the exception of the Left Party which demands withdrawal of all German troops from Afghanistan immediately) largely agree that Berlin should keep its 4,000-troop contingent there in the near term.
Heather A. Conley directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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