Applying the brakes in Germany’s election

Angela Merkel’s lead is largely due to the opposition’s lack of leadership.

German elections aren't known for their excitement, complain analysts [EPA]

Hamburg, Germany – This year’s national election in Germany is burdened with boredom. The previous national election in 2009 had the lowest turnout in Germany’s history, and this election appears to be no different. Boredom pretty much characterises the campaigns and the public debates. In short, this election’s lack of entertainment is due to two points: First, there are no major policy divisions between the main political parties. Second, Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats (CDU) are strongly favoured to win. Both conclusions are disadvantageous for opposition parties because they need to represent both a political alternative and potential win over swing voters.

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While the policies between each party may be minute, there are several seemingly intractable issues the country has yet to solve. The Social Democrats (SPD), the biggest opposition party, have been using topics such as limiting rents in the cities, a general minimum wage, or same-sex marriage to sway voters. But although the current government coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals (FDP) have made several unpopular decisions – such as the introduction of the Betreuungsgeld, which gives financial support for a parent that spends their time at home – political attacks have not really impacted Merkel and the CDU.

Merkel is seen as the guarantee of stability and continuity. For example, although Europe might be on the brink of another crisis, figures show the German economy in good shape. Thus, it would be suicidal for the parties in opposition, especially the Social Democrats, to promote their unpopular policy of closer fiscal bonds between the EU states.

But looking at, say, Norway, a good record is no guarantee for re-election. Seeing the lack of issues as the only decisive factor can lead to a misinterpretation of voting behaviour. While it is true that the number of swing voters in on the rise and that party loyalty is in continuous decline, that does not automatically imply a rising importance of single issues in every election. Swing voters might make their decisions on the basis of issues, but their vote also could express candidate preferences, protest or completely different reasons. We cannot clearly identify their motives – and short-term issues might not be the most important indicator in every case.

The contextual background of this year’s election becomes clearer by looking at the leading candidates, their standing within their parties, and their presentation in the media. The public portrayal of Merkel and her competitor outweigh any public debate on what policies the candidates and their party platforms stand for. Most ironically, it appears like German journalists mourn the growing trend of personalisation and the absence of issues; but as the media coverage is mostly focused on personalities, the press focuses on this superficial coverage. One factor for the connection between the prospective election result and the leading candidates lies in their acceptance in their parties and its perception in the media.

Angela Merkel outlasted all of her competitors in the CDU and, as incumbent, is the leading candidate of her party by nature. Merkel is widely accepted, even though this illustrates a leadership vacuum that might come into full effect after the end of her era. Peer Steinbruck, on the other hand, profited from an informal agreement between him, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and party leader Sigmar Gabriel. Thereby, the party elite opted against the election of the leading candidate by direct suffrage.

Hence, although former chancellor Helmut Schmidt promoted him publicly, Steinbruck remained controversial in his own party before his official nomination at a party conference. Besides this rocky start, the media negotiated every time Steinbruck dropped one of his notorious gaffes, such as the revelations surrounding his opulent honorariums, or his critique of the low salary of the chancellor, to mention a few. Months before the final stage of the race began, the media portrayed Merkel’s competitor as a lame horse.

While the conservatives remained stable in the polls, the social democrats’ support decreased almost every week. Less than seven days before the election, pollsters see the Christian Democrats at about 40 percent, whereas the SPD remains at 25 to 28 percent. Ironically, the polls seem to confirm what the media have been shouting for months: Merkel’s chancellorship remains without controversy.

CDU’s political dominance

To some extent, the weakness of the SPD might be self-inflicted. But with the national election of 2009 in mind, some critics draw a connection between the CDU’s campaign strategy of “asymmetrical de-mobilisation” and a low turnout. The core of this strategy consists of a defensive communication, presenting the office holder with a presidential attitude and avoiding confrontational issues. This clearly aims at voters of the parties in opposition: as they should not fear unfavourable political consequences in case of a CDU win (eg raising taxes), they might as well stay at home on election day. Obviously, Merkel and her party strategists have learned from 2005, when they offered a neo-liberal economic programme as a clear alternative to the social democratic-green government coalition.

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As a result, the SPD, similarly unpopular back then, was able to form the electoral campaign of a party in opposition. In the end, one percentage point separated the victorious conservatives and the social democrats from one another. It was not only the likelihood of the prospective CDU/CSU victory that mobilised even those SPD voters that turned their back on their party; it were the harsh welfare and labor market reforms they had to face in case of a conservative/liberal government. The crucial aspect of Merkel’s campaign spin in 2009 and 2013 that could put voters to sleep is therefore not that the decision of who will lead the government is made – but that Merkel remaining in office will not hurt anybody.

There is still a modicum of tension in this race. In regards to the country’s proportional representation system, the CDU might turn out as the winner of the election but cannot govern without a partner. One week before the election, the FDP remains weak in the polls, so that the question of who Merkel will form a government coalition with is still open.

Basically, two formations are possible both politically and arithmetically: a sequel of the existing “black-yellow” formation of conservatives and liberals – or a “grand coalition” formed by conservatives and social democrats, the latter option being the least unpopular coalition in the polls.

Both the CDU/CSU and SPD know this. But while Merkel seems to be able to co-operate with almost all partners, this government could turn out as pretty risky for the social democrats. They well remember 2009, when they earned the worst result in a national election in the history of the federal republic, after four years of a grand coalition. The SPD might nevertheless accept such an agreement. As they have excluded a three-party coalition with the greens and the Left Party (Die Linke), there is no potential for power left. But at the same time, this might be exactly the reason why SPD supporters stay at home.

On September 22, the German public could face not only the repeat of a grand coalition but, once more, one of the lowest turnouts in history. Subsequently, not only new coalition formats might come once more into question. There is a good chance for a vivid controversy on the links between the people’s disenchantment with politics, the campaign strategies of the parties and the impact of polls.

Marcel Lewandowsky is a political scientist and research assistant at the Helmut Schmidt University of Hamburg. His research focuses on parties and party systems, electoral campaigning and right-wing populism in Western Europe.