Archive for the 'Germany' Category


Angela’s Ashes. Germany throws its two party system on the bonfire

Friday, October 26th, 2018

The  German state of Hessen goes to the polls this  weekend.  Hessen has been something of a swing state between the CDU and SPD. The current state assembly has the CDU in power on 38% of the vote in a coalition with the Greens  who  won 11%. The SPD leads  the opposition with 31%. But all is not well. The large national parties are worried  by the shifting ground in German  politics. A look at recent polling shows why

Both the CDU and SPD in Hessen are on track to lose a third of their vote compared to five years ago, their support is shifting to the Greens and the AfD, a move that is happening right across Germany.

In the Bavarian state election earlier this month the CSU lost control of its fiefdom as the Greens and AfD made major gains. In all the excitement of the CSU’s defeat less attention has been  paid to the SPD who suffered a much larger loss of support. So what is going on?

Germany is now entering its sixth year of the grand coalition between the CDU and SPD. The economy is booming, the government coffers are overflowing so by normal standards the voters should be giving the government credit for prosperity. Instead coalition is becoming a spiral of decline for both parties. Underlying this  are several factors

Immigration – in an act of extreme generosity or folly (take your pick) Angela Merkel  threw open Germany’s borders to refugees from Syria. Within 3 months Germany was at the centre of an immigration crisis both domestically and with its neighbours. 

Just about every bad headline Frau Merkel could have had materialised  – crises of theft, rape, murder and riots by immigrants shocked Germans. Worse, the German sense of good administration “Ordnung” was turned on its head with authorities unable to cope, bribes and corruption in the Immigration office and a total ignorance of who was entering the country.

Domestically it wasn’t pretty. With the neighbours it got worse. Angela Merkel  tried and is still trying to create a European solution to a problem Made in Germany. No one is interested; the Mediterranean countries want refugees to move onward to Germany. Eastern Europe has shut up shop. Migration is creating European tensions were previously there were none.

The crisis has cost the CDU core support among its voters and given impetus to the AfD.  All in all AfD growth mirrors the decline of the CDU, though it should be noted the SPD too has lost support among core working class voters. The migration crisis has been Merkel’s biggest mistake since entering office and now the electorate are expressing their disapproval.

Revolt in the East – Despite almost 30 years of unity the old DDR remains a place apart. Huge progress has been made in modernising the old communist state but despite it all you can’t buy optimism off the shelf. The East is still the poor cousin of the west, It has lost its future, the pied piper this time stealing  the children and taking them west so an older, but gloomier population has been left behind. Increasingly East Germans are attracted to the DDR nostalgia of Die Linke or the Germans First stance of the AfD.

Previously the CDU and SPD dominated the east, now almost one in two Ossis vote for the extremes. Centrist liberalism is in retreat and the east risks become ungovernable via the diktat of coalition arithmetic.

Demographics – The post-unification generation is now coming of age and making its mark. This is affecting politics. The older generation of war guilt and reparation is slowly dying off; its priorities and standards are disappearing with it. A similar observation can be seen in the UK with young voters caring little for Jeremy Corbyn’s past if he’s more in tune with their own concerns. 

The old certainties of the cold war two party systems are gone and with that younger voters are not afraid to ignore the taboos of the past and experiment across a wider spectrum of parties. The SPD in particular appears to be losing support among  young liberal metropolitans to the Greens.

Where’s the party? –  The two main parties have been slow to respond to the shifts taking place. Both have been jostling for space in the centre ground of politics with similar programs and common assumptions this has led to a sense of drift among supporters, coalition makes them all the same. So why vote for your old party if it no longer stands for anything?

This is a phenomenon across the West not just Germany but CDU and SPD  still hope huddling in the centre will keep them in office. Yet increasingly it is differentiation which is moving support in the country at large.

Leadership – The CDU and SPD are both experiencing a failure of leadership, but for different reasons. The SPD lost the 2017 election under Martin Schulz who refused to go in to government with Merkel. When Merkel’s coalition efforts with the FDP and Greens failed the SPD reluctantly agreed to coalition mark two. Schulz left and his successor Andrea Nahles took over to a distinct lack of enthusiasm from party members. They were perhaps right, Nahles also struggles to connect with voters  who see her as a party apparatchik. 

With the CDU the problem is Merkel‘s loss of her political sure touch, from queen of the roost to lame duck in two short years.  There is a feeling that Markel’s time has gone but as yet there is no candidate on the horizon to replace her.

