Germany’s orderly campaign and a wider political spectrum

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Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz

On September 24th, German voters will elect a new parliament. This year, the circumstances of the electoral campaign are very different since the campaign is partly shaped by two parties that are currently not in the German Bundestag: the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The two parties in government both aim for the chancellorship in the next legislature. After many joint decisions over the past four years, the tone of the campaign between the Christian and Social Democrats is rather polite, lacking bitter controversies.

In 2017, the political climate is not as charged as it was two years ago, when controversial political decisions dominated the public debate. At the time, there were disagreements on how to deal with the Greek debt crisis and, even more so, with the high influx of asylum seekers. Now, the Greek question seems to be off the agenda and the number of migrants coming mostly from Syria has plummeted. Thus, this campaign is not shaped by political events or specific political decisions.

The special feature this time is the high number of parties making their way into the Bundestag. According to every poll, the next legislature will consist of six parties – seven counting the Christian Social Union (CSU) from Bavaria, the sister party traditionally aligned with the CDU.  However, such a proliferation is most unlikely to radically alter the political landscape.

Since there is a large consensus on foreign policy both in parliament and among the German electorate, for instance on rejecting the practices of strongmen in Turkey, Russia, the Middle East and North Korea, commitment to a united Europe and defiance of an unstable US administration, the parties – big and small – are focusing more on domestic issues in this campaign.

Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is highlighting the positive aspects of living in Germany, yet it runs short of new proposals for the future. In the past term, she oversaw the implementation of significant legislation, such as introducing a minimum wage, reducing the retirement age for people who have worked for more than 40 years as well as legalizing gay marriage. However, these issues have all been pushed for by her coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The Social Democrats, although responsible for such significant changes, are stuck at around 25% in the polls and are all but likely to take the chancellorship. Their candidate, former President of the EU Parliament Martin Schulz, looked like a strong contender back in February when the party presented him as its new leader and main candidate. He has been vowing for “social justice” as his main campaign issue, promising to close the gender pay gap and to improve the conditions for workers. The SPD’s problem however is a lack of credibility in this regard. The party has been in government for 15 of the last 19 years and in those years it has always been in charge of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Ironically, criticizing the lack of social cohesion means directly linking the SPD with that failure. Moreover, Martin Schulz has been part of the party’s executive committee for the last 18 years, being partly responsible for the controversial labor market reforms that have led to the expansion of Germany’s low-wage sector, the largest in Europe.

This is mainly what the more leftist Die Linke denounces. They strongly criticize the fact that real earnings have been falling for large parts of German society. The party has been against the liberalization of the labor market since the beginning in 2004 and is therefore still condemning the expansion of the low-wage sector, ascribing it directly to SPD policies. Furthermore, the party is criticizing German military exports, claiming that they destabilize sensitive regions like the Middle East and legitimize authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, they are less critical of Russia and vow to repair relations with Putin and lift sanctions.

This is where they clash with the Greens, who position themselves as being against any kind of cozying up to authoritarian regimes under any circumstances. The message of value-based policies might win them some votes, but it will not be anything substantial. This is in line with their other priorities in this campaign. Trying to avoid errors of the past when they were perceived as a “Verbotspartei” - a party willing to meddle with the people’s eating habits by offering more vegetarian options in public canteens, setting speed limits on German motorways and taxing middle-income earners - they now focus on a more open agenda. Nonetheless, this openness also implies less clarity. By emphasizing the importance of both economic growth and environmental responsibility, their priorities are unclear. Despite uncertainty in these areas, the party’s concern for integration is clear as they understand that more efforts are especially necessary to integrate  new immigrants into German society.

This is something that the far-right AfD strongly rejects. They see integration as a one-way street and demand more efforts by migrants living in Germany, as long as they cannot be repatriated to their countries of origin. When the migration crisis was at its peak two years ago, Alexander Gauland, the party’s main candidate for the Bundestag called the crisis “a gift for the AfD”. Now that the refugee crisis has been mitigated, at least on German soil, the gift has been unwrapped and the AfD might be disappointed that there is not more of it. The real concern of some center-right voters that Germany would have to cope with hundreds of thousands of new asylum seekers every year have been dispersed and have left the AfD with its core voters, mainly of nationalist tendencies. Without its main issue of cutting immigration, the party has lost momentum and is back to single digits in the polls, but still highly likely to make the 5% threshold. Lacking the emotional argument of keeping asylum seekers away, the party is now trying to appeal to voters’ emotions by emphasizing the importance of Germany as their home (“Heimat”), pointing out that the country is diverse enough and does not need more multiculturalism.

Whereas the AfD is referring more to the past, the liberal FDP has focused its campaign entirely on the future and its photogenic party leader, Christian Lindner. The billboards show him in black and white with his smartphone, having a quick lunch and in other modern-day poses underlined with a shiny slogan in pink and yellow. His message is that after four years out of the Bundestag, a new FDP is back with a renewed agenda and a dynamic and energetic leader pushing for digitalization and better education.

It is interesting how the Liberals have created a new face for themselves over the past four years and are now likely not only to easily jump over the 5% threshold, but to also form a government with the Christian Democrats. This year, all parties have been more cautious than ever to avoid a statement on who their preferred coalition partner would be. On the state level, all the different combinations are represented; there are hardly any taboos anymore. This is why a “Jamaica coalition”, consisting of Christian Democrats, Greens and Liberals, is theoretically possible. Depending on the outcome of the elections, Merkel might only have to choose between one of the two coalition partners. This implication shows one of the most astonishing aspects of this campaign: despite the lack of new proposals, most Germans take her re-election for granted.

The televised debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz on September 3 demonstrated unity on fundamental issues in foreign policy and refugee policies between the two main German parties instead of political disagreements. When trying to attack each other, the two main candidates got lost in technical details. None of them dismissed the option of a new grand coalition in the next term, presenting this as a viable possibility. Yet this lack of controversy between the CDU and the SPD does not mean dullness in German politics since the next Bundestag will almost certainly host the highest variety of the political spectrum since 1949 and therefore controversial debates with and within a strong opposition will be guaranteed.