Germany votes tomorrow. Why should I care?

The country’s general election is a referendum: more Merkel or no more Merkel

A defaced election campaign poster of the CDU party in Cologne. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered voters her tried and trusted “lot done, more to do” campaign. . Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

A defaced election campaign poster of the CDU party in Cologne. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered voters her tried and trusted “lot done, more to do” campaign. . Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

 

Why indeed. The sleepiest election in Europe’s largest country ground to a halt on Friday after barely getting out of the starting gate. Dubbed the “Valiumwahl” – Valium election – it is likely to see Chancellor Angela Merkel romp home with a comfortable lead to a fourth term. Final polls put her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) about 15 points ahead of their nearest rival, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

After a strong start, SPD leader Martin Schulz is trapped in a kind of electoral Groundhog Day. He is the third SPD man to face the centrist, unideological CDU leader who appears impervious to attack. The core dilemma of the Schulz campaign: how to convince voters to replace their centralist, crisis-tested chancellor with an untested centralist candidate. He struggled because, simply put, there is no vacancy at the top.

So what big issues defined the campaign?
Considering the election didn’t even make the main television news on Wednesday evening, it’s more striking what issues didn’t feature: Brexit, Trump and the future of Europe. This vote is a referendum: more Angie or no more Angie. With economic growth steady at 1.6 per cent, unemployment at a low of 6 percent, the German leader is seen as a safe, steady pair of hands in a world gone mad.

So all is well in Germany?
Hardly. Clouds are gathering on the horizon: demographics, diesel and the digital revolution. And a common refrain among ordinary Germans on the campaign trail is growing doubt that Germany is doing enough in these good times to prepare for leaner times ahead.

But things are not uncertain enough for them to demand a radical change in policies, or leader. Instead Dr Merkel offered voters her tried and trusted “lot done, more to do” campaign.

A poster from the far-right AfD reads: “Burkas? We prefer bikinis”. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images
A poster from the far-right AfD reads: “Burkas? We prefer bikinis”. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

What should I watch for on Sunday evening?
The crucial issue is the race for third place. Three established parties are in the race: the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the Greens and the Left Party. But they may yet be overtaken by a newcomer: the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Founded in 2013 as a bailout critical party, it took off in the aftermath of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, when more than a million people were granted asylum in Germany. It has broadened its appeal as a fully-fledged protest party, pulling in votes from across the political spectrum, including those struggling on the poverty line.

It ran a clever campaign with law-and-order appeals to far-right voters – “Our country, our rules” – and a swathe of leftist slogans – “Work has to be worthwhile again” – that appeal in particular to eastern Germans left behind in the recent boom.

Most European countries have populist parties these days – why is the rise of the AfD a big deal in Germany?
Because it is a watershed: the first time extremists have been elected directly to the Bundestag, shattering many postwar taboos. And it may finish in third place if enough voters are more annoyed with the political establishment than the AfD’s populist, xenophobic edge.

The AfD insists it is not an extremist party, just a conduit for people feeling vulnerable and angry at a growing gap between rich and poor, and unanswered concerns over the integration of refugees and related security concerns. To maximise attention and its vote, however, it has pursued a policy of targeted provocation, reactivating Nazi-era language and suggesting Germans have the “right to be proud of its soldiers’ achievements in two World Wars”.

As they hoped, this has been catnip for the media and rivals. Despite its strength in polls, however, the AfD remains bitterly divided between conservative-liberal wing in western Germany and eastern nationalists. It will be interesting to see if the attention, status and financial privileges inside the Bundestag ameliorate or accentuate these divisions.

A supporter of SPD leader Martin Schulz holds a placard reading “Now chancellor” during a campaign rally. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
A supporter of SPD leader Martin Schulz holds a placard reading “Now chancellor” during a campaign rally. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

How have the other parties responded?
They’ve struggled. While Dr Merkel says it is important to engage with AfD voters, if not the party leadership, her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, raised hackles this week for suggesting that, rather than vote for the AfD, it would be better to not vote at all. Other political leaders have dismissed the party as “racist” and “Nazis”, inflating the AfD’s protest street cred.

