German Elections: After the Debates
Last Sunday’s TV debate between the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Conservatives (CDU) and her social-democratic challenger Martin Schulz (SPD) increased the chances for a continuation of the grand coalition or a so-called Jamaica-coalition (Conservatives + Greens + Liberals). In polls taken right after the debate, Merkel did better in the opinion of 48 percent of the undecided voters and Schulz according to 39 percent. Given the CDU/CSU is currently leading in the polls with 40 percent while the SPD only receives 23 percent, Martin Schulz would have had to convince significantly more voters for the SPD to gain momentum. The CDU/CSU will thus certainly remain by far the largest party in the next Bundestag and Angela Merkel will remain chancellor.
The debate featured mainly immigration and foreign policy issues, with both candidates taking very similar positions. Both want to pursue a careful foreign policy in close collaboration with Germany’s European partners — first and foremost with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron. They also both largely agree on Germany’s refugee policies: the high influx of about one million refugees in 2015 must remain an exception. Future German migration policies should be embedded in joint European border controls, a resettlement scheme across the EU and inner-EU borders should to remain open.
This could explain why 25 percent of German voters each considered Merkel and Schulz being more convincing, while 50 percent saw no difference. The CDU/CSU and SPD will thus struggle to convince more voters than those already swayed. This means that the smaller parties — which were absent from the debate — are the greatest benefactor of this TV duel. Because these parties stand for clear programs: The Liberals (FDP) for digitalization and tax cuts, The Greens (Die Grünen) for environmental issues and minority protection, the far Left (Die Linke) for a massive increase of social spending and pro-Russian foreign policies, and the Far Right (AfD) for anti-immigration and anti-EU stances. It is thus likely that these smaller parties — each polling in the high one-digit numbers — will do better at the ballot than in the current polls.
Unlike the United States, France, or the U.K., Germany uses a proportional representation system where votes almost directly translate into seats in parliament. To form the majority in parliament necessary to support a government, parties form coalitions. Until now, these coalitions either consist of two center-left or two center-right parties. If these combinations fall short of seats, German parties resort to a grand coalition among the two major parties (SPD and CDU/CSU). Four options are now probable: The Conservatives leading a coalition with the Liberals, or the Greens or both of them; or a continuation of the grand coalition with the SPD. As the smaller parties are the likely winners of the TV debate, it is less likely that the CDU comes out strong enough to form a coalition with only one small party (The Greens or the Liberals). Instead, the CDU might need the support of the biggest party (the SPD) or both the Greens and the Liberals to get the majority to re-elect Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.