Merkel’s Disorganized Opposition Creates Coalition Uncertainty
Barring a surprise upset, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) is expected to continue as Chancellor of Europe’s largest economy after Germany goes to the poll this Sunday. But there are questions surrounding the CDU’s potential junior coalition partners, all of which are in weak positions. Under those circumstances, neither the Social Democrats (SPD), Free Democrats (FDP), nor Greens should lament missing an opportunity to govern, as all three could use time in opposition to regenerate. The CDU has consistently been polling at 40 percent, and according to ZDF’s latest Politbarometer. 59 percent of Germans would like to see Merkel as Chancellor while only 32 percent can envision the SPD’s Peer Steinbrueck leading the country. Despite its impressive public support, the CDU is unlikely to win an absolute majority and its partner of choice, the liberal-democratic FDP, might not muster enough votes to tip the scale.
The FDP started this election year with the real prospect of not achieving the five percent threshold needed to hold seats in the Bundestag. Ever since receiving a record 14.65 percent of the vote in 2009, the liberal-democrats have alienated core voters with internal power struggles and their failure to deliver on lower taxes. The FDP seems to be shackled by its association with free-market proponents, who are perceived as representing only the interests of a wealthy few. If they end up out of power, the party traditionally known as the kingmaker in German politics must continue the process of renewal it began under its young chairman, Vice Chancellor and Economics Minster Philipp Rösler. In order to avoid the constant anxiety of failing to pass the five percent threshold, the FDP must also represent an alternative middle ground for German voters, one that combines fiscal responsibility and social liberalness.
Meanwhile, the SPD – now in its 150th anniversary year – is loath to enter into a grand coalition with the CDU. SPD Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck has said he will have no part of it, and even if the election results point to that possibility it will be hard for his party to contemplate a repeat of the 2005 grand coalition, which culminated in the SPD’s worst post-War electoral showing in 2009. Most German voters are left-of-center, but are fragmented. The SPD has been hemorrhaging supporters, most of them opting not to vote and others joining forces with the LEFT party and the CDU. If it is to spend another four years in the wilderness, the SPD should start utilizing its talents at the state level and reaching out to the elder statesmen in its party for advice. The Social Democrats have to challenge Merkel for highjacking core aspects of the social democratic platform – such as minimum wage – and show voters why they are better caretakers in a globalizing labor market. After all, former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s reforms over a decade ago helped Germany to weather the current economic crisis.
Finally, the Green Party has looked more formidable since winning the state election in the traditionally conservative state of Baden-Württemberg in 2011. But after that, Merkel trumped one of the Greens’ core party platforms by hastening a planned exit from nuclear energy. Having entered the political mainstream after three decades in German politics, the Greens called for higher taxes and a mandatory vegetarian day in employee cafeterias to rally jaded voters. Now the Greens are seeing poll numbers in the single digits, a significant fall from the 14 percent support they had earlier in the year. The Greens must now remind voters that because of them environmental consciousness is in the fabric of German society. It should introduce new, young faces to its leadership, and vehemently reject past party musings on pedophilia. Finally, the Greens should also make a push in the former East Germany, to gain new voters and establish a presence in the newer German federal states. It is never over until the polls close – after all there are a considerable number of undecided voters in Germany – but for now Merkel and the CDU looks like they are in the driver’s seat. Time in the opposition for the SPD, Greens, and FDP can be a chance to regain past strength in time for the next elections, when they may no longer have to contend with Merkel.
Sudha David-Wilp is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at GMF's Berlin office. Jessica Bither is a Program Coordinator at GMF's Berlin office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.