26th Sep 2023


The end of the 'Merkel illusion' - but what next for Germany?

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"Germany's SPD has signed its death warrant", headlined the New Statesman in 2018.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) was reluctantly negotiating its junior partner role in a 'grand coalition' with the right-leaning Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister-party (CDU/CSU) and many feared it was the next European Social-Democratic Party to move into irrelevance.

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  • German navel-gazing is the last thing that the EU now needs ... but it is likely to go on

The fear was that, as chancellor Angela Merkel had observed, "the little party always gets smashed" in coalition governments.

Now the SPD is likely to come first in this month's German election and improve its poor 2017 results, when it only garnered 20 percent of the vote. As such, it has the best chances for the chancellorship.

The CDU may get smashed - a huge reversal for the party that occupied the chancellery for 52 of the last 72 years.

We now discover that the CDU's fabled standing as a 'Volkspartei' [People's Party], originating in truly popular support, was an illusion. An illusion created by Merkel and she may have been its first victim, her thinking that the smaller parties suffer from coalition governments, rather than the seemingly invincible CDU.

But the CDU was only strong because Merkel was popular. In four elections she mobilised at least a third of the voters in her support, making her party the natural government leader.

But her party did not continue to be a traditional Volkspartei, as Germany followed the same trends as elsewhere. Established parties have become weaker in all European democracies, while the role of personalities has become more important.

Elections become more volatile. This stands out if you look at the polls: a year ago, 40 percent of the voters expressed support for the CDU and 16 percent for the SPD. By now the CDU has lost 20 percent and the SPD gained 10 percent.

Most voters no longer follow party loyalty, they look at the candidates. In short: Merkel was strong, not the CDU.

The party leadership itself was under the spell of the Merkel illusion, insisting that the CDU's Armin Laschet should be its candidate for chancellor rather than Markus Söder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the CSU, who was much more popular with the party base and in wider public opinion.

The SPD was cleverer. While its more leftist base is no fan of the centrist Olaf Scholz, it accepted his candidacy with little resistance, knowing that he was the best option available to win a respectable result.

Less than two weeks before the elections, the race looks very different than it did two months ago.

Then it seemed that only Laschet and the Green´s Annalena Baerbock would have a serious chance to enter the chancellery.

The Greens, to their chagrin, are consolidating the unfortunate pattern of soaring in opinion polls between elections but doing worse once election day comes. Yet, despite the disappointment, the party is still likely to double its result from 2018 and has probably arrived among the top three parties for the long-term.

Auf wiedersehen, AfD?

The little-discussed good news is that the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) right-wing extremists has been stopped. In the last elections it won 12 percent of the vote, becoming the biggest opposition party in parliament. This time it would consider it a success to keep the same result. It is likely to only come in fifth place.

The reduced importance of its signature theme – immigration – played a role in this. Also, the party's extremist nature is now well understood by many, not the least because of the work of Germany's Agency for the Protection of the Constitution.

The party, which has become ever more extreme since it was founded after the euro crisis, does not appeal to voters beyond its 10 percent-base and it does not profit from the CDU's weakness.

Furthermore, since the last elections the media and the other parties have started avoiding the mistakes that help make extremists parties big: allowing them to dominate the political discourse and to set the public agenda through constant provocation.

Many commentators mourn the increased polarisation among the democratic parties, especially since the CDU has become more aggressive to make up lost ground.

But this kind of polarisation is positive. It helps clarify the options available to voters, is not based on questioning the rules of the democratic game and avoids the impression that the only real alternative to an undistinguishable field of parties is political extremism. This outcome should be of interest beyond Germany.

The weakness of the AfD is good news for Europe. A pro-Kremlin party that is flirting with neo-Nazis is not in anybody´s interest, whatever Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini may claim.

Less fortunate for Europe: Germany's political spectrum remains fragmented with six parties in parliament, none of which represents even a third of the electorate. Future governments are more likely to be formed by coalitions of three parties, rather than two. They will be less stable.

German politics will be busier with itself than with the many pressing European and international questions. The campaign rarely focused on European or international politics, despite all these challenges. In the last debate of the three lead candidates on Sunday, the moderators asked no questions about Europe or the world.

German navel-gazing is the last thing that the EU now needs, but it is likely to go on.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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