How can I be the German election expert down the pub?
Memorise this tiresome truism of German politics: “Nach der wahl ist vor der wahl” – “After the election is before the election”. Only after polls close – at 6pm on Sunday can the real election begin: the coalition horse-trading.

After three terms in office, Dr Merkel appears headed back for a fourth. But the crowded Bundestag – six parties are likely, up from four at present – means not even she knows what coalition partner she will have, or whether one will be enough.

Unless there is no other option, another grand coalition (Grosse Koalition or GroKo) is unlikely, and the SPD will head to opposition for some badly-needed R&R.

The second option would revive Dr Merkel’s second-term (2009-2013) alliance with the pro-business liberals, the Free Democrats (FDP). It crashed out of parliament in 2013 but is poised to return on promises to cut bureaucracy, debt and taxes – at the cost of urgent capital investment in Germany’s rusting infrastructure. It is fundamentally opposed to French proposals for euro-zone reform. And, while Dr Merkel doesn’t like Mr Lindner much, she is also likely to push European Union evolution rather than revolution.

Another intriguing option might be if, to make up numbers, Dr Merkel has to add the Green Party to the mix. Green leaders are keen to get back into power, but they are wary of the FDP, as is the party’s influential Green rank-and-file.

This so-called Jamaica option (the CDU – black– FDP – yellow – and Green party colours reflected the island’s flag) is untested at federal level, though has worked in the regions.

Two outside shots to oust Dr Merkel: a centre-left coalition uniting the SPD, Greens and Left Party. Or a so-called "Traffic Light" coalition of SPD, FDP and Green.

Greens co-chair Cem Oezdemir. Green leaders are keen to get back into power, but are wary of a coalition involving the FDP. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images
Greens co-chair Cem Oezdemir. Green leaders are keen to get back into power, but are wary of a coalition involving the FDP. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images

So how does the German electoral system work?
Sit down, this will take a while. First things first: there is no swingometer. Instead Germany has probably the most complicated election system in western Europe. You can thank the victorious allies in the postwar years for this, so anxious were they to avoid any more surprises from Germany.

Some 61.5 million Germans (31.7 million women, 29.8 million men) are entitled to vote, and everyone gets a long paper ballot (no voting computers) and two votes.

With their first vote, Germans pick a direct constituency candidate; with their second vote they choose a party, which then divvies up seats to MPs on its own list. The second vote determines how many seats each party gets in the new Bundestag.

With 4,828 candidates competing for 598 seats, divided up equally between direct candidates and party list places, it is impossible in advance to say how many seats will be in the next parliament because of the most complicated word in the German political lexicon: überhangmandat.

Überwhat?
Translated directly as “excess mandate”, this is a peculiarity arising from Germany’s two-vote system. If voters elect an MP elected via the first, direct vote, they are entitled to take their seat in parliament regardless of whether or not the party’s second vote share entitles them to it.

Still with me? The outgoing parliament has four such seats, all awarded to the CDU. The next parliament is likely to be a bumper Bundestag, because of new procedures to compensate other parties for the excess mandates. Exit polls at 6pm, and subsequent projections, give only part of the picture.

Not until the provisional, final result is known – sometime in the early hours of Monday morning – do parties know for sure how many seats they need for a majority.

What happens then?
After about 24 hours, parties abandon their pre-election promises and move on to the post-election, hard-to-get phase. Referred to in political circles as “sondierungsgespräche” or exploratory talks, this is a complicated mating ritual seen in the captivity of the Reichstag building every four years.

Judging by recent elections, there won’t be a new working coalition in Berlin until the Advent lights are up. Just remember: a German government is for four years, not just for Christmas.

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