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Same chancellor, new landscape

Ute Schaeffer / nhSeptember 22, 2013

Angela Merkel will remain chancellor, but not in a coalition with the FDP. Social Democrats and the Greens don’t have a majority either. Political conditions in Germany have changed, says DW’s Ute Schaeffer.


The chancellor can keep her job, but her government will change. Her party, the CDU - together with the CSU - had the strongest showing with some 41.5 percent of the votes. But Merkel has lost her liberal coalition partner. That means that while the Christian Democrats will likely run the country for the next four years, they will have to create a new coalition.

Merkel's incumbent bonus gave her a wide lead from the beginning, and the CDU benefited from their top candidate's good image. For the CDU, it has been the biggest election victory in two decades.

Ute Schaeffer, Deutsche Welle (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)
DW's Ute SchaefferImage: DW

But the election result is also a historic blow to the junior government partner. The FDP, which just four years ago entered the government on a record result of 14 percent, will no longer be represented in parliament. It's a nightmare scenario for the party, which also marks a watershed for the political landscape in Germany. The liberals, after all, were always represented in the Bundestag since it first formed in 1949.

Grand coalition with SPD a possibility

The successes of the center-right coalition have clearly been attributed to Angela Merkel as a person. Germany has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe, its economy is growing solidly, and its debt level is low. Most Germans haven't had to face any serious cutbacks. And that was what convinced German voters. They want continuity, stability and security - which Angela Merkel stands for.

After eight years in office, she is a remarkable representative of power politics. She has made central topics of the opposition her own - such as more social justice, relieving the strain on families, abolition of conscription, no intervention in Libya or Syria, and phasing out nuclear power in favor of other sources of energy.

The governing coalition of the last four years was center-right on paper. But in reality, it adopted Social Democratic and sometimes even Green positions in many fields of politics. That degree of pragmatism is Merkel's strategy - and it's immensely popular.

Merkel - and incidentally also her supporters - would probably not have a problem continuing political work in a grand coalition with the SPD. Together with the Social Democrats, it would become easier to deal with the potential resistance from the Bundesrat, Germany's upper house of parliament, where the German states are represented. The Bundesrat, after all, is dominated by the SPD and the Greens. And important laws are currently being vetoed by the Bundesrat.

Erosion of the party system

Germany's political landscape is in a period of transition. The conditions have changed. Social Democrats and Greens can't be satisfied with their respective results. The SPD's top candidate Peer Steinbrück did gain some ground in the last few weeks of the election campaign, but those efforts only helped gain an additional three percent of votes, bringing the overall result to some 26 percent. That's less than what they had hoped for.

The SPD is now struggling to keep its status as a big-tent party. On the one hand, that's because the chancellor adopted traditionally Social Democratic causes, stealing the center-left's thunder. On the other hand, that's because the party failed to set its own goals on the agenda in a convincing manner.

A quarter of a century after German reunification, the Left party, the successor of the former East German state party SED, has emerged as the third-strongest force in federal elections. Splinter parties, above all the 'Alternative for Germany' (AfD), adopted clearer positions during the campaign. The euro-skeptical AfD attracted a variety of supporters, above all protest voters as well as disoriented and disappointed followers from all political camps.

Leaving the comfort zone

The balance of power has shifted considerably. But how did we get here? Many parties, such as the Greens and the FDP, were busy dealing with their own problems. Vain personnel debates and too much focus on unpopular topics such as tax hikes did not meet with much public sympathy.

The election campaign was run with lack of passion and big controversies. One result of this watered-down campaign, which provided little opportunity to distinguish between the parties, was that one in three voters didn't know who to vote for even shortly before the elections.

Both the chancellor and the opposition presented their politics as a service to voters. Instead of political debates they opted for smart advertising campaigns for their respective political products. That trend does not just apply to Germany. But like in other countries, Germany has witnessed a trend toward de-politicization compared to the past. In the year 2013, Germany is quite happy in its comfort zone.

Important questions of the future need to be answered

The German elections were regarded as the 'elections which decide Europe's fate' among the continent's crisis countries and Germany's neighbors. Many European nations are expecting that a grand coalition would adopt a more moderate, less strict course in managing the financial crisis.

But the elections also decide important domestic questions for the future of Germany. How can we secure pension payments in an ageing society? How can we finance the transition toward renewable energy sources? How does Germany position itself with respect to the Syria crisis? And aside from pure crisis management: What is our political vision of an enlarged Europe?

Our country needs to deliver more politically than those in charge have so far been willing to see and accept. Germany is Europe's largest and the world's fourth-largest economy. But the country has been complacent and focused on itself, albeit in a very successful manner.

Moving beyond mere management

It's the job of politicians to point out those issues to both voters and non-voters and to invite them to get involved in debates and form their opinion. Democracy is a constant process of negotiating compromise after compromise. We all know that compromises emerge from a debate over different positions.

I believe that politics has to be politicized again. Germany has to move on - from merely managing politics to shaping it. That's the mandate that's been given to the new government, whose set-up will be negotiated in the days to come.