So the CDU drifts on, unsure what to do next, hoping the old formulae still work and looking for something to break the stalemate. Nobody wants to wield the knife so like her doppelgänger Theresa May, Merkel still hangs on faute de mieux.

In the 1970s it was simple. Germans voted CDU or SPD and the small FDP went into coalition with the winner. In the 1980s the Greens emerged and began to pick up support. Then in the 1990s and 2000s Die Linke developed as an all-German party. Finally in this decade it has been the AfD which is new on the scene. German politics is in flux and the old monoliths are slowly crumbling.

This splintering of political opinion now makes government an exercise in traffic light management  as putting  coalitions together becomes harder and parties’ red lines are quietly dropped. The SPD are currently demanding that no-one goes  into coalition with the AfD,  ‘the heirs to Hitler’, but they dropped their own promise not to go in to government with Die Linke, the heirs  to  Stalin. Sooner or later, most likely in the East, the AfD taboo will go because the parliamentary numbers require it.

It’s hard to see a way back to previous glories for the two big parties. The coalition breaking up might help revive political fortunes. Maybe the current results could be midterm blues; the big parties have also hidden strengths such as mass membership.

But it’s quite a challenge, I suspect the big parties are dealing with a tougher problem  – Zeitgeist, the feeling that it’s time for a change, that the CDU and SPD are no longer attuned to the desires of large segments of the electorate.  It’s no longer enough to make the voters rich, you have to deliver their aspirations too.

Currently the big winners are the AfD and the Greens. The AfD stole the press headlines –  Nazi scare stories  sell – and the growth of the right attracted attention as they tore off support from Merkel’s CDU, but as PBers have noted the recent rise of the Greens has been more impressive.

If the AfD had spectacular spurts the Greens have been constant, relentless, pushing past the AfD, then the SPD and now they sit second in the polls still closing the gap with a declining CDU.

Germany now has 6 parties capable of polling over 10% in national elections; CDU, SPD, Greens, AfD, FDP , Linke. This is new territory for the Federal Republic and the rules are being made up as they go along.

If all of this seems like a far away land about which we know little then stop, go easy on the Schadenfreude.Germany is our largest trading partner and it leads the EU. Currently Europe’s largest nation is rudderless.

I often wonder if Brexit would have a different complexion if Frau Merkel was free from the daily task of keeping bickering coalition partners apart. Likewise the EU project is slowly coming to a stop from lack of leadership.

The harder question is what does this mean for the future? A multi party Germany where lego brick coalitions are put together and then broken apart is without doubt a weaker Germany. Cui bono ?

So back to Hessen. Two nervous parties are crossing their fingers it’s not a disaster for them. For the SPD it could mean the end of coalition which appears to be slowly strangling its support.For Merkel it could mean her party finally does something to move her on. Bavaria was bad, but that was the CSU not the CDU, Hessen is the home team. Those ashes from the bonfire could be her political career.



Germany: a predictable election?

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Graphic: The most recent German polling, further details available here

On the face of it, the German elections are remarkably unexciting. Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) has been leading in the polls ever since the last election, and her only serious challenger, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats (SP), has fallen back after an early bounce. Four other parties are competing for third place: the free-market liberals (FDP), the ex-Communist Left (Linke), the Greens and the anti-immigrant AfD. The current polls, which as you can see above are very consistent:

However, there is some scope for surprises and Ladbrokes offers opportunities worth considering:

First, note that if any party drops below 5%, they normally get zero seats (the system is otherwise almost exactly proportional). Both FDP and AfD narrowly missed out last time, and it’s not impossible that this could happen to them or to the Greens.

Second, when considering coalitions, you can rule out the AfD, who are not seen as “salonfaehig” (“the sort of people you might sit in a room with”): they are more openly anti-immigrant than UKIP, for instance, and the CDU see them as a threat rather than a potential partner.

Third, minority governments are rare in Germany, because of the tremendous weight given to stability. This makes the ideologically comfortable coalition of CDU and FDP less likely than one might think: with about 45-46% of the votes, they are likely to fall short. That makes the Ladbrokes odds of 6/4 on this combination look too skimpy.

Adding the Greens would make it a fairly comfortable majority, and Merkel has been careful to keep this possibility open, which has a precedent at local state level. The Greens and FDP are not natural allies as the Greens tend to want tighter regulation, but they might be a balanced partnership for the CDI in the middle. This so-called Jamaica coalition is 6-1 on Ladbrokes, which looks worth a punt. More so, in my opinion, than the third option, a continuation of the CDU-SPD partnership, which is marked up at 7-4 but depends on the SPD masochistically agreeing to continue the steady decline of junior partners. I’m sure Merkel would be up for it, but I think the Social Democrats may well have had enough.

As for the other markets, CDU most seats is a banker, but at 1-25 not an exciting one. The Best Third Party bet makes AfD the strong favourites, which isn’t especially borne out by the polls and may reflect the same phenomenon as punters overestimating Le Pen and Wilders. Some punters would like a far-right triumph, others extrapolate from Trump. It’s probably the most likely, but not as tight as 7-4. The Linke at 3-1 may be a better bet as they tend to slightly over-perform their polling. If you think the AfD will in fact also overperform in an election favouring the extremes, then the 10%+ market is probably better, offering 2-1 odds.

The Bertelsmann Foundation’s survey of European opinion is illuminating. 59% of Germans are satisfied with the direction of the country (UK: 31%). 51% are satisfied with the state of EU democracy. 80% think of themselves as centrists (Britain 67%, France 51%). There is some dissatisfaction (only 28% like the direction of the EU), and there is a slim majority for views left of centre, but overall Merkel’s unideological approach clearly reflects the state of opinion.  Possibly the best bet on the election is simply Betfair Exchange’s 1.12 on Merkel being the next Chancellor. It’s very hard to see any conceivable alternative.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was the Labour MP for Broxtowe from 1997 to 2010 and has contributed to PB since 2004.


This year’s German election: Angela Merkel’s re-election might not be as certain as the betting markets think

Monday, January 30th, 2017

Latest German polls

Nick Palmer on the other big European contest in 2017

The general assumption that Merkel is certain to be re-elected as Chancellor after the elections later this year is reflected in the betting odds. At the time of writing, her Betfair odds are 1.73. However, it’s always a good idea for punters to check that assumptions remain valid.

The surprise selection of Martin Schulz as her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger has produced an immediate bump in SPD ratings – every poll taken since the decision has seen them up by 1-3 points, and they are now close to the last election level. Schulz differs from the expected alternative (Gabriel) in several ways: he is not a member of the Government so can criticise Merkel more easily; he is a sharp-edged speaker with a knack of getting in the headlines; he is more obviously pro-European at a time when many Germans think it important to rally round the EU. Most importantly, he is a bit harder to see as part of the traditional establishment which is struggling in every country.

But is there a path to victory for him? Yes, but not an easy one. Above are the current polls:

Leaving aside INSA, which always shows Merkel’s CDU lower (and the AfD higher), the CDU is on a stable 36% or so, which would be a drop of over 5% from last time. It looks as though the free-market centre-right FDP will get back in, on 6-7%. Against that, Schulz would have the SPD on say 24%, and the Greens and Left on 9-10% each. The old assumption that the SPD would not govern with the help of the ex-communist Left has been eroding. There have been fairly harmonious partnerships at state level, the communist GDR-era leaders have mostly retired, replaced by more generic leftists, and the Cold War is starting to seem yesterday’s issue. Schulz, unlike his predecessors, has not quite ruled it out. So on current polling he could potentially have a slim lead.

This leaves out the AfD, who are down from their peak as the refugee crisis is perceived to have eased slightly, but still on 11-14%. However, they are deeply divided internally and seen as dangerous rivals by the CDU, who would not govern in 2017 on the basis of their support (perhaps, like the Left, they will one day be seen as “salonfaehig” – suitable to be welcomed into the living room – but they’re some way off). If the only basis for a Merkel majority was AfD support, she would step down, like her Swedish Conservative counterpart, who preferred to yield power to the Social Democreats rather than carry on with far-right Sweden Democrat support.

Nonetheless, an SPD/Left/Green government would be well short of a majority on these figures, so unless they pick up a further 6% or so from the centre or right, it isn’t going to happen. What, though, if the FDP drop by just a single point and fall under the 5% threshold again? At that point, a CDU-led government with 35% against 43% for the centre-left will start to look less of a slam-dunk. A CDU-SPD coalition still looks likely – but might it be under a new leader? Or could one imagine an SPD-FDP-Green minority government?

Possibly – but in my view probably not. The answer to the question is, perhaps surprisingly, that this is one occasion when the markets are probably underestimating the favourite: she is, under most likely circumstances, likely to survive with a reduced majority, and anything above 1.4 is probably a bet worth considering. But laying Schulz may be the better strategy, as it covers the possibility of a really bad CDU result leading to a new CDU leader.

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010, and works as a translator from German, giving him longstanding daily contact with the German media.