The wildcards of Germany’s general election
Despite predictions of a third Merkel term, the most closely watched German election in decades is also the most uncertain
Election campaign billboards featuring SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck and German Chancellor and CDU leader Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany. Photograog: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
German federal elections are not for the faint-of-heart – or the colour blind. For the first time in decades, when the polls open for 60 million German voters on September 22nd, Europe – and the world – will be watching.
The huge level of international attention is down to the cause and effect of the euro crisis. The domino effect in the crisis exposed just how interlinked our European economies and political systems already were. Shifts in Europe’s political tectonic plates are under way, pushing Berlin to the fore and its influence on post-crisis measures that will, in future, bind us even closer together.
So what is at stake? At its most basic, Germans will decide whether or not to reward Angela Merkel with a third term for steering a relatively steady economic ship in turbulent waters. The opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) are busily poking holes in the Merkel crisis recipe: it has resulted in an astronomical bill for bank rescues, they say, leaving less money for education and investment and Germany increasingly a country of haves and have-nots.
In the euro crisis, the SPD says Europe expects and deserves a clear roadmap from Germany on where the continent is headed, and greater flexibility on stimulus measures for struggling economies.
So what do German voters want? If they could choose their leader directly (they can’t: the parties in the new Bundestag do), then Angela Merkel would already be the election winner. Showing little of the usual signs of two-term fatigue, almost two-thirds of voters prefer her to her SPD challenger, Peer Steinbrück.
The only certainty in this election is that the new government, like all post-war (West) German governments, will be a coalition. But which?
For decades, elections in Germany were a three-horse race. You had your choice of two Volksparteien – large so-called “people’s parties” of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) – and the small coalition kingmaker, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The arrival of the Greens in 1983 – entering power with the SPD 15 years later – created a four-party system with two main blocks of CDU-FDP (known informally by their colours: Black-Yellow) or SPD (Red-Green).
The German political landscape began to fragment in 2005 with the arrival of the (dark red) Left Party.
In theory, there is a kaleidoscope of options. But in practice, like the genuine Lego and cheap imitations, not all coloured blocks clip together.
If Merkel’s preferred, outgoing Black-Yellow option fails, she may attempt another grand coalition with the SPD. Mr Steinbrück insists that isn’t an option – at least for him. But if his own preferred SPD-Green option has no majority, two options present themselves: an untested three-way coalition with the FDP and Greens, euphemistically called the “traffic light” option, or an unlikely option with the Greens and their red rivals, the Left Party.
There are now so many multicoloured coalition options in German federal politics that one Green Party strategist joked to me at the weekend: “Alles kann, nichts muss” (everything and nothing is possible).