Today (Saturday) is the last day of campaigning for tomorrow’s General Election in Germany. At stalls and rallies all over the country, political parties will be trying to win over the many ‘undecideds’ and convince others to even vote at all. It’s with a sense of unease that I’ll be watching the result tomorrow evening, as I doubt it’ll be a good one for the country. But let’s see. For now, here are a few thoughts as the campaign draws to a close.
more of the same: no incentive to vote?
One thing to keep in mind is that voters will elect the parliament, not the government. Forming a government is the job of (usually) the largest party, which secures a majority with its coalition partner(s). With the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) on course to gain the largest share of the vote there’s little doubt that Angela Merkel will serve a fourth term as Chancellor. But even though the Social Democrats (SPD) have failed yet again to seriously challenge the CDU, you have to wonder whether four terms as a foregone conclusion is good for democracy. Young and first-time voters have known only Merkel as Chancellor; for two of the three past legislative periods the SPD has been her junior coalition partner rather than a credible government in waiting, making a change of government, let alone Chancellor, almost unimaginable for these younger voters. Speaking at a rally yesterday, former Left Party leader Gregor Gysi remarked something was clearly wrong if he was ‘more rebellious’ than young people. Contrast that to the huge wave of young UK voters who mobilised for change in June and are likely to do the same in next year’s local elections.
Many people are still undecided about how or even whether to vote, and a sense of complacency about the expected result could produce a low turnout on Sunday — something that often benefits the smaller parties. In fact, the real fight in this election is among the four smaller parties likely to win seats in the next parliament: the Left Party (Die Linke), the Greens, the free-market Liberals (FDP) and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). And what they’re fighting for is to become the third-largest party.
grand coalition and the fight to become the third party
As the polls stand, there are two potential coalitions. The first is a continuation of the so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU and SPD, the two largest parties. This means the third party (most likely the Left Party, FDP or AfD) effectively becomes the main party of opposition, a role that brings a number of privileges, such as heading the budget committee (Haushaltsausschuss) and the right to participate in international delegations. Moreover, the main opposition party speaks second, after the government, in Bundestag debates. In a six-party parliament representing a wide political spectrum, these speaking rights will be extremely important. Media attention focuses on the government and the principal opposition — and less on those speaking fourth, fifth or sixth. And while Grand Coalitions can usually rely on comfortable majorities (even though both parties are expected to be squeezed by their smaller rivals), the main opposition party influences the political tone of debate. For example, if a government Minister makes a policy statement in parliament, how will the main opposition party respond? Will it denounce the social impact on the poor? Object to ‘red tape’ restricting businesses? Or demand exclusive rights for German-born citizens? In other words, the party plays a key role in framing political debate: whether in terms of social justice, the interests of capital or right-wing nationalism.
‘jamaica’ coalition: stronger opposition?
The second possible outcome is the ‘Jamaica’ coalition (CDU, FDP and Greens, a reference to each party’s respective colour). To be honest, I find the idea of a government combining conservatives, pro-market liberals and ‘pragmatic’ Greens decidedly unappealing. It’ll also further divide the Greens, and the party is unlikely to rediscover its once radical values and voice in a centre-right partnership. However, a Jamaica coalition could strengthen opposition in the Bundestag. The SPD would have the chance to engage in a much-needed renewal of both policy and personnel, perhaps following the example of Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. More importantly, SPD and Left Party domination of the opposition could see a more pronounced division of parliament along the capital-labour cleavage and therefore a greater focus on social justice, both in parliament and in public debate.
my hopes for tomorrow?
Just two wishes — neither of which will come as a surprise. First and foremost a double-digit result for the Left Party, returning and strengthening them as the third largest party. Secondly, I desperately hope voters will think twice and not support the AfD. If this party is to enter parliament at all, then it should be as the weakest and most isolated group in the Bundestag.
See you soon with thoughts on the results…