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Angela’s Ashes. Germany throws its two party system on the bonfire

October 26th, 2018

The  German state of Hessen goes to the polls this  weekend.  Hessen has been something of a swing state between the CDU and SPD. The current state assembly has the CDU in power on 38% of the vote in a coalition with the Greens  who  won 11%. The SPD leads  the opposition with 31%. But all is not well. The large national parties are worried  by the shifting ground in German  politics. A look at recent polling shows why

Both the CDU and SPD in Hessen are on track to lose a third of their vote compared to five years ago, their support is shifting to the Greens and the AfD, a move that is happening right across Germany.

In the Bavarian state election earlier this month the CSU lost control of its fiefdom as the Greens and AfD made major gains. In all the excitement of the CSU’s defeat less attention has been  paid to the SPD who suffered a much larger loss of support. So what is going on?

Germany is now entering its sixth year of the grand coalition between the CDU and SPD. The economy is booming, the government coffers are overflowing so by normal standards the voters should be giving the government credit for prosperity. Instead coalition is becoming a spiral of decline for both parties. Underlying this  are several factors

Immigration – in an act of extreme generosity or folly (take your pick) Angela Merkel  threw open Germany’s borders to refugees from Syria. Within 3 months Germany was at the centre of an immigration crisis both domestically and with its neighbours. 

Just about every bad headline Frau Merkel could have had materialised  – crises of theft, rape, murder and riots by immigrants shocked Germans. Worse, the German sense of good administration “Ordnung” was turned on its head with authorities unable to cope, bribes and corruption in the Immigration office and a total ignorance of who was entering the country.

Domestically it wasn’t pretty. With the neighbours it got worse. Angela Merkel  tried and is still trying to create a European solution to a problem Made in Germany. No one is interested; the Mediterranean countries want refugees to move onward to Germany. Eastern Europe has shut up shop. Migration is creating European tensions were previously there were none.

The crisis has cost the CDU core support among its voters and given impetus to the AfD.  All in all AfD growth mirrors the decline of the CDU, though it should be noted the SPD too has lost support among core working class voters. The migration crisis has been Merkel’s biggest mistake since entering office and now the electorate are expressing their disapproval.

Revolt in the East – Despite almost 30 years of unity the old DDR remains a place apart. Huge progress has been made in modernising the old communist state but despite it all you can’t buy optimism off the shelf. The East is still the poor cousin of the west, It has lost its future, the pied piper this time stealing  the children and taking them west so an older, but gloomier population has been left behind. Increasingly East Germans are attracted to the DDR nostalgia of Die Linke or the Germans First stance of the AfD.

Previously the CDU and SPD dominated the east, now almost one in two Ossis vote for the extremes. Centrist liberalism is in retreat and the east risks become ungovernable via the diktat of coalition arithmetic.

Demographics – The post-unification generation is now coming of age and making its mark. This is affecting politics. The older generation of war guilt and reparation is slowly dying off; its priorities and standards are disappearing with it. A similar observation can be seen in the UK with young voters caring little for Jeremy Corbyn’s past if he’s more in tune with their own concerns. 

The old certainties of the cold war two party systems are gone and with that younger voters are not afraid to ignore the taboos of the past and experiment across a wider spectrum of parties. The SPD in particular appears to be losing support among  young liberal metropolitans to the Greens.

Where’s the party? –  The two main parties have been slow to respond to the shifts taking place. Both have been jostling for space in the centre ground of politics with similar programs and common assumptions this has led to a sense of drift among supporters, coalition makes them all the same. So why vote for your old party if it no longer stands for anything?

This is a phenomenon across the West not just Germany but CDU and SPD  still hope huddling in the centre will keep them in office. Yet increasingly it is differentiation which is moving support in the country at large.

Leadership – The CDU and SPD are both experiencing a failure of leadership, but for different reasons. The SPD lost the 2017 election under Martin Schulz who refused to go in to government with Merkel. When Merkel’s coalition efforts with the FDP and Greens failed the SPD reluctantly agreed to coalition mark two. Schulz left and his successor Andrea Nahles took over to a distinct lack of enthusiasm from party members. They were perhaps right, Nahles also struggles to connect with voters  who see her as a party apparatchik. 

With the CDU the problem is Merkel‘s loss of her political sure touch, from queen of the roost to lame duck in two short years.  There is a feeling that Markel’s time has gone but as yet there is no candidate on the horizon to replace her.

So the CDU drifts on, unsure what to do next, hoping the old formulae still work and looking for something to break the stalemate. Nobody wants to wield the knife so like her doppelgänger Theresa May, Merkel still hangs on faute de mieux.

In the 1970s it was simple. Germans voted CDU or SPD and the small FDP went into coalition with the winner. In the 1980s the Greens emerged and began to pick up support. Then in the 1990s and 2000s Die Linke developed as an all-German party. Finally in this decade it has been the AfD which is new on the scene. German politics is in flux and the old monoliths are slowly crumbling.

This splintering of political opinion now makes government an exercise in traffic light management  as putting  coalitions together becomes harder and parties’ red lines are quietly dropped. The SPD are currently demanding that no-one goes  into coalition with the AfD,  ‘the heirs to Hitler’, but they dropped their own promise not to go in to government with Die Linke, the heirs  to  Stalin. Sooner or later, most likely in the East, the AfD taboo will go because the parliamentary numbers require it.

It’s hard to see a way back to previous glories for the two big parties. The coalition breaking up might help revive political fortunes. Maybe the current results could be midterm blues; the big parties have also hidden strengths such as mass membership.

But it’s quite a challenge, I suspect the big parties are dealing with a tougher problem  – Zeitgeist, the feeling that it’s time for a change, that the CDU and SPD are no longer attuned to the desires of large segments of the electorate.  It’s no longer enough to make the voters rich, you have to deliver their aspirations too.

Currently the big winners are the AfD and the Greens. The AfD stole the press headlines –  Nazi scare stories  sell – and the growth of the right attracted attention as they tore off support from Merkel’s CDU, but as PBers have noted the recent rise of the Greens has been more impressive.

If the AfD had spectacular spurts the Greens have been constant, relentless, pushing past the AfD, then the SPD and now they sit second in the polls still closing the gap with a declining CDU.

Germany now has 6 parties capable of polling over 10% in national elections; CDU, SPD, Greens, AfD, FDP , Linke. This is new territory for the Federal Republic and the rules are being made up as they go along.

If all of this seems like a far away land about which we know little then stop, go easy on the Schadenfreude.Germany is our largest trading partner and it leads the EU. Currently Europe’s largest nation is rudderless.

I often wonder if Brexit would have a different complexion if Frau Merkel was free from the daily task of keeping bickering coalition partners apart. Likewise the EU project is slowly coming to a stop from lack of leadership.

The harder question is what does this mean for the future? A multi party Germany where lego brick coalitions are put together and then broken apart is without doubt a weaker Germany. Cui bono ?

So back to Hessen. Two nervous parties are crossing their fingers it’s not a disaster for them. For the SPD it could mean the end of coalition which appears to be slowly strangling its support.For Merkel it could mean her party finally does something to move her on. Bavaria was bad, but that was the CSU not the CDU, Hessen is the home team. Those ashes from the bonfire could be her political career.

Alanbrooke