Understanding the German Elections

By: Karsten Ball

Few outside of Germany can be bothered with the approaching German election (the Bundestagswahl), which is to occur on the 22nd of this month. Even within Germany, voter apathy has reached such grave proportions as to warrant a statement by the head of the German Protestant Church, warning and reminding his fellow citizens that Germany has strayed from democracy once before and calling upon Germans to participate more actively in the political process.

The consequences of the election in Germany, however, extend far beyond its own borders: Germany is the economic driving force in Europe, playing a large role in EU fiscal and monetary policy. A new and different chancellor could mean an end to austerity-driven economic stipulations to ailing member nations like Greece and Spain, which many economists regard as harmful, rather than beneficial.

On the other hand, the upcoming election is remarkably domestic in focus: the great issues are minimum wages, tax hikes for upper income brackets, increased energy charges as a result of Germany’s migration to renewable energies as well as the growing economic inequality between Germany’s rich and its poor. The middle class, long the pride of the German social market economy, is shrinking as low-wage part-time contract positions increase. These are the main points of contention—proof that in many topics, the main-stream parties in Germany overlap substantially.

Of course, the rise of populist parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is to some extent the result of increasing resentment for having to bail out other EU-members, and immigration continues to be a rallying point for those on the far ends of the political spectra. It is unlikely, however, that either the AfD or the libertarian internet party The Pirate Party will enter parliament, though The Pirate Party was able to reach poll numbers up to 8%, and AfD has support from an assortment of well-known academics and public figures.

The prognosis for change in Germany does not look good—polls show the incumbent Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with almost 40% of the direct vote, with the rival Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) barely reaching 26% (11.9.2013). A likely victory by the Social Democrats at this stage would involve the creation of a coalition with the Green Party, and would only exceed 50% in parliament if Merkel’s coalition party, the economic liberal FDP, were not to enter parliament (as a result of receiving less than 5% of the vote) or if the SPD were to include the far-left Leftist Party in its coalition, a possibility which the SPD’s candidate Peer Steinbrück has rejected on several occasions.

But strong appearances at debates and public forums have given Steinbrück a boost in the last weeks before the vote (a boost which may be nullified by his appearance on a national magazine cover on Friday, in which he defiantly gives the middle finger.) Possible consequences of Steinbrück’s election? A Germany more willing to work with its neighbor, France, and a chancellor more sympathetic to an EU-wide assumption of individual member debt.

Most importantly, the election of the Social Democratic could be the wake-up call that German democracy needs. Angela Merkel has been chancellor since 2005 and has neutralized her political opponents within her own party and on the entire political spectrum. The election of her challenger would signal the end of an era of political infighting, tough economic policies and the era of apathetic comfort that the columnist Dirk Kurbjuweit has called the modern Biedermaier—a reference to the state of German politics after the 1815 Congress of Vienna. The historical analogies aside, Europe should pay attention to Sunday’s election: it could be decisive for not only Germany but all of its neighbors.

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