Germany's Political Landscape: Uncertainty amid Stability

By Harfst, Philipp | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Germany's Political Landscape: Uncertainty amid Stability


Harfst, Philipp, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Compared to elsewhere in Europe, the electoral scene in Germany is the least altered by recent developments. The two major parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU7 CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD), predominate and could end up forming another Grand Coalition after the Bundestag election that will take place on September 24. However, amid this overall stability there are elements of uncertainty. These elements can be seen in recent Landtag (provincial parliament) elections which, more than provincial elections in Canada, reflect wider political developments; in the prospects of the new populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), (1) which failed to break through the 5 per cent threshold in the 2013 Bundestag election but has done so in all Land elections since then, gaining representation in 10 out of 16 Land parliaments; and finally, in the possibility of Russian interference.

The Social Democrats' strong start

In the precampaign period at the end of 2016, the Social Democrats appeared to be on the rise. The then--party leader and Minister of the Economy Sigmar Gabriel managed to impose his party colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the Grand Coalition's joint candidate for the federal presidency. Gabriel looked like the natural candidate to challenge the CDU/CSU's Angela Merkel for the chancellor's position. Then, in the ensuing reshuffle of party and cabinet positions, Gabriel surprised the party and public by nominating Martin Schulz to be the SPD candidate for chancellor. What happened?

Until a few months ago, Social Democrats' approval rates had not risen from the last Bundestag election of 2013, when they scored a low 25.7 per cent. (2) At that time, the Christian Democrats, and in particular Chancellor Merkel, were also losing support in the polls, mainly to the right-wing populist AfD, which was gaining continuously in Landtag elections in east and west and was also scoring well in the polls at the national level (see figure 1). Faced with this situation, in the late summer of 2016 Sigmar Gabriel proposed Foreign Minister Steinmeier for federal president in the election for that position that was to take place in mid-February 2017.

While many observers doubted the cleverness of Gabriel's move at that time, it turned out to be a strategic masterstroke. The Christian Democrats, who hold a plurality in the Bundesversammlung, the body that indirectly elects the federal president, should have been the ones to name a joint candidate--except that they lacked a convincing candidate. Even though Angela Merkel herself apparently tried to convince potential candidates in a number of phone calls, the CDU/CSU failed to present a viable alternative to the highly reputed SPD minister Steinmeier. This represented a defeat for both the Chancellor and her party. (3)

This victory, combined with his success in winning a number of internal party debates, strengthened Gabriel's position. However, Social Democrats faced a dilemma: while their leader was a gifted and effective politician and thus the natural SPD candidate for chancellor, the polls showed him unable to win public trust. The media speculation about potential more popular alternative candidates--the most prominent among whom were Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz and the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz--gave the party a good deal of needed attention and credibility.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In this context, at the end of January 2017 Gabriel resigned as party leader and nominated his close personal friend Martin Schulz to succeed him and to challenge Merkel. Gabriel announced that he would stay in government and keep his post as Vice Chancellor but switch from the ministry of economy to the less politicized ministry of foreign affairs, where he succeeded Steinmeier.

The ensuing "Schulz effect" gave much needed inspiration to the SPD, bringing a positive dynamism to its campaign launch. Against Schulz, who is an experienced politician at the European level but a new face on the national scene, Merkel now looked exhausted. …